A sustainable food system has renewable inputs, eco-friendly outputs, and equitable impact. How does our current food infrastructure measure up?
When it comes to our food system, sustainability is a complicated topic. While some agricultural sectors have made progress, embracing new technologies and methods, others are stuck in the past. Determining whether our entire system is sustainable requires us to answer three questions. First, does it deplete finite resources? Does it harm the environment? Finally, does it harm the people who consume the food? This article will treat each question in turn.
Industrial Agriculture Is a Massive Drain on Resources
Agriculture and food production requires an enormous amount of energy. These industries have taken advantage of energy sources to enjoy mechanization, artificial fertilizer production, improved processing speed, and worldwide transportation. According to one estimate, the entire food system consumes over 30% of the world's energy production. Unfortunately, 80% of the energy is from non-renewable fossil fuels.
Healthy, nutrient-dense foods need fertilizer to grow. Nitrogen, an essential element in many fertilizers, comes cheaply from ammonia harvesting – a process that relies on natural gas. Moreover, two other crucial elements, potassium and phosphorus, also come from non-renewable sources. And since only three countries control more than 85% of the world's phosphorus reserve, the fertilizer market is vulnerable to political and economic instability.
70% of the world's freshwater supplies crop irrigation. In addition, several key agricultural nations rely heavily on groundwater. Aquifers replenish so slowly that we ought to consider them an unsustainable source. Therefore, India, China, and the U.S. are draining their freshwater reserves at an alarming rate. Finally, as water becomes harder to procure, these countries will increase energy expenditure to get it; California already uses 20% of its energy to move water for irrigation.
Industrial farming and monocropping deplete and erode the soil. The exact rate is unknown, but experts estimate that our food system depletes topsoil between 10 and 100 times as fast as it regenerates. This depletion leads directly to adverse environmental outcomes, such as carbon loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and waterway sedimentation.
Our Current System Pollutes Land, Air, and Water
Our current food system engages in large-scale land clearing and habitat disruption. These procedures make mass-production of a single product such as wheat or corn much more efficient. However, they threaten the biodiversity of the local ecosystem. An absence of biodiversity causes imbalances and promotes the appearance of animal and plant pests. Industrial farming relies on chemical pesticides and herbicides that contaminate food and water to combat this problem.
Our mechanized food system emits too much greenhouse gas. Heavy machinery used in clearing and maintaining land for farming is a well-known culprit. However, the emissions from fertilizer production, food storage, and food packaging production account for 33% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Water runoff is a side effect of all farming, but our system exacerbates the problem through monocropping and letting fields lie fallow. Specifically, runoff treated with artificial fertilizers dumps extra nutrients into marine and freshwater habitats. In consequence, farming causes overgrowth and imbalance in aquatic flora, degrading water quality. Furthermore, chemical fertilizers and treatments for industrial fisheries also contribute to water pollution.
Despite advancements in some areas, our food system is entirely unsustainable.
Industrially Produced Crops Harm Physical and Economic Health
The current food system specializes in mass producing and delivering cheap staple products to a large population. Unfortunately, there are many external costs that more than offset efficiency gains. For example, industrial farming bypasses local, rural economies by bringing fertilizer, equipment, supplies, and sometimes even labor from outside the area. In addition, farming conglomerates have put many small farmers out of business and often employ predatory subcontracting policies. These factors threaten the economic resilience of local populations.
Public health often suffers as a direct result of our agriculture and food production industries. For example, pesticides and herbicides end up in food and the water supply, while resistant pathogens result from antibiotic treatments for livestock. Therefore, rural populations in farming territories often suffer from unnecessary exposure to illness and chemicals.
Moreover, soil degradation leads to less nutritious food that provides empty calories and increases the risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This arrangement poses a terrible risk for people who cannot afford healthier food from sustainable sources. Moreover, experts have observed that low-nutrition food correlates to higher rates of concurrent obesity and starvation within the same society, suggesting that many affluent nations are actually suffering from malnutrition.
The current food system is particularly harsh for historically underprivileged communities. For example, urban communities of color that are disproportionately poor have no choice but to consume high-calorie but nutritionally worthless foods. This lack of equity in food distribution explains the disproportionately high rates in these communities of the (often fatal) health problems noted above.
Our Current Food System Is Not Sustainable
Despite advancements in some areas, our food system is entirely unsustainable. Not only does it consume astronomical amounts of non-renewable resources, but it pollutes the environment. Furthermore, many of the people who use the produce of our food system suffer physically and economically from it. Until all stakeholders work together to address the depletion, pollution, and disparate impacts of our current food system, it will never be sustainable.
Key Business Takeaways
When sourcing food for your business, try to get it from stores, farms, or restaurants that use renewables to produce and sell their goods. Whether it's energy for transportation, natural fertilizer, or renewable water, pick a food source that does not deplete our resources.
Do the best you can to invest in food companies that do not damage the environment. In general, think small and local. For example, traditional, pre-industrial farming techniques integrate nature to promote soil health and prevent pests.
Be aware of the social costs of what you consume. Were the people who produced the food fairly compensated for their labor? Were they exposed to potential health hazards? Do they have access to the product they helped to make? A sustainable food system values accessibility and equity.