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Environmental Changes in our Food System

Consumers are calling for greater sustainability across the board, and the agriculture industry is no exception.

The food system has to change in significant ways if it hopes to continue amidst changing climates and disappearing landscapes. (Photo: The Ecologist)

The food system has to change in significant ways if it hopes to continue amidst changing climates and disappearing landscapes. (Photo: The Ecologist)

Our current food system isn't sustainable for growing nutritious crops, raising healthy livestock or feeding billions of people.

Industrial livestock farming involves cramped, unclean quarters and stressful living conditions, and farmers inject animals with antibiotics mixtures.

Even natural brands are sometimes participants in greenwashing—putting "natural" labels on foods that aren't wholesome or chemical-free. 

Growing

The food system has to change in significant ways if it hopes to continue amidst changing climates and disappearing landscapes.

Past farming methods are no longer as lucrative or effective as they once were due to droughts and unpredictable weather.

Farmers in areas of southern Europe have already suffered losses from weather events related to climate change.

Researchers expect the production of certain European crops to decline by 50 percent by 2050, which will eliminate a sizable proportion of their agricultural income.

The need for new agricultural methods only increases with our growing population. Growers must be able to provide wholesome, plentiful food for expanding communities.

Renewable

Doing this can reduce global food insecurity and return farmland to a similar pre-industrial state. Agriculturists must take cues from both the past and future to decide how they can run farms without harming the environment.

Commercial farming carries tremendous responsibility for our current food system. Monocrops have monopolised fields and forests, clearing away vegetation that once supported biodiversity.

Millions of people drink coffee and eat corn and rice, but not everyone knows the realities of how growers raise plants.

Other forms of plant life suffer from farmers prioritising one cash crop over the rest. Palm oil exists in everything from shampoo to potato chips, but palm plantations destroy forests and habitats. Mass production doesn't come without a price.

Land conversion turns woodland areas and rainforests into vast fields and uproots the native animals. Agriculture causes most of the water pollution, overexploitation and biodiversity loss that wildlife environments experience.

Natural resources provide raw materials and goods amounting to $125 trillion per year, and major industries will keep taking more until nothing remains. Many environmentalists are advocating for more renewable sources to avoid depleting finite materials.

Atmosphere

Westernised diets—featuring overprocessed and high-fat foods—have spread across numerous countries. Researchers have conducted studies suggesting this eating style negatively affects the immune system and the stomach's microbiota.

Growers must introduce more varieties of foods into their harvests to resist this oversimplification of diets. Experts have theorised that sorghum could make a practical staple in global food systems due to its versatility.

Sorghum doubles as biofuel, meaning developers can use it to generate cleaner alternatives to gasoline and diesel. People have grown industrial hemp to use its fibers in ropes, and it's an excellent source of biomass.

Some farmers have turned to oilseeds to replace soybean crops for their feed and fuel. Successful alternatives to commodity crops exist, but their effectiveness often depends on location and climate.

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Most agricultural fleets run on diesel and contribute harmful carbon emissions to an already taxed atmosphere. Used machinery still runs on commercial fuels, but it's cheaper than new equipment and requires less energy.

Reusing machines is generally better than creating vehicles from outsourced materials, which travel from across the world and drive up fuel usage.

Feeding

Reducing meat consumption is a favorable option among many environmentalists, but this hinges on several factors.

Livestock farmland is typically not arable, meaning that even if farmers reduced their cattle, they wouldn't be able to use this land for crops.

Animals aren't the only contributors to methane emissions, either. Everyday tasks like running machinery and laying down fertilizer involve greenhouse gases — people must analyze the entire picture to achieve net-zero farms.

Integrative farming, along with regenerative techniques, is a workable solution for preserving farmland. Farmers raise crops and cattle by establishing a fair exchange between both groups.

A portion of the vegetation turns into feed, while the manure goes to the fields to nourish the plants. Little agricultural waste remains, and the soil benefits from regular feeding. 

Ecosystems

Industrial operations don't often raise livestock and crops in the same area, which makes regenerative techniques rare on large farms.

However, this strategy can benefit consumers on a broad scale. People will worry less about choosing between meat or plants if they know their meat comes from a low-emission, sustainable source.

Small agriculturists are already giving people this freedom of choice with eco-friendly meats, but commercial plants have yet to catch on. There may be problems producing animals in better conditions on a scale to satisfy the current demand.

Countless people are trying to shift the agricultural system to a better place. California has created farming regulations to reduce the usage of diesel-powered vehicles.

Diesel is hard to forgo because most heavy-duty engines require this oil, but manufacturers have successfully created low-emission vehicles.

Kenyan farmers have embraced techniques common to the sustainable intensification approach to increase their food production while protecting local ecosystems.

Oportunities

Regenerative agriculture characterizes plant life and livestock as parts of a living biome rather than commodities.

Agriculturists must re-examine their perspectives of farming and introduce more humanity into the process. Widespread change won't be possible without a modified mindset—then, more growers can prioritize animal welfare and food security for all.

Global food systems can amend their destruction if the corporations controlling them are willing to try more environment-first methods.

The fast and easy way isn't always the healthiest, and Earth has paid the price for commercialised growing. Fortunately, many opportunities still exist for turning this situation in a positive direction.

Emily Folk

Emily Folk

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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