This paper argues that a sustainable ecosystem management approach is vital to ensure the delivery of essential ‘life support’ ecosystem services and must be mainstreamed into societal conscience, political thinking and economic processes. Feeding the world at a time of climate change, environmental degradation, increasing human population and demand for finite resources requires sustainable ecosystem management and equitable governance. Ecosystem degradation undermines food production and the availability of clean water, hence threatening human health, livelihoods and ultimately societal stability. Degradation also increases the vulnerability of populations to the consequences of natural disasters and climate change impacts. With 10 million people dying from hunger each year, the linkages between ecosystems and food security are important to recognize. Though we all depend on ecosystems for our food and water, about seventy per cent of the estimated 1.1 billion people in poverty around the world live in rural areas and depend directly on the productivity of ecosystems for their livelihoods. Healthy ecosystems provide a diverse range of food sources and support entire agricultural systems, but their value to food security and sustainable livelihoods are often undervalued or ignored. There is an urgent need for increased financial investment for integrating ecosystem management with food security and poverty alleviation priorities. As the world’s leaders worked towards a new international climate change agenda in Cancun, Mexico, 29 November–10 December 2010 (UNFCCC COP16), it was clear that without a deep and decisive post-2012 agreement and major concerted effort to reduce the food crisis, the Millennium Development Goals will not be attained. Political commitment at the highest level will be needed to raise the profile of ecosystems on the global food agenda. It is recommended that full recognition and promotion be given of the linkages between healthy, protected ecosystems and global food security; that sufficient resources be allocated for improved ecosystem valuation, protection, management and restoration; and that ecosystem management be integrated in climate change and food security portfolios. We will not be able to feed the world and eradicate extreme poverty, if we do not protect our valuable ecosystems and biodiversity.