How Food Production Impacts the Health of the Planet and Those Who Live on It
As food production methods continue to evolve to feed the rapidly growing global population, we face tremendous obstacles that challenge the environment and our health. Balancing the benefits and the consequences of mass food production is a crucial element to successfully navigating the worldwide food landscape of the future. We built the food production industry for scale and efficiency. While we benefit from lower food costs, food availability, and industry jobs, we suffer from the adverse secondary effects that often go unseen and result in human health decline and environmental degradation. Below, we look at some of the biggest challenges of the food production industry today.
The industrial food system was once a much-needed blessing for our planet. We needed a way to generate enough food to feed growing populations, send food to rural communities, and keep food safe for consumption in the harshest of conditions. While we managed to create an industry to solve most of those problems, we overlooked the environmental chaos those food production methods would bring. Today, we face a global environmental crisis, and the industrial food system is a massive part of the problem.
Soil, Water, and Air Pollution
Agriculture and all related industries account for over 10% of employment in the US, making up more than 19 million part-time or full-time jobs. Of the $1 trillion+ US GDP, agriculture accounts for more than $136 billion, with US farmers turning out more than 14 billion bushels of corn in 2020 alone. While we see significant benefits from our agricultural production rates in the country, our soil, water, and air resources are now under fire, seeing a sharp decline in health and availability over the past few decades.
Farm and animal waste runoff contain massive amounts of harmful chemicals that degrade our natural resources in remarkable ways. The various fertilizers used on crops don’t just disappear after we use them – they deposit into the soil or run off with the water, eventually reaching more extensive waterways and fragile ecosystems. Just under 80% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication results from agricultural production. Further, agricultural waters spread bacteria, viruses, and parasites across large areas, surpassing state and even country borders. There are also economic consequences of pollution that stem from large-scale agricultural production. Experts estimate that the annual costs associated with agricultural water pollution are in the billions globally – taking money and resources from places that we could instead use to implement sustainable food production strategies.
When soil sees too many specific chemicals or comes under certain conditions for too long, the structural integrity degrades, leading to massive amounts of erosion and land destruction. When this happens, it’s not only the local land that sees consequences. Eroded soil takes the healthy and productive topsoils necessary for healthy crop production. It also takes the harmful chemicals deposited over time, leading to eventual water and habitat destruction through chemical pollution. With enough erosion over time, soil resources dwindle to a minimum – requiring massive restoration projects to bring the land back to a productive state. Often, the costs associated with restoration are too much to justify for local governments and investors.
Agricultural food production also negatively impacts air quality – mainly entering the atmosphere through the spread of fertilizer and livestock waste. Nitrogen-based fertilizers produce greenhouse gases, animal waste contributes to methane emissions, and industrial-scale machinery and factory processes have difficult and costly emissions to minimize.
Apart from pollution, food production also depletes our natural resources, making sustainable food production key to successful food strategies moving forward.
Agriculture is the most significant contributor to resource depletion in the food production industry, accounting for approximately 70% of global water withdraws. When aquifers deplete and begin to run low without a recharge, the chemicals from fertilizers and animal waste that seep through the ground start to concentrate in the water. Once the aquifer is low enough and enough chemicals deposit, the water becomes unsafe to use. Contaminated water doesn’t just affect the people who need it, though – it also affects agricultural production. If a farmer tries to grow a crop with water that contains too much nitrogen or phosphorus, the harvest will suffer, resulting in massive yield decreases and unhealthy crops.
Soil is another finite resource that dramatically suffers from mass food production. As mentioned earlier, agricultural production is tough on soils, and once they see enough abuse, they reach a point of limited or no production potential. Tillage, chemical pollution, compaction, and erosion are all factors that degrade a soil’s productivity.
After Production Effects
The environmental impacts from industrial food production are not limited to the adverse effects of the production processes. Transportation of agricultural products, plant or animal, is necessary to reach destinations for consumption or further processing. Modern transportation methods – land, sea, or air – all contribute to the already significant carbon footprint of the food production industry. According to one report, supply chain logistics are responsible for 18% of all food production emissions.
Food waste is another contributor to the environmental degradation that accompanies the food production industry. More than one-third of the food produced worldwide ends up unused one way or another, amounting to trillions of US dollars in waste every year. Sure, food waste contributes to resource depletion, but it also contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions – producing an estimated 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year.
While food production’s impact on environmental health is significant, we must also consider the detrimental effects on humans due to the environmental impact or the nutritional implications of mass production for profit.
Pesticides, Fertilizers, and Other Harmful Chemicals
We discussed earlier how food production processes, particularly agriculture, impact our environment in significant ways. What we didn’t discuss, however, is how those natural factors directly affect the health of humans – after all, we do rely on clean water and other natural resources to survive.
Air and water pollution are among the most prominent natural factors that directly influence human health. Water pollution, particularly in rural areas, can wreak havoc on the health of those who depend on those resources. Mass agricultural production often outputs massive amounts of chemicals, fertilizers, and manures, and animal production facilities put off just as much harmful waste. When water resources are polluted, they often go unnoticed by those using them, especially if they don’t have methods to test the water quality. If used for too long, these chemicals can have detrimental impacts on health – sometimes even causing cancer or death. Nitrogen-based fertilizers are the most common addition to industrial crops. Experts have linked nitrate-contaminated tap water from agricultural land to more than 12,000 cancer cases per year in the US.
Air pollution is another cause for concern in regards to human health. Most agricultural air pollution results from fertilizer and livestock waste – entering the air when spread across agricultural land. Once in the air, the pollutants combine with nitrogen oxides and sulfates, creating tiny solid particles that float. Once someone breaths the particles through their lungs, they can quickly develop pulmonary diseases. One study estimated that at least 3 million deaths occur due to these diseases every year around the globe.
Highly-Processed and Low Nutrient Density Foods
The effect that mass food production processes have on human health is complex and often morally conflicting. Hunger and nutrient deficiencies concentrate among the poorest and most vulnerable communities. Malnutrition and hunger also coexist with disease and obesity, making it tough to develop solutions that satisfy the masses.
Mass food production often turns out food products that are highly processed and have low nutrient densities. Still, many people who consume these foods may not afford more costly alternatives like fresh produce, meat, dairy, and other nutrient-packed foods. With so much room for food producers to profit and capitalize on human health decline, how can we move in a more positive direction? While we’re still developing new food production methods that make food healthier, more affordable, and more available, we still have considerable changes to make before the problems we face are handled.