Food, Energy and the Environment

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How do we feed nine billion people without destroying our environment?

Big Ideas: 
  • "Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food" - Albert Bartlett

One billion people world-wide currently suffer from chronic hunger, due mainly to poor food distribution, in spite of the fact that we currently produce enough food to feed the entire planet. However, the world population will grow by an additional 3 billion by 2050, thus doubling the global demand for food.

And yet, increasing the amount of land we use for food production is not the answer, since agriculture is responsible for the planet’s greatest current environmental threat. Transforming land into viable agricultural soil contributes to tropical deforestation, water pollution from fertilizer runoff, and increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Moreover, contemporary methods of food production and distribution are energy inefficient. At the moment in North America, the ratio of energy input into food production and distribution to the energy content of the food, is 10:1, with agriculture producing 6 tonnes of CO2e per head of population each year.

The latest scientific research suggests that it is possible to meet our growing food demand if we take an integrated approach that will aim to feed the planet’s population by increasing food production and improving its distribution, while making agriculture more sustainable, and more energy efficient:

• Curbing the Agricultural Environmental Footprint through slowing deforestation, and developing better biofuel policies that require the exclusive use of non-edible plant material.

• Optimizing Yield Potential -  This means planting better seed, using no-till agriculture which disturbs the soil minimally by sowing seeds through narrow surface slots, and growing cover crops in between food-crop seasons to add nutrients to the soil.

• Using Water and Fertilizer More Efficiently - Deploying drip irrigation directly to the root of the plant uses 40% less water than the centralized method, and 15% less energy.

• Organic farming limits or excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, practicing precision agriculture using GPS-enabled tractors, land surveying with a small drone aircraft, and levelling of the soil to make fields more even in slope, would help to prevent water and fertilizer loss due to runoff

• Reducing Meat Consumption -  If all the plant based food we grow went directly towards human consumption instead of feeding domestic animals, we could increase the world’s available calorie supply by 50%! Around 35% of all the food we grow globally is used for domestic animal feed. It takes roughly 30 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of edible boneless beef. We would also spare the atmosphere from a significant level of methane (GHG) emitted by the cattle bred for human consumption.

If you eat a diet high in red meat and commute on foot or by bicycle, you may leave a larger carbon footprint than if you drive a car! This is because the extra energy required to walk or cycle has to come from increasing your food intake, and meat is an inefficient source of energy. For a vegetarian, however, both biking and walking leave a smaller carbon footprint than commuting by car. (And if you or your family own one less car because you cycle, this is much better than driving by several tonnes of CO2e per year regardless of what you eat. What’s more, the health care interventions associated with a lack of physical fitness caused by our reliance on the internal combustion engine further increase GHG production. )

• Shrinking Food Waste -  Currently 30% of all the food produced on the planet is discarded. In richer countries food is generally wasted on the consumer end; this can be reduced through better refrigeration and storage, as well as minimizing restaurant waste. In poorer countries food tends to be wasted on the production end because of failed crops, pest damage, or transport issues. Implementing better networking tools between producers and buyers could improve matters.

• Creating New Food Evaluation Systems (Sustainability Points) - The points would stand for how many nutritional and food security benefits any item has compared to its environmental and social costs. This system would allow the public to make more responsible food choices than the current general dialogue of local versus organic currently permits. However, like any large scale change, it would take a long time for this new system to be fully implemented, and its complexity will make it difficult to monitor for consistency. Separating real data about the effectiveness of sustainability points from the advertising industry’s tendency to creatively interpret data for marketing purposes, will undoubtedly remain a challenge.

In summary, food production issues must be central in the effort to reduce humanity’s impact on the Earth. In addition, an awareness of the environmental cost of food production and consumption can lead us to make personal choices that can take a significant bite out of our own individual carbon footprints.

Choose a  breakfast cereal that is gorilla-friendly

Sources

How to Make the Food System More Energy Efficient. Michael E. Webber.

Scientific American, December 29, 2011.

Sustainability: Can We Feed the World & Sustain the Planet?. Jonathan A. Foley.

Scientific American, October 12, 2011; pages 60-65.

The Effect of Dietary & Transportation Choices on Climate Change. Nathaniel Etheridge

 

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