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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds So now we’re going to talk about the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources as it applies to sustainable food systems. So the first thing to remember is that food systems are inherently underpinned by natural resources. They’re the products that we eat, but also the energy, water, and soil, and other things that are needed to produce, distribute, and consume the food that we eat. So resources can be classified in two ways. The first is a renewable resource and the other is a non-renewable resource. So we look at renewable resources– these are things that can be replenished within human time spans. And so we’re talking about water supplies; the products from ecosystems, such as fish, soil, and so forth.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds However, they’re only renewable if we use them within a sustainable limit. So for example, if we over-fish a particular fish stock, there won’t be enough fish left to reproduce to the same number of fish stock that we had previously. So you’re converting a renewable resource into a gradually non-renewable resource if you over-fish. The second kind of resources are non-renewable inherently. So these are things like fossil fuels, metals, minerals that are not easily replenished or quickly replenished within human time scales. Fossil fuels are an obvious example. When they’re consumed, you can’t use them again. But other things that are critical to our food systems are also non-renewable– for example, the phosphorus that we use in our fertilisers.

Skip to 1 minute and 51 seconds A large quantity of phosphorus comes from phosphate ores. And so those are mineral rock forms of phosphate that are mined, and processed, and converted into the fertilisers that we apply to a lot of our crop systems. Now when they’re used for that particular crop they then dissolve into the water systems around that crop and eventually make their way to either rivers or oceans and settle into the river sediments and ocean sediments, which are really hard to then access again and bring back into the system. So in that sense, although the mineral doesn’t disappear, it’s considered non-renewable because we can’t access it again easily.

Skip to 2 minutes and 40 seconds But this also applies to other things like the metals that we need in transport systems or the fossil fuels for processing. So now when we come to use these renewable and non-renewable resources, we need to think about sustainable management and efficient use. And I’m going to explain why these are two different, but inextricably linked, concepts for sustainable food systems. So first of all, the sustainable management of natural resources. Sustainable means that it can continue, that it can continue into the future and people can keep using those resources in the next generation. So one example, again, is the fish stock.

Skip to 3 minutes and 24 seconds So if we stay within the sustainable limit, we’re respecting the ecosystem processes that will lead to a renewable of the fish stocks and future generations can use them. Another example of a renewable resource is soil. So a soil is quite a complicated resource. It has its own biology and its own nutrient dynamics. And the way that we use that soil can determine whether future generations can access that soil or whether that soil becomes degraded– land that can no longer be accessed in the future. So that’s sustainable management. The other thing that we talk about is efficient use. Now efficiency when it comes to natural resources has two dimensions in food systems. The first is efficiency in production.

Skip to 4 minutes and 13 seconds So coming back to that soil example, it’s, for example, the amount of food we can produce for a given hectare of land, the productivity of that land. And we talk about increasing yields of land. So that’s a production side of efficient use of that soil. And you can try to become more and more efficient or more productive with that soil, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable. The other side of efficiency is on the consumer side, on our side. And that’s the amount, the efficiency, with which we consume food. For example, how much waste is built into our consumption patterns, how many leftovers, or spoilage, etc. Another example is the quantity of food that we consume.

Skip to 5 minutes and 3 seconds So obviously there’s a lot of issues, health issues, around over-consumption of food as much as there is under-consumption. And the third thing is our selection of food products. For example, we can shift consumption patterns to food ingredients that are more resource efficient per calorie, or, for example, that are efficient to produce because they’re seasonal and local as opposed to imported or non-seasonal, which are much more intensive to produce for the same thing that’s on our plate.

Skip to 5 minutes and 39 seconds So when it comes to sustainable food systems, if we take the example of soil, we know that it’s a renewable resource if used within sustainable limits; we know that the sustainability dimension is that we need to consider the land degradation dimension of it, which means that we need to understand the soil biology and the nutrient structure of the soil in the way that we access the soil. And then when it comes to efficient use of the soil, we do need to look at how we can maximise the productivity of soil, because we do have societal goals about ending hunger and providing enough food for people.

Skip to 6 minutes and 22 seconds And we also need to look at the type of ingredients that we are seeking as consumers. So there are some food ingredients that are easier or more efficient to produce in terms of the amount of soil and land needed. But if we look at any of these dimensions on their own, the other two might fall out. So if we only look at environmental sustainability of soil use, we may end up not producing enough food to reach our target of ending hunger, especially in a localised setting.

Skip to 6 minutes and 58 seconds But if we don’t– if we only look at the efficiency side of it, then we, by increasing the yields of that soil, then we miss out on the environmental sustainability dimension, which will determine if future generations can use that soil. This kind of thinking applies to all natural resources involved in sustainable food systems, including the water, ecosystem services, and minerals. And so we need to always think about sustainability and efficiency going forward.

Sustainability and efficiency

This course makes the argument that food systems can use resources both efficiently and sustainably. In this video, Janet Salem, of the UNEP Regional Office for Asia Pacific, presents the complex interplay between these two essential concepts of environmentally sustainable food systems.


She brings up the complicated and context-specific issue of soil management. The Green Revolution standardized the intensive use of chemical fertilizers globally. While that has worked in some respects, is that practice both efficient and sustainable? Tell us why or why not. Are there alternatives that can be scaled up to the level at which we need them?

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This video is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute