How often do you think about what you eat? Where is your food coming from? Do you grow vegetables and fruit in your own garden or buy them in a supermarket? At the moment, one-third of all food being produced is going to end up in the bin. And while we produce more than enough food to feed every single person on the planet, millions go to bed hungry.
At the same time, agriculture is a significant contributor to destruction of rainforests, pollution of water sources and greenhouse gas emitters. From planting a seed through growing, harvesting, packing, shipping and finally cooking and eating our food, greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. The same accounts to animals in agriculture.
Add to this equation the fact that the world’s current food system is responsible for about one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases and you’ve got one hard, cold fact staring at your face: our food systems are highly unsustainable.
The problem with the current system
With plastic making its way into our food, and chemicals sprinkled in our crops – our health is directly impacted by this planetary destruction. At the same time, antibiotic resistant germs are a side effect of industrial farming of animals due to the enormous amount of medicine used as a precaution for the animals who are living in horrendous circumstances. Plus, the food industry is responsible for about 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions (aviation is only 2%). 25% of the world’s freshwater is used to grow food that’s never eaten .
If we were able to salvage just 10% of the food that’s wasted in the US, EU and UK alone, it would be enough to feed the one billion people living in food poverty, or under food insecurity. This is the gravity of the problem.
And so, as consumers of the food produced, we are all a part of the problem. It’s time to take a closer look at how we can produce our food more sustainably. That includes a reduction of pesticide, alternatives to monocultures when growing crops, finding alternatives to using animals to produce food and creating a system that is based on justice and fairness and not the winner takes it all.
We need CO2-neutral ways of transporting the crop from farmer to consumer, fairer food distribution, new ways of producing food as well as alternative packaging to get rid of plastic and other harmful materials that are clogging up the planet’s ecosystems.
Monopoly of seeds causing poverty and food insecurity
Less than 30 years ago, there were 6000 independent seed companies in the USA. By 2009, this number drastically reduced to 100, and now only four seed companies control more than 60 percent of the global market. The root cause for this monopoly was a US court ruling that allowed seed companies to patent the breeds of genetically modified seeds they created. Agro-corporation Monsanto’s executive Robert Farley’s statement in 1996 almost foresaw the future. He said, “What you’re seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.”
This has created multifaceted problems for the consumers and the farmers. A couple of agro-companies are deciding what the farmers grow and what eventually ends up on our plates. From forcing farmers to buy new seeds every year to increasing seed prices exponentially – this monopoly is already causing severe poverty and food insecurity in many countries like India.
One third of all food produced goes to waste
This may come as a surprise to many; we produce enough food to feed every single person on the planet, and yet millions go hungry everyday. This ironic statistic is largely due to the fact that one-third of all food produced goes to waste, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. The CO2 emitted due to this problem is equivalent to 3 million cars on the road, or in other words, four times more than all world flights combined.
There are various reasons for this. One of them is massive stocks of food being rejected for not being aesthetic enough. In fact, according to reports, 25% of apples, 20% of onions and 13% of potatoes grown in the UK are still wasted on cosmetic grounds. In many countries, growers do not have the right technology to store the extra food after it is harvested, which also adds to food wastage. And lastly, consumer and retailer waste by you and me can be due a wide variety of reasons; from poor planning to overstocking.
Plastic is in our plates, our packaging and even in our food
Plastic is nearly impossible to avoid. We pack our food in it, bottles and household essentials are made of it. Unfortunately, plastic is also in the food we eat and the water we drink. According to the Consumer Report, each of us might ingest up to a credit card’s worth of plastic weekly through food and water. Altogether, humanity has produced more than 10 billion tons of plastic. In 2018, we created almost 400 million tons of plastic, and production is expected to almost quadruple by 2050.
To minimise our exposure to plastic, we need to stop using it and switch to alternative options that won’t harm the environment and us as well.
The global circle of destruction
Ever wondered where exactly the food on your plate is coming from and how it gets there? In a globalised world such as ours, consuming only locally grown food is nearly impossible in a lot of countries. Eggs from hens in Europe might eat soy that was grown in Brazil.
To supply the growing demand of animal food, football fields of rainforest are being cut down every day and lead to a devastated landscape, destroyed habitat, and dead animals. When a hen in Europe doesn’t lay enough eggs anymore, it gets killed. However, the European market is only interested in chicken breast and has no demand for old egg-laying hens.
Therefore, those egg-laying hens end up in African markets where they are being sold for less money than locally grown chicken. The local market is destroyed and people are losing their jobs and livelihood. Food and how it is produced play a vital role in the global destruction of the environment, social injustice and destroyed local markets.
Distribution of food around the world is not equal. Some people are more affected by this injustice than others, for example poor people, people of colour, people that are suffering from illnesses and so on.
Especially heavily processed food is lacking in nutrition but full of unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar and salt. On the other hand, these kinds of goods are more often than not the cheapest ones available in grocery stores. Therefore, people who have less income are forced to buy unhealthy food which then might end up making them sick.
Consuming too much unhealthy, highly processed food is linked to being a root cause for heart diseases, cancer, diabetes and more. The access to healthy food and enough food to feed everyone needs to be a human right.
The massive water footprint of our food
Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. While most of us drink a few litres of water directly everyday, we indirectly consume 1,500 to 10,000 litres per day, depending where you live and what you eat. For example, a sandwich that you eat may have butter from Spain, cheese from a dairy farm in Switzerland and cucumbers from the Netherlands. So, the water footprint of that sandwich is the grand total of all the resources used by these individual items.
The water footprint of 200 grams of beef is the equivalent to a 47 eight-minute shower. Tea has a lower water footprint than coffee. While a litre of cow’s milk uses up 628 liters of water, plant-based milk options have a lower water footprint. In fact, it only takes 48 liters of water to produce a litre of oat milk.
What happens next?
For the next six months, Eco-Spotlight will cover all things food, and the sustainable solutions gaining roots across the world to produce and consume better. We will be intersecting food with equality, people & planetary justice, the future of consumption, veganism, technology and more. For this, we will talk to experts in the field, farmers, entrepreneurs, artists and more. We will also be dipping into practical ideas like growing your own food and better ways of eating chocolate.
Each week, we will post a new story on the future of food. Let us know your thoughts on all things food and send us a message if there is a specific topic, organisation or person related to the issue that you want us to take a closer look at.
Feature photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash. For the next six months (until March 2022), Eco-Spotlight will be focusing on global solutions around food. Keep an eye out on our Instagram (@ecospotlight) and our website to stay updated.