How do we grow from here?

In our trilogy of articles exploring the environmental impacts of the food system we’ve discovered that the greatest damage is done before the business end: processing, distribution and storage. Arguably, adapting the ways in which crops and livestock are farmed would have a much more profound impact than simply buying food more locally; transport contributes only 10% of the industry’s greenhouse gases emissions. Of course there are other benefits to being a ‘locavore’, but food production is fundamental to the the concept of ‘ecotarianism’, and should be used to inform it. We’re organising a debate to shed light on sustainable agriculture in its many forms, so that we can establish what role can play each of us on the road to sustainability.

Read on to find out what to expect, and if you missed out on a ticket, follow along live!

Food production depends on a wide range environmental factors, from soil quality to weather. Meanwhile, its impacts are also felt throughout the natural world.

Atmosphere

  • Agriculture makes up a massive 24% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including methane, a potent GHG which escapes from livestock waste.
  • Agrochemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides, contain the third-most heat-absorbing GHG after CO2 and methane – nitrous oxide.
  • Converting land from forests to farm reduces the potential for greenery to absorb carbon dioxide.  

Land

  • Agrochemical leakage into surrounding natural habitats, via rivers and groundwater, has created some high-profile stories of severe damage to ecosystems.
  • Extensive agriculture allows livestock to roam free and crops to be planted sufficiently sparsely to avoid soil degradation. In Europe, it takes on average 500 years for the formation of only 2.5 cm of soil. Unfortunately, this greatly increases competition for available surface.
  • In the European Union, around 12.7% of arable land - the entire surface area of Greece - is estimated to suffer from moderate to high erosion. Simply put, this area loses more than five tonnes of soil per hectare, per year.

Water

  • Agriculture accounts for, approximately, a massive 70% of all water consumption globally.
  • Re-directing the supply of groundwater to farms forces people to dig further for drinking water, seen in 2/3 of cities throughout China.
  • Agriculture is also a major cause of water pollution. Rivers bring nutrients to coastlines where they form toxic algal blooms. Pesticides, of course, are already toxic.

Wildlife

  • Food production is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss worldwide. Loss of habitat and overfishing are the main culprits.
  • Only 12 plant species provide 75% of our total food supply, and only 15 mammal and bird species make up over 90% of livestock production!  
  • The recent findings of the RSPB’s State of Nature report highlights agriculture as the biggest driver of UK biodiversity loss.
  • Overfishing is an enormous threat to the marine ecosystems, and recent research suggest that actual fishing and stock rates are far more alarming than previously imagined.

Humans

  • Only a third of the world’s population is adequately nourished, while the global trend for diets is becoming energy-rich but nutrient-poor.
  • Heavily processed foods or those which contain excessive amounts of sugar and trans fats are widely believed to cause vitamin deficiency, high rates of obesity, heart diseases and premature deaths.
  • Exposure to chemicals due to the carefree use of pesticides in the production of livestock is also a huge concern for our health; higher cancer rates, increasing number of allergies and weakened immune systems. Meanwhile, the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has contributed to the frightening prospect of antibiotic resistance.
  • As market control of seeds and fertiliser shifts to just three large corporations, there are fears of economic stress on independent farms which could lead to rising food prices

The future of farming

A successful and just food system provides adequate sustenance and nutrition for everyone, but following current trajectories, food security looks set to worsen, with a projected 60% increase in demand by the year 2050, and climate change already impacting yields of important crops like wheat. So how do we halt the destruction agriculture is inflicting on land and ecosystems, whilst maintaining yields - necessary if efficiency is not clawed back by tackling food waste, for example. Can ‘conventional’ agriculture be redeemed using new technologies? Should pesticides and fertilisers be shunned and replaced with organic methods? Or do we just accept that farming is incompatible with nature and completely separate it from assigned ‘wildernesses’?

Agriculture today

The unprecedented increases in food availability and affordability that contrast so spectacularly with malthusian predictions of impending famine are credited to the intensification and industrialisation of agriculture. Human labour has been freed up as the responsibility to provide food has fallen to a smaller and smaller proportion of the population. But most of the world’s calories now come from a few staple commodity crops, with 75% of diversity lost between 1900 and 2000. Intensification of both crop and livestock production is increasing to meet demand. In regards to animal husbandry, this means larger, more confined facilities like CAFOs (Centralized agriculture feeding operations). What these gain in efficiency and reduction in land area, they lose through dependence on chemical inputs and antibiotics, issues of ethics, and pollutionNevertheless, many organisations, including the Royal Society in the UK, argue that ‘sustainable intensification’ of the current mode of agriculture must be a priority. Technology continues to develop, providing targeted irrigation and application of fertilisers, as well as robotic harvesting. These techniques alongside genetic manipulation are boosting the efficiency of crop and livestock cultivation

Increased mechanisation and innovation can improve security for smallholders. However, it’s hard to imagine long-term sustainability in farming becoming a priority if control lies in ever fewer, and more powerful hands. Indeed, the shifts towards monopolisation of seeds and chemical inputs by agrobusiness may increase precarity and propagate the decline in rural communities worldwide. Narratives of ‘feeding the world’ can substitute the goal of a truly sustainable food system, which provides sufficient nutrition, fairly distributes food and is resilient and durable, for one in which the base requirement of calories is provided for the global population. This inherently elevates conventional, industrial methods over diversified agriculture. 

Re-thinking 

Organic farming is often seen as a luxury for those in the western world who can afford it, and dismissed as unfeasible and utopian. It's enjoying a recent increase in popularity but still makes up a tiny proportion of the market share, at 1.4% in the UK last year, and 5% in the USA number of well-respected academics, and indeed the UN, have encouraged the scaling up of more inherently sustainable modes of agriculture. A panel of world food experts this year advocated an even more ambitious shift to ‘diversified agroecological systems’. This type of farming aims to build long-term fertility, and resilience to the stresses of climate change by stimulating interactions between species and optimising biodiversity. There's growing evidence that these systems, can reverse the release of greenhouse gases from the soil, and be even more productive than conventional input-based methods. 

When it comes to animal agriculture, conflicts of interest between efficiency and welfare arise. Some argue that factory farming has a lower environmental impact than pasture-fed livestock, and that ruminants (e.g. animals that eat grass, such as cows) should be replaced by pigs and poultry. However in some parts of the world, especially in the UK, land is best suited to grass cultivation and grazing - inherently more favourable for our livestock. As meat consumption looks set to increase globally, difficult choices will need to be made on whether we value wild spaces, or the welfare of our food animals more highly. 

Cosmopolitan crops

If we want to halt the expansion of agriculture into wild spaces, growing food in our cities might hold the key. The diverse world of urban farming spans community allotments to high-tech ‘aquaponics’ (plants and fish farmed together in a closed system); but all have in common their relatively small footprint and close proximity to the consumer. Innovative ways of producing high value goods such as salads (GrowUp Urban Farms) and micro-herbs (Growing Underground), are impressive in their efficiency and circular nature. However, it’s unlikely urban agriculture will meet demand for staple foods, and there are clear constraints on what can be produced. A recent assessment found that a third of the global urban land area would be needed to provide enough vegetables for urban dwellers! But if growing spaces reconnect city-dwellers with food and encourage community hubs to form, why not make the most of the space we have?

Left-field lunches

Gaining traction in the media are novel ways of getting our protein - both from lab-grown meat and unconventional 'livestock' like insects. But who does this appeal to? Although insects have comparable protein and nutrient content by weight to meat, and are actually more efficient than livestock, it's difficult to imagine demand outside of the realm of adventurous foodies. The same could be said for test tube steaks, for which technology is in its infancy. The backlash from genetically modified food - actually not that different in makeup from traditionally bred crops - is still powerful, so will consumers root for 'frankenfoods' enough to allow cost efficiency?

We look forward to delving into these issues with you further on the 18th October. You can tweet us questions and comments using the hashtag #SustFood!