Calculations made by the Ecological Footprint, a way of measuring and quantifying sustainability, indicates that humans are currently using the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources they consume. (Tom Beer, Jianping Li, Keith Alverson-2018). If humanity continues on this projected path, we will begin see devastating and irreversible changes to our planet; the luxury of time is no longer on our side to address these issues of consumption. Sustainability, the “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” (Brundtland Commission- 1987) is key if we are to improve our environment and maintain a hospitable planet for future generations to come. The environmental toll that modern food production and consumption have on our planet is immense but by shifting the way we produce and consume our food we have the ability to reduce these environmental harms.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are any atmospheric gas such as carbon dioxide or methane that at increased levels lead to global warming. Although these gases occur naturally, recent decades have seen elevated levels due to human activities such as food production. Global food production occupies more than a third of our land surface and is identified to be one of the biggest threats to the environment (Hallström, E, Carlsson-Kanyama, A, Börjesson, P. -2015). It is responsible for about 15-28% of all GHG emissions in developed countries and contributes significantly to climate change (Garnett, T. – 2013). These environmental threats can be found throughout all of the stages of food production, starting with agriculture and ending with consumption.
According to the 2015 Global Forest Resources Assessment, deforestation accounts for over 129 million hectares of forest lost, much of which was driven by agricultural commodity production. Although deforestation, the thinning of forests for human use, has decreased, it’s global toll has been immense over the last 30 years. This “thinning” does not go without consequence, as we tear down our forests to make room for agriculture, we increase our carbon dioxide output. Crops and marginal lands tend to hold less carbon per area unit than forests causing this increase of GHG emissions (R. Betts- 2000). The more we consume, the more land we need for agriculture. So many of the consumption choices we make are powered by this cycle of deforestation, but by altering these choices we can better combat the environmental issues that we face.
Although deforestation creates a plethora of environmental impacts it is not the sole proprietor. livestock production also contributes and as our population grows so does the number of animals being processed. Industrial livestock production, also known as factory farming, is the most widespread type of farming in the US and with this mass production of increased livestock comes soil pollution and run off. Large quantities of manure that is high in methane, especially when in liquid form, and increased density of animal containment, creates these harmful effects. Livestock waste also produces high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous that through surface runoff causes the eutrophication and ecological breakdown of surface waters creating negative impacts on it’s quality (E.Tullo, A. Finzi, M. Guarino- 2018).
The effects of these energy-intensive factory farms on global emissions by gas should also be considered. Livestock production uses an immense amount of energy, energy in the form of MJ (megajoules) and in developed countries this processing requires approximately 10 MJ of fossil-fuel energy (Tom, Beer, Jianping Li, Keith Alverson-2018). Fossil fuel use is the primary source of carbon dioxide and with our rapidly growing population and increase in food production our carbon dioxide output will only rise. It has been noted that from 1900 to 2010 we have seen global carbon emissions from fossil fuels climb from 1,000mt to a staggering 10,000mt (Boden, T.A, Marland, G, Andres, R.J. -2017). The energy returned from energy retained by fossil fuel production is on the decline which means that we will eventually exceed what is available. Making environmentally friendly choices about the foods we eat affects how much land and energy we use. When given the choice, we must choose a diet that our planet can benefit from.
With food productions considerable impact on environmental pollution, a shift in dietary consumption patterns becomes necessary as it has the potential to reduce these harmful environmental impacts. A systemic review that looked at various diets concluded that dietary change has the potential to reduce GHG emissions and land use demands by up to 50%. The study that reviewed these various diets showed that a vegan diet had the potential to reduce the largest amount of GHG emissions and concluded that the amount and type of meat in a diet also affects the GHG improvement potential (Hallström, E., Carlsson-Kanyama, A., & Börjesson, P. -2015). Numerous assessments of food commodities also found that meat and dairy products carry the largest environmental burden and with our rapidly growing population, that number is set to rise (Garnett, T. -2013).
A typical American who consumes meat contributes one and a half tons more carbon dioxide to the environment than any non meat eater does (Tullo E., Finzi., A., & Guarino, M. -2019). According to the United States Enviornmental Protection Acengy, cattle, that produce a significant amount of methane from their waste and wind, warms the planet 20 times faster than carbon dioxide which represents almost one third of GHG emissions in the agriculture sector. The more beef and dairy we consume, the higher those numbers will go up. 1 Kg of meat from a cow contributes 34.6kg of carbon dioxide while 1 kg of meat from a chicken contributes 4.57kg of carbon dioxine which goes to show that the meat we eat matters. While some have questioned the effectiveness of sustainable eating due to the lack of diverse range of plant based food in low income or developing countries, it does not mean that those of us that are able to make the change shouldn’t.
If a change is not made in the direction of sustainable food production and eating, humanity is left to face with environmental impacts that threatens our livelihood. As previously mentioned, the livestock emissions from the production of our food result in elevated levels of carbon dioxide and the increase of these carbon emissions creates climate change that affects us and our environment, change that we have already begun to see. Over the last three decades, the earths surface has successfully become warmer than any proceeding decade and carbon dioxide level have gone up by 40% (Tom Beer, Jianping Li, Keith Alverson- 2018). We are altering earths climate system and as a result, we are left with devastating consequences.
Our oceans that play a significant role in regulating climate, make up 71% of our planet and the effects that global warming consequences have on our oceans is profound. We have already begun to see melting glaciers, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and increased ocean temperatures that significantly impact marine life (Hoegh-Guldberg, O., & Bruno, J. F. -2010). Our waters absorb upwards of a third of our carbon dioxide output and as surface temperatures rise, glaciers and the thawing of permafrost warm our oceans. This thawing causes a risem in sea levels that increases our oceans’ acidity. Should our global emissions stay on their projected path, we will face grave consequences. It is projected that by year 2100 18% of all coral reefs will die out due to increased acidification, ocean pH levels will be at an all time low of 0.5 pH unit causing a large amount of marine life die out, and permafrost will continue to emit carbon dioxide into our atmosphere (Tom Beer, Jianping Li, Keith Alverson-2018).
Equally as concerning, global warming also contribute to extreme weather events such as, wildfires, flooding, and hurricanes (Tom Beer, Jianping Li, Keith Alverson- 2018). while hurricanes are projected to be less frequent, they are predicted to be more powerful, creating more damage. According to a study recently publish in the journal Science, the amount of lightning strikes within the US is expected to rise 50% by 2100 if global temperatures continue to increase. Equally as concerning was year 2004 where we endured 5 land-falling hurricanes who’s damages totaled USD 42 billion (Van Aalst, M. K. -2006). With all of these effects of climate change, we are on a path of increased death rates of both humans and wildlife. Increased heat in areas causing heatstroke’s, wildfires, and increased air pollution will continue to take lives if nothing is done to stop it.
The environmental toll that modern food production and consumption have on our environment is profound. We are currently painting a picture of unsustainable production that ends poorly for our planet and the human race. Author Robert Swan put it best when he said, “the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”. We no longer have the time to push this off onto the next generation, the time to make a change is now. Climate change promises a frighting future but by shifting the way that we produce and consume food, we have to ability to avoid many of the consequences we face.
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