Did you know that the food you eat affects the environment in major ways, and food is a leading cause of the degradation of our ecosystems? Many do not realize how much of an impact our global food systems have on the health of our planet and our bodies. As the human population began to grow at exponential rates, the world needed to figure out a way to feed all those people. Intensive farming was the answer to this problem, as it aims to maximize yields from an available plot of land. In order to do this, the industry shifted toward monoculture, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Not only did intensive farming pertain to crops, but also to livestock, as factory farms became the norm. This system of farming produced cheaper food per acre. While this system maximizes benefits and is able to feed our ever-growing population, this type of farming is also one of the biggest threats to the environment. These threats include, but are not limited to, the loss of ecosystems, emergence of new parasites, deforestation, degradation of the soil, pollution of our waterways, increased flooding, genetic erosion of crops, decreased biodiversity and significant amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. This problem is only set to get worse as the demand for food is set to rise 70 percent by 2050. Currently, 40 percent of the planet’s land is already being devoted to growing food, and this demand will require even more land to grow food if we continue with this current system of farming. The problem at hand is vast, and the solution will require major shifts in not only the way we produce our food, but the way we think about it, too.
It is easy to simply enjoy the delicious food on our plates without thinking about the negative impact that food has on the world around us. However, it is time we all start paying more attention to the consequences of our actions, as they have the ability to determine the health and viability of our planet for future generations. Jason Hill, a professor at the University of Minnesota, explains that “food systems are sort of the dark horse of climate change.” Reports have found that even if we cut all fossil fuel emissions right now, there is still little hope to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius unless drastic action is taken regarding the global food system. If temperatures were to rise above the 1.5 degrees, there would be far-reaching consequences for every species living on this planet, including ourselves. Up to 90 percent of coral reefs would die, taking with them all the biodiversity they provide. There would likely be frequent storms and weather patterns of unheard extremity. In addition, glacial melting would lead to sea level rise, which would put at least 4 million coastal residents in the United States alone at risk. Small island nations are at risk of being totally uninhabitable. It is important to note that even a warming of 1.5 degrees is likely to cause more extreme storms and weather, but exceeding this threshold would make consequences completely irreversible. We are on the verge of a climate disaster, and it is very possible that we are still not seeing the full effects our actions have on the environment.
As you can see, it is necessary that we are implementing an assortment of sustainability measures and thinking strategically about how we are going to change our human behavior to ensure these events do not occur. We must start to talk about how agriculture is affecting climate change in dramatic ways, and take equally dramatic actions to limit this impact. The first step in any actual change is education. If the general public is not aware of the issue, there is no real hope for solving it. We must understand how the agriculture system is so harmful to ecosystems. To start, we must talk about deforestation and the clearing of lands for agriculture and cattle. According to rainforestconcern.org, “half the world’s rainforests have been destroyed in a century,” and at this rate, we might see them vanish altogether. Deforestation alone is responsible for 18 to 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. These precious forests which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen are being cut down to make room for vast plants to satisfy our consumer demand. In addition to the devastation that monoculture and growing crops in the industrialized food system has on the environment, the meat and dairy industries are even worse. It is startling to learn that animal agriculture is responsible for “more global warming greenhouse gases than the fuel emissions from the worldwide transportation combined,” according to milliondollarvegan.com.
We must completely rethink the way that we currently grow and access our food, and in the process, we have the chance to help save our planet and produce a more equitable system. Agroecology, also known as regenerative agriculture, is a great way to make food systems more sustainable. This model relies on natural chemical cycles and biodiversity while using a holistic approach. This type of farming works with nature instead of against it, and takes into account the natural ecosystem instead of treating every plot of land in different areas of the planet as if they are the same. According to weforum.org, agroecology avoids chemicals such as pesticides and “reduces the environmental harm of food production while stabilizing yields” and ensuring food security. There are viable strategies, some already being implemented, to feed everyone on this planet while avoiding the negative effects that the industrialized food industry has on the environment.
We need to take back control of our food systems and ensure that not only do we have access to healthy, nutrient-rich foods, but that the process of growing these foods does not destroy the environment. We have the power to shift demand and to educate ourselves about what is happening with our planet. It is all too easy to continue living the life we have been living, but if we do, our planet is not going to survive. The issue at hand is dire, and we have solutions to them. As consumers, we can start by shifting out demand to consume less meat and dairy products or, at the very least, ensuring that when we do buy these products, we know exactly where they came from and try to buy from businesses who use sustainable practices. . We can also try to buy as much locally produced food as possible, especially from small farmers. It is going to take large policy shifts to move away from unsustainable farming practices, but it is urgent that we begin this conversation now and think about the health of our planet, as we only have one.
Eve Marks is a junior double-majoring in environmental studies and philosophy, politics and law.