Delft, The Netherlands, 01 Feb 2019

Wicked Debate “Converting wetlands for food security: Solution or Illusion?”

Ken Irvine, Chair of Aquatic Ecosystems and Pieter van der Zaag, Chair of Water Governance took opposing sides on this topical debate on the occasion of World Wetlands Day on 2nd February.

Ken described his personal interest and affinity with wetlands from an early age, having studied and carried out research in wetlands areas of the UK. He explained that wetlands are not only essential for maintaining biodiversity but often also people’s livelihoods. Ken referred to the broad definition of wetlands of the Ramsar Covention, check in 1974 to protect them (see Anne van Dam’s article) but said on this occasion he would restrict his talk to swampy places.

Wetlands are the kidney of the earth

He said wetlands are often referred to as ‘the kidney of the earth’, although added that this may not be strictly the case. He showed a graph (see attached), showing the continuous decline in wetlands area since 1700 and explained that this is caused by multiple factors and very often for food production. He concluded by saying that the future loss of wetlands to food production is to be opposed.

Pieter entitled his response Wicked Wetlands and maintained that it is not an illusion that converting wetlands is the answer to feeding the growing world population (see graph in presentation). He gave examples of how this conversion has been taking place for centuries and therefore is sustainable. The reason the Netherlands is the second largest food producer in the world is due to just that, but conceded that there is a problem of overuse of nitrates and phosphate. He gave another example of where rice was grown in a mangrove area in Senegal and was successful because of ancient, traditional management that avoided salt penetration. He concluded that society has co-evolved with nature and will continue to do so in the face of the growing population, with wetlands an important part of the solution.

There followed a lively Q&A session with some pertinent and tricky questions being posed by staff and students and a general consensus that managing the scale and intensity of food production is the key to achieving the necessary balance to protect wetlands. 

Download the presentation here

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