Our Unsustainable Food System

Heya Desai
7 min readAug 23, 2021

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A couple months ago I looked a bit deeper into the food system, here is an unedited deep dive into the global problem 🌎

Never did I think that a summative for a Food & Nutrition course where I had to cook and analyze a 3 course meal would lead me to evaluating the effects of the 1.25 million kilograms of manure produced by a herd of cows annually. But through the process, I realized that the Greek Milopita I made for the dessert portion, does more damage than just add excess sugar to your bloodstream.

Over half of the habitable land on our earth is being used for agriculture, it’s crazy to think about. The expansion of agriculture is considered to be one of humanity’s greatest impacts on the environment and I’ve learned that unfortunately, most if not all of us humans are actively contributing to these issues everyday.

What I have found that there is a misalignment in which steps of the food system are contributing most to this issue as well as misinterpretations in terms of the most effective solutions.

Something valuable to understand is that there are key differences in various countries’ food emissions and how they contribute to the total emissions. There is a n evident rich-poor country divide as high-income countries generally have service-based economies and energy-intensive industries whereas lower-income countries generally have agricultural-based economies.

In reality, food accounts for more than 80% of emissions in the countries across Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. What this tells us is that the consequences of this problem are also disproportionate and that there may not be one scalable solution that can resolve the issue across the world.

To begin, the food system is a several step structure beginning with the inputs and ending with the outputs, and it emcompasses everything from how the food is produced to how it is consumed. Every step is critical to recognize and has varying impacts on our lives and the environment. As the activities in each of the steps are tied to the use of natural resources and are essentially dependent on them, the harm on our environment is severe and some of the potential risks are truly devastating. Likewise, they include the economics and governance of food production, the sustainability of the processes, the extent to which we waste food as a society, how production affects the natural environment and the impact of food itself on both population and individual health. Hence, if we think about the implications of fixing the food system, we would be coming closer to tackling some of the world’s biggest problems including climate change, the water crisis, pollution, protecting our wildlife and restoring lands back to natural ecosystems, among more.

Currently, our food system is believed to be “out of balance”. Most of the foods we consume as a region, province and even a country is grown and distributed from outside of our locality. But even before we consider this, the impacts of our food system begins prior to food production.

Habitat loss is one of the leading causes of wildlife species population decline and when land is cleared for agriculture by destroying natural habitats and ecosystems, this deforestation occurs, further contributing to climate change as well.

Moreover, the next area of the food system is farm inputs. These are resources including land, soil, fertilizer, animal feed, energy, equipment and labor are all vital and fundamental for food production. The changes in the availability and the cost of farm inputs play a huge role in how much food is produced itself and the substantiality of the farm. Furthermore, similar to the last step, the use of resources such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides is extremely damaging to our environment and not sustainable. They are chemicals that can be toxic to organisms when exposed to large concentrations, and the excessive spraying of these chemicals results in them becoming air pollutants. Eventually through different processes, the chemicals move from the food production site to polluting waterways, soils and several other ecosystems. Through a process called bio-accumulation these toxic chemicals are released in natural ecosystems and the concentration builds up in organisms’ bodies to toxic and fatal levels.

Next is food production, 94% of mammal biomass is livestock, and what’s further intensifying this issue is agricultural intensification which is done through the use of chemical fertilizers, irrigation and pesticides, and the impact doesn’t stop at the harming of soils and water bodies, the cost of food production has risen as well since more resources are being strained and more energy is required. With regards to how the soil itself is harmed, they have lost organic matter and become hard and saline. Once again, the production of livestock contributes to climate change. For instance, when cows eat plants, their digestive tracts produce methane gas which is a greenhouse gas and is excreted as a gaseous waste. Furthermore, the waste a herd produces can amount to over 1.25 million kilograms of manure in a year which can be used as a natural fertilizer in small amounts but this great quantity solely creates and provokes air, water and land pollution. Another broad impact that we might take for granted now is how much water livestock animals require and utilize. Water use is also essential for crop irrigation overall food production is very demanding on our water sources. As climate change continues to worsen drought conditions, conserving water will become more and more important as time passes.

Going plant-based or becoming vegan are not new concepts, in 2020 the veganism lifestyle has hit an all time high. There are several science based benefits that contribute to the decision of many to go vegan including the diet being richer in certain nutrients, the link to the lower risk of heart disease, improvement in kidney function, assistance in weight loss and more. Additionally, from an ecological perspective, plant-based foods create a smaller footprint than animal-based foods. When the statistics are scaled, the difference is significant, as lamb and cheese products both emit more than 20 kilograms CO2 equivalents, respectively.

The following steps are food processing and distribution, this is everything that happens after the food is produced until it reaches our local grocery stores. Individuals working in the industry use large equipment to harvest and process the crops and from there through various channels of distribution they are transported to stores where they can be purchased by the consumers. At these stages, there are effects not only on the environment but workers in the global economy. Food crops are often produced and processed by people working minimum wage, in insubstantial conditions that negatively affect their wellbeing and with very few rights. Moreover, when these crops are transported to wealthier or other nations, the abundant use of fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases, accelerating the impact on our ecological footprint.

When it comes to processing foods, the problem is threefold. Firstly, it contributes more waste and energy consumption to the food system, the quality of the food products are reduced and finally some ingredients that are added are both unhealthy and some should not be indigested at all. Processed foods, unlike fresh produce for instance require individual packaging too and materials like plastic, aluminum and cardboard are ones that contribute to the environmental decline.

The last step is the outputs, or in other words, food waste. Food waste can be in the form of uneaten food, food scraps or discarded food from the beginning to the end of this chain, ⅓ (1.3 billion tons) of food produced globally is wasted each year.

Until recently, I was under the impression that eating locally produced food was an effective solution. However, transport is actually a small contributor to the 26% of GHG emissions caused by the food system. Transport accounts for less than 10% and a very small portion of our food is flown, the percentage being 0.02%, hence the benefits of eating local may not be as large as they are perceived to be. We can take the example of beef and think about how it is not the location that it’s purchased from that makes the carbon footprint from, but in reality it’s that the product contains beef. To put this in perspective, transport accounts for less than 1% of beef’s GHG emissions. Yet, this doesn’t mean we should overlook the impact of the transportation of food as transporting food by air emits approximately 50 times more GHG than transporting the same amount of food by sea.

Nevertheless, a feasible solution is cellular agriculture, and although I have not done a focus for this biotechnology, I understand that it is currently leading the shift towards eco-friendly manufacturing and agricultural processes. It’s an extremely widespread problem, but regardless we all need to start somewhere even if it’s small.

An immediate start to solving this problem that comes to my mind is leveraging this biotechnology and for us TKS students, the frameworks and resources we are being provided. Solving this problem is not limited to just the cellular agriculture focus, instead even with the metaheuristic of quantum annealing, we can work towards solving the protein folding problem, or we can use something unexpected like virtual reality to raise awareness by creating simulations.

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