Feeding the future
Lewis Charters examines how industrialised agriculture is affecting the planet – and our food security
Since the dawn of the agricultural revolution around 12,000 years ago, humans have relied upon the domestication of a relatively small number of species to sustain ourselves. As a result, the amount of livestock kept by humans has increased exponentially, and people and livestock currently account for around 96% of mammalian biomass on the planet; domestic poultry, meanwhile, accounts for nearly 70% of the entire bird population – only 30% are still considered wild.
The domestication of these plants and animals have allowed human populations to grow. As humans produced more food, we bore more children – and so more land had to be converted in order to feed these extra mouths. Our ancestors set in motion a series of events that affect us to this day.
The cost of success
“We are divorced from the impacts that our food systems have on the natural world”
The industrialisation of agriculture has undoubtedly enabled humans to become the most successful species on the planet. However, it has also contributed to many of the planet’s biggest sustainability challenges. For instance, rising demand for agricultural commodities such as beef, soya, palm oil, timber, leather, coffee and rubber are causing unprecedented levels of deforestation across the tropics – and the effects of deforestation are more widespread and far reaching than the initial clearance of the tropical forest itself.
The clearance and fragmentation of tropical forests from South America to Africa and south-east Asia is leading to greater human-wildlife conflict, poaching and illegal logging. Deforestation is also a major cause of food insecurity in said regions, as forest clearance leads to soil degradation and interferes with the gaseous exchanges that occur between land and atmosphere. These problems contribute to drought, flooding and variable rainfall patterns, which can lead to crop failures. The release of carbon dioxide also exacerbates climate change.
People have never been so disconnected from how and where their food is produced. We are divorced from the catastrophic impacts that our food systems have on the natural world. In addition, our over-reliance on certain monocultures may be putting our global supply chains at greater risk from pests, diseases and future climate change. Despite representing 0.01% of all living things, humanity has caused the decline of up to 83% of the planet’s wild mammals, and up to 50% of plants.
People ask: ‘how we are going to feed the world’s growing population, given that there are predicted to be nine billion of us by 2050?’ For many, the answer is simple: produce more food. However, perhaps we should first focus on addressing the inequalities within the food system, such as unequal distribution of food between global north and south, the over-consumption of resource-intensive foods like meat and dairy, and the vast amounts of food waste that we produce every year.
This is where the IEMA Futures generation comes in; we must usher in a new era of sustainable agriculture. New and innovative ways of thinking have never been so important. Sustainability professionals around the world are helping to tackle many of the problems within the agricultural sector, from government policy to business supply chains and civil society. The time has come to rethink how we produce and consume our food, in order to ensure harmony between our pursuit of greater food security and the preservation of the natural world.
Lewis Charters is a member of IEMA Futures, and is studying for an MSc in climate change and environmental policy at the University of Leeds.
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