Environmental Impacts of Food Production

First, before food production even begins, natural habitats and ecosystems are destroyed to clear land that will be used for agriculture. Habitat loss is one of the leading causes of population declines among wildlife species, eventually leading to extinction in many cases. When trees are cut down to make space for farmland, local species who survive must relocate to find new homes. This type of deforestation is known as ‘land-use change’, and is a huge contributor to climate change, as forests are major carbon sinks that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Use of Chemicals for Agriculture

Once the land has been cleared, it must be primed to grow large amounts of food. This is done using heavy applications of artificial herbicides and fertilizers. The herbicides are intended to prevent the growth of unwanted plants that would ‘steal’ nutrients from the crop, and the fertilizers increase the nutrients available in the soil so that the crop’s yield is maximized. Unfertile soils may require even larger amounts of fertilizers to meet the demand for agricultural production. Once planted, fertilizers, herbicides, and artificial pesticides are all used throughout the growing process to help promote plant growth (with fertilizer), while simultaneously preventing competition from other plants, and degradation from crop-eating pests.

The exorbitant use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides is unsustainable and environmentally damaging for two reasons. First and foremost, they are chemicals that can be toxic when organisms are exposed to high concentrations. While the methods by which these chemicals are applied to crops prevent them from accumulating on the food in harmful concentrations, they are difficult for our bodies to process and consuming large amounts of food treated in this manner could lead to health impacts through bio-accumulation.

Application of these chemicals onto crops also causes them to be released into the atmosphere as harmful air pollutants. Agricultural run-off from heavy rains removes chemicals from the site of food production and transports them to other locations, polluting soils, waterways, and other ecosystems. When natural systems are polluted in this way, the chemicals are absorbed into the tissues of simple organisms, like algae. These simple organisms are eaten by larger animals further up the food chain; and instead of being destroyed, the chemicals accumulate in the bodies of the larger animals. Through this process, known as ‘bio-accumulation’, chemicals released into natural ecosystems are able to grow to potentially toxic concentrations. At this point they damage the health of the ecosystem by reducing fertility, causing irreparable genetic damage, or even killing important populations.

Resource Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The second reason why using artificial fertilizers and pesticides is unsustainable is because they are very energy-intensive to produce, and thus are heavily dependent on cheap fossil fuels. As fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases, the production of these chemicals helps contribute to climate change, a major factor for the long-term sustainability of food production. Fossil fuels are also used to fuel farm equipment used in conventional agriculture, like tractors, graders, and combines. Air pollutants emitted by this equipment contribute to climate change and can impact the health of individuals far away from the site of food production.

Farming also contributes to climate change through the release of methane (a major greenhouse gas) from the production of livestock animals. When animals, like cows, eat plants for sustenance, their digestive tracts produce methane gas, which is excreted as gaseous waste. Farm animals consume a huge amount of food over the course of their lives, and thus also produce a huge amount of solid waste. For example, if a single cow produces 35 kilograms of manure each day, and a farmer has a herd of 100 cattle, then that herd will produce over 1.25 million kilograms of waste each year. While smaller amounts of manure can be used as a natural fertilizer, this amount is unusable and only serves to pollute the air, water, and land.

In addition to consuming a lot of plant-based food that could be used for human consumption, livestock animals also require large amounts of water. Because water use for crop irrigation is also very intense, we can see how demanding food production is on our potable water resources. Though it may not seem obvious, our water supply is limited, and with climate change expected to enhance drought conditions in the future, conserving water will become more important than ever before. Conventional agriculture drains our water reserves at an incredible rate, and so we must change how our food is produced if we are to ensure long-term sustainability.

After Food Production

The environmental damage of food production from conventional agriculture is not limited to deforestation and pollutants associated with crop growth. Harvesting the crop represents a significant amount of nutrients, water, and energy being taken from the land. This leaves the land barren, and unfriendly for the growth and development of new organisms and ecosystems. This is especially true of land used for industrial monoculture farms.
‘Monocultures’ refer to areas of land where a single crop is grown, like corn or wheat. They are particularly damaging to soils because plants affect and are affected by soil in different ways. If different types of crops are grown together, they can work in concert to improve soil quality. This does not happen with monocultures, and so the land is left barren and unhealthy after harvesting. Sometimes, with the help of artificial fertilizers, the soil is revitalized and used again for agriculture. If it is not, then the dry dirt will blow away in the wind, further contributing to the growing trend of desertification on our planet.

Transportation of food is another factor that influences the unsustainability of our food production systems. The conventional agriculture model supports small numbers of people tending large monocultures and using industrial equipment to harvest and process the crop. The crops are then transported to their destination, where they are sold to consumers. In our global economy, food crops are often produced by workers who are paid very little for their work, given very few rights, and forced to work in conditions that are detrimental to their health and wellbeing.

After production, these crops are transported from the areas they’re produced in to wealthier, developed regions like Canada and the U.S. for the enjoyment of their citizens. Beyond the obvious social inequalities inherent to this system, transporting food from one side of the planet to the other uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuels. The emissions from these fuels help contribute to the already substantial footprint of food production, further highlighting the importance of good, local food systems.

Food Waste

Finally, after the food has been grown and transported and prepared for consumption, it harms the environment one last time through wasted food. Food is wasted throughout the entire production chain; from initial crop growth, to supermarket screening, to final household consumption. Food waste includes food scraps, discarded food, and uneaten food.

Some facts about food waste:
  • One third (1.3 billion tons) of food produced globally is wasted every year. Amounting to about one trillion US dollars’ worth.
  • An area larger than China and 25% of the world’s fresh water supply is used to grow food that is never eaten.
  • This includes 30% of cereal crops, 40-50% of produce crops, 20% of oil seeds, 20% of meat and dairy, and 35% of fish.
  • Per capita food waste in North America and Europe is between 95-115 kilograms (kg) per year. That is more than ten times the waste in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia, and South-Eastern Asia (6-11 kg).
  • In industrialized countries like Canada, almost 40% of produce food waste occurs at the retail level because the food does not meet high cosmetic standards.
  • Canadians waste $31 billion of food every year; almost half is wasted at the household consumer level.
  • Food waste produces 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
  • If food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.
  • By the year 2050 the world’s population will increase 33% to 10 billion. To meet the food demands of this growing population we could increase food production 60-70% or repurpose food waste.
Use these tips to help reduce your food waste and improve the planet!