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Top 5 Solutions to Making Food Sustainable

Our global food system is destroying the planet, and with more people than ever to feed, it’s obvious that we can’t continue to grow food without making some major changes. Here are the top 5 ways we can make the food system more sustainable and productive.

1. Expand Urban & Indoor Farming 

Just over half of the world population lives in cities, and the UN projects that number to reach 68% by 2050. Meanwhile, most of our food is still grown in rural areas, far from the intended consumer. As cities grow, so does the demand for food. This drives deforestation, as agricultural companies tear down forests to capitalize on higher demand. Currently, agriculture is responsible for over 70% of the world’s deforestation, and as we see in the Amazon, tropical rainforests are taking the biggest hit. 

The distance between our cities and farms poses another problem, transporting the produce. After being harvested, the crops must be processed, packaged, and distributed to grocery stores across the region, burning fossil fuels along the way. The produce might spend months in transit before finally reaching its destination.

Urban farms will reduce demand for rural farms, saving resources and keeping forests from being cleared. Fossil fuels will also be saved, as the produce doesn’t have to be transported across long distances. Urban farming has already seen some success. Cuba’s urban farms have revolutionized a failing food system, where trade embargos and an authoritarian regime pushed the island towards starvation. Today, over half of Cuba’s vegetables come from urban farms. Cuba’s urban farms are completely organic, using natural processes to grow crops without the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Seattle’s P-Patches and the Jardins Urbains in Paris are other examples of successful urban farms. 

Indoor and vertical farming can save resources by producing more food in a smaller space. Indoor farming is already taking off, as large companies like Bowery and Aerofarms build high-tech growing operations in old factories and warehouses. These facilities give farmers complete control over crop growth, with climate controlled grow rooms, and settings to adjust lighting and water frequency. This gives growers the option to change the growing environment to achieve the desired crop characteristics.

Greenhouses can take a large role in sustainable farming. Greenhouses can grow warm climate crops in cooler regions, and large scale use of greenhouses can take the stress away from commercial farming operations in the tropics, where deforestation and land use are a major concern, along with social issues like low wages and child exploitation. While greenhouses do require quite a bit of electricity for heating, a smart design which maximizes sunlight exposure and energy efficiency can make operating a greenhouse a more sustainable endeavor. 

From a climate change standpoint, urban farming will help conserve grasslands, forests, and peatlands around the world, reducing CO2 emissions by 55 gigatons (that’s 55 BILLION tons) over 30 years. To put this into perspective, total global CO2 emissions were estimated to be around 37 gigatons in 2018. To put this into perspective, total global CO2 emissions were estimated to be around 37 gigatons in 2018. Restoring temperate and tropical rainforests after they have been destroyed by agriculture will further capture 112 gigatons. The proximity factor from the farm to the market will reduce the need for refrigeration, cutting emissions by another 57 gigatons, and 5 gigatons of CO2 will be saved from the increased walkability of cities. In total, urban and indoor farming can save 229 gigatons of CO2 from entering our atmosphere in the next 30 years.

2. Rethink the Meat Industry 

Meat is a huge part of our diet. Even if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you probably still eat plant based burgers or hot dogs. Humans have been meat-eaters for as long as we can remember, but in recent times, we’ve begun to see a backlash against eating meat. While some are going plant-based for health reasons, many are basing their decision on rampant animal cruelty and environmental destruction. The meat industry is one of the biggest polluters worldwide, and compared to plant based proteins, meat is much more energy intensive to produce. Animals are hardly treated humanely, often living in squalid conditions. Livestock are packed into small dirty spaces, where diseases can easily spread. 

One of the biggest problems with the meat industry from a sustainability standpoint is the feed. Livestock are fed corn based feed, which is not a normal part of their diet. Corn-fed cows release methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2. The feed also requires farms that are dedicated to growing corn solely for livestock, resources that can better be used somewhere else. 

Meat is a dirty business. Animal waste and manures are hardly disposed of responsibly. They release greenhouse gasses as they rot, and end up as runoff which contaminates waterways with bacteria. Factory farms and slaughterhouses release tons of air pollution, and the factory equipment requires massive amounts of water to clean in order to prevent the buildup of blood and animal waste. Then there’s the fossil fuels that are burned to transport the livestock and associated meat products, releasing CO2 and fueling climate change. 

Sustainable meat production involves allowing the animals to exist as they would naturally, with an organic diet and space to roam. Certified organic meats have standards that meet these criteria, and the process tends to be better for animal welfare as well. Animal waste and manure should be disposed of properly, and can be used as compost or digested in a biogas plant. Eating locally raised meat is also great as there is little transportation involved, which keeps greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. 

Proper management of grazed lands by reducing livestock density and altering timing of grazing can help grasslands capture 26 gigatons of CO2. Silvopasture, which is based around allowing livestock to roam and graze feely on a sustainable farm, can capture another 42 gigatons. Allowing cattle to graze, instead of feeding them corn based feed, will reduce demand for corn farms, which will conserve grasslands, saving another 4 gigatons of CO2. The lowered demand for corn will also leave fields abandoned. Converting these abandoned fields into sustainable farms can help capture 20 more gigatons of CO2, and using these lands as tree plantations will capture another 35 gigatons. In total, making these reforms to the meat and dairy industries can reduce and capture 135 gigatons of CO2 over the next 30 years. 

3. Reduce Food Waste & Increase Composting

Up to a third of the produce grown in the US ends up in the trash, a result of our broken food distribution system. Nearly a billion people are starving worldwide, and it’s a travesty that developed countries are tossing out enough food to quite literally feed the world. Getting food to the people who need it can take demand away from commercial farms who are sometimes growing crops in vain, as valuable resources are being used to grow crops that end up as trash. Our food waste ends up contributing to climate change, it gets dumped in landfills where it breaks down and releases methane. 

Food waste doesn’t have to end up in the trash. Composting is a form of recycling where food waste is stored and allowed to break down, until it is ready to be added to soil as an organic fertilizer. Composting can be done domestically, or on an industrial scale. If implemented on a large scale, it can keep millions of tons of food waste from going into landfills. Compost used as fertilizer offsets the use of chemical fertilizers, which cause water pollution and soil degradation. Rotting food also releases gas as it breaks down. This is called biogas, and it can be burned for energy. Biogas plants are a must for farms looking for a source of renewable energy. They run best when breaking down manure or fats, as they provide the most gas. After the contents are “digested”, the leftovers can still be used as fertilizer. 

Reducing food waste by simply streamlining the food system from the farm to our homes, reducing demand and saving resources, can reduce CO2 emissions by 94 gigatons in the next 30 years, and if at least half of all food waste was to be composted globally, we can reduce emission by another 3 gigatons. Using biogas for energy on a large scale could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 9 gigatons in the same timeframe, and another 9 gigatons can be saved if developing countries began using biogas stoves for cooking. Altogether, cutting down on and harnessing our food waste can cut up to 115 gigatons of CO2 emissions by 2050. 

4. Move to Agroecology: No More Monoculture 

The majority of commercial farms are monoculture farms, meaning only one type of crop is grown per plot. Though this might be great for mass production, it’s terrible for the environment. Soil is sapped of its nutrients as crops like corn are grown year after year on the same land, forcing farmers to till deeper and add more fertilizer to revitalize the soil. This creates a destructive cycle that ends in soil erosion and desertification. Monoculture farms are also genetically homogenous, so if the crop is susceptible to any diseases, entire fields can be lost in a short period of time. 

Enter agroecology, an agriculture based science which emphasizes farming that compliments the local environment by mimicking the way plants grow in nature. Instead of growing one crop per plot, agroecologists may use techniques like crop rotation, where a different crop is planted every season, usually rotating between two or three crops. Crop rotation helps keep the soil healthy, and keeps pests on their toes. Intercropping is another agroecology technique, where two or more crops are grown together on the same plot. Intercropping is used where symbiotic relationships between plants can be exploited, and can be a good pest control technique as well. Agroecology goes hand-in-hand with sustainable agriculture practices, like sustainable water use and composting. 

Conservation agriculture techniques that aim to mitigate the damage caused by farming can reduce CO2 emissions by 13 gigatons over 30 years if implemented on a large scale, and going a step further, regenerative agriculture, which aims to improve the health of the soil, can remove and capture another 22 gigatons. Sustainably raising yields for small farmers will reduce demand for land, and save another gigaton of CO2. Trading staple crops like corn and rice for perennial crops like bananas and avocados can capture another 31 gigatons of CO2, and then an additional 20 gigatons can be captured if methods are used that mimic the way these crops grow in a forest. Rice fields are a huge greenhouse gas emitter as well, and if rice patties are both improved upon and intensified using sustainable methods, 18 gigatons of CO2 emissions can be saved.  In total, agroecology and sustainable farm practices can cut and capture up to 105 gigatons of CO2. 

5. Adopt Plant Rich Diets 

In response to the mounting evidence in favor of avoiding animal products, plant based diets have exploded in popularity, as people go plant based for a number of reasons, mainly health, the environment, and animal welfare. While meat is touted as the superior form of protein among meat-lovers, humans can actually get their protein from various plant based sources, and it turns out that trading animal proteins for plant proteins is more sustainable. Animal products require more water to produce compared to fruits and vegetables. This is true for all resources, not just water. More land and energy is required overall to produce meat. This is due to the transfer of energy as you go up the food chain. Larger organisms simply require more energy for growth, but that energy doesn’t always equal more nutritional value.

Eating more plant based foods will save resources like land, water and energy, in addition to lowering the demand for cattle, which produce massive amounts of greenhouse gasses. If at least half of the world population reduces their meat consumption, we can reduce CO2 emissions by 92 gigatons over the next 30 years. This comes from a combination of reduced meat demand, reduced demand for agriculture, and reduced rates of deforestation.