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Food Sustainability – Part 3 – Food Production Emissions, Biodiversity

Food is one of those industries we all engage with on a daily basis. Regardless of age, gender, nationality, and economic state, we all have to eat. Most people don’t put too much thought into where their food comes from and how it was produced. However, these factors have enormous consequences on the sustainability of our food system. If we don’t make agriculture more sustainable, we endanger our future and create the environment for an imminent food crisis. As empty shelves during the beginning of Covid-19 showed us, our access to food is highly dependent on a complex, global web of supply chains. When something disrupts these production mechanisms, people suffer. By modifying our diets, increasing local food production, and reinforcing crop biodiversity, we can make our food system much more sustainable. 

Meat production

Reducing your meat consumption is one of the easiest ways to make your diet more sustainable. Why? Because conventional meat producers use intensive practices which require enormous amounts of feed and degrade land. When the amazon is burning and activists call on consumers to cut out meat it is because mass deforestation is occurring in order to make room for soy plantations. This soy isn’t grown to feed humans, this high protein legume is shipped halfway around the world as feed for animals. The effects of deforestation on the Amazon Rainforest is multisided. Water cycles are disrupted, making the region more susceptible to fires. As trees are cut down, the ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is compromised. And as soybean production feeds a growing cattle population, higher amounts of CO2 are being released from the high concentrations of animals. 

From an environmental standpoint, the problem with the meat industry’s effect on the environment isn’t the animals. It is the conditions in which the animals are raised that creates these environmental issues. Properly managed silvopastoral systems actually have the potential to sequestor more carbon than the animals release by promoting grass growth through sustainable grazing practices and fertilizing the land with no additional effort through the animal’s manure. 

As the world becomes wealthier, the demand for meat increases and farms are pressured to increase their capacity – deteriorating the already horrific living conditions of the animals as well as putting pressure on land use for housing and feeding larger numbers of animals. Drastically reducing our daily intake of meat and choosing to purchase what we do consumer from regenerative farmers means that we could realistically supply the world’s demand for meat while actively storing CO2 in the soil.

H2: Transportation Inefficiencies 

Increasing urbanization, regional specialization, and seasonality has incentivized a globalized food system. Pears grown in Peru are sent to Asia to be processed and packaged before reaching their final market in the United States. Soy grown in the Brazilian Amazon undergoes a 7,000km journey as it’s sent to cattle ranchers in Liverpool who then supply McDonalds locations across Europe. 

Compared to the emissions produced during crop production, which is heavily reliant on petro-chemical fertilizers and intensive irrigation, transportation contributes a small percentage of the food industry’s footprint at 14%. However, this global supply chain contributes to one third of produce lost between harvest and retail and promotes the homogenization of food products, threatening biodiversity. Through the lens of economics, these methods make your food system more resilient but in reality it becomes incredibly vulnerable to global shocks and comes at a high price for the environment and biodiversity. 

Biodiversity

Traditional economics encourages specialization. Grow what you grow best, grow lots of it, and don’t bother with anything else. In response to pest and drought resistance, genetically modified seeds seem to be the answer. But when the incredible spectrum of crop biodiversity is analyzed, it becomes quite apparent that these variations actually hold the key for creating a resilient food system. In a conventional monoculture system, the same variety of crop is grown over and over again for hundreds of acres. This makes it easy for the farmer to specialize in that crop and faciliatates the use of expensive industrial machines, making the farm less labor intensive. The downside of monoculture systems, however, is they create an all you can eat buffet for pests that feed on that particular crop. If a disease comes along that the crop isn’t resistant to, it will have devastating effects for the crop, the farmer, and the global supply chain. A clear example of this comes from the Gros Michel banana incident, where the entire plantation was almost wiped out by a single outbreak of Panama disease. Instead of learning from this example, banana producers simply shifted their focus to producing the Cavendish banana, which is today’s most popular cultivar, and is facing similar threats. 

For contrast, we can look at the humble potato as an example.  In Peru (where the potato originates from) they have documented 1,200 varieties of potato cultivated in the highlands and 4,000 known varieties suited for the valleys. Each one of these variations contains different benefits from cold hardiness to drought resistance. This type of genetic diversity ensures that regardless of conditions and pest pressure, communities who actively nurture their biodiversity can adapt to adversity. 

Conclusion 

There are many problems challenging the sustainability of the food industry. Intensified meat production, complicated transportation systems, and spcialization that threatens biodiversity. Food borne illnesses, global crises halting transportation (like Covid-19), and crop failures affecting staple foods make us incredibly vulnerable to disruptions in the food system. To build resilience, we must return to indigenous animal production methods, invest in local food production, and value the inherent adaptability of biodiversity.