How sustainable is our current food system?
Access to affordable and quality food is one of the key challenges of our time - to feed a growing world population, to feed it adequately and to feed it using sustainable production practices. Food production entails intensive and extensive relationships with the natural environment. Many of the world’s key environmental problems today are related to agricultural practices. Agriculture and food industries are also uniquely positioned to make a constructive contribution towards efforts designed to address these problems.
How sustainable is our current food system? It takes 160 liters of oil to create a tonne of corn in the United States. One kilo of beef takes 8-15 kilos of grain in feedlot production, requires 10,000 liters of water, generates 35 kilos of greenhouse gasses, and creates feedlot pollutants which need to be disposed of responsibly. There is growing public concern for the welfare of feedlot animals and birds, the use of antibiotics in feed and the food values of meats grown under these conditions. Agriculture is also the largest single user of fresh water, accounting for 75% of current human water use. In many parts of the world we are on the verge of a water crisis, exacerbated in places by climate change. Meanwhile, lengthening food supply chains extend the carbon footprint, and centralized just-in-time production creates new food vulnerabilities.
Concern is also raised about the impacts of rising energy costs, the diversion of foods into biofuel production, soil depletion and exhaustion, chemical fertilizers, encroachments of onto farming land for residential and commercial uses, deforestation as more agricultural land is sought, depletion of wild food sources such as fish, and fresh water crises … to mention just a few critical issues raised by today’s food systems.
In the meantime, our food needs are not standing still. It is estimated that food production will need to rise 50% in the next 20 years to cater for an increased global population and changing habits of food consumption with more people are eating increased quantities of meat and dairy. This not only has environmental consequences; the resultant food price inflation also has negative consequences measured in terms of its social sustainability.
In this context, some commentators have even started to speak of ‘peak food’ when the earth’s food-producing capacities are stretched beyond their limits.
What might be done? How might a sector which has often become part of the problem, become a pivotal player in finding solutions? How might we create sustainable food ecosystems? How might we develop low-carbon agriculture? Indeed, how can food systems assist in carbon sequestration? How can we use water less wastefully? How can we improve animal welfare? How can we change eating habits so they are both more healthy and also use our natural resources to best effect in a more equitable global food system?
We can only answer questions that are so large with a new green revolution, qualitatively different from the green revolution of the twentieth century, and in its own way potentially just as transformative.
How do we improve public understandings of nutrition and community eating practices?
It is estimated that three quarters of health care spending in the developed world addresses chronic diseases—including heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes—many of which are preventable and linked to diet. Similar trends are in evidence in other developed countries, and also developing countries as diets come to resemble more closely those of affluent countries. Meanwhile, access to inadequate food is one of the key consequences of widening global inequality, and translates into malnutrition, hunger, disease and shortened life expectancy for billions amongst the world’s population.
This is the momentous background to the work of researchers, practitioners and teachers in the wider range of disciplines that concern themselves with food and human nutrition, from the agricultural to the health sciences, from economics to sociology, from studies of sustainable human systems to the aesthetics and culinary arts of food. At root, the aim of all these endeavors can simply be stated: the equitable availability of a nutritious and safe food supply.
Food and health sciences need to work together to address these issues. How do we ensure food sovereignty, on a local and global scale? How do we build public trust in food safety, creating a broader understanding of new technologies and addressing concerns that are frequently voiced about microbiological safety, genetically modified crops, animal health and welfare and food additives?
How do we navigate the politics and polices of food systems?
Governments have long intervened both in agriculture and public health. In the case of agriculture, government intervention brings controversy, raising as it does questions about the role of government in relation to the market, ‘protectionism’ versus ‘free markets’, ‘food sovereignty’ or when some argue that agricultural policies should be allowed to be determined by global markets, and the difficulties that poor countries have selling their products into protected, developed-world markets.
In the area of public health, for some in the developing world, an improvement in health and wellbeing may simply arise from having an opportunity to eat once a day. In both developing and developed countries, however, government policies to improve health require integration of nutrition and food needs with economic growth and development objectives. Included in this agenda has to be the health care system, education addressing diet and nutritional needs, and changing life styles and food choices. Political support is required to achieve national health goals with emphasis on nutrition and food sciences. The medical community also has a role to play as it considers the impact of diet and nutrition on health outcomes.
Members of food producing communities and enterprises have a role to play—ranging from global agribusinesses that need to adapt to changing markets and social norms, to innovative alternative organic or local foods enterprises, to organizations advocating farm and food processing worker rights, to groups trying to address the needs and farming practices of the world’s one billion agricultural workers, half of whom do not own land or equipment and who effectively work in conditions of semi-serfdom.
Social movements and lobby groups will also have their roles to play. These may range from groups representing agribusinesses, to organic and local farming groups, to alternative food movements such as vegetarians and vegans, ‘slow food’ and healthy food movements, to efforts to create gardens and teach cooking, health and nutrition in schools.
Finally, educators and researchers also have a role to play, studying problems, testing solutions and communicating their findings to the public through the media, as well as in formal education programs. Better education efforts are needed to inform the public of human nutritional needs, and to encourage food producers and manufactures to produce healthier foods using more sustainable systems. While health and wellness is a booming global industry, there are still billions of world citizens that are malnourished or lacking sufficient food to meet their basic nutritional and physiological needs.