What’s wrong with our current food system?
“Worried about biodiversity loss? Focus on food.
Worried about freshwater supply and quality? Focus on food.
Worried about deforestation? Focus on food.
Worried about overfishing? Focus on food
Worried about climate change? Focus on energy and food.”
– Richard Waite, World Resources Institute
Many of the most pressing sustainability issues today are directly linked to the food system.
To begin with, food production is the number one cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss, freshwater pollution and soil degradation globally. Second to the fuel industry, it is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases as well, largely due to intensive farming practices.
The food system is unique in that it generates prodigious amounts of all three main greenhouse gases, including CO2, methane and nitrous oxide – an unholy trinity fuelling planetary warming.
As Henry Dimbleby notes in his book Ravenous: How to Get Ourselves and The Planet Into Shape, the food system’s degradation of the environment is a vicious cycle:
“Environmental disruption – particularly climate change – is the single biggest threat to our current food system. And yet our food system is the single biggest cause of environmental disruption.”
In other words, we devour the planet to feed ourselves, which in turn, undermines our ability to feed ourselves. Sound illogical? That’s because it is.
The global food system is…
Agricultural expansion is the driving factor behind almost 90% cent of global deforestation, with devastating effects on the planet and it’s species.
The widespread clearance of forests has a twofold effect; firstly, it decimates the species native to these ecosystems and secondly, it releases the carbon sequestered by trees, not to mention the fact it prevents them from mopping up carbon emissions in the future.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, agriculture and land use are responsible for almost 60% of biodiversity loss and around 30% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.
And it’s not just life above ground that’s threatened, either. Intensive farming practices and overgrazing are fuelling soil degradation worldwide, minimising the biodiversity contained within the earth. As we now know, this is essential to crop productivity.
Soil degradation represents one of the biggest threats to food security, increasing the risk of failed harvests, floods, landslides, and desertification. Let it be remembered that the Dust Bowl in America was largely caused by poor agricultural practices that triggered soil erosion.
To clarify, this isn’t just an issue confined to the distant future. Already, more than half of all soils globally are classified as degraded, with forecasts by the United Nations saying 90% of the world’s precious topsoil is likely to be at risk by 2050. Considering it takes up to 1000 years to generate 3cm of topsoil, we simply can’t afford to continue at this current rate.
With the population expected to rise to 9.7 billion people by 2050, the food system will need to adapt quickly to ensure food security. At present, however, our land use is wildly inefficient. For example, meat and dairy production alone use 83% of the world’s agricultural land, despite producing only 18% of calories consumed.
Inefficiencies in the food system also result in appalling amounts of waste, all of which have a very real human impact. Whilst we produce more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet, 8.9% of the global population is undernourished and 828 million go hungry.
That’s because one-third of food produced globally never gets eaten, equating to one billion tonnes of waste each year – enough resources to feed the world’s starving population twice over.
And this isn’t just occurring in restaurants and households, either; around 14% of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, never even making it to a supermarket shelf. Poor refrigeration and logistical shortcomings play a large part in this waste.
All that uneaten food has an environmental impact too, accounting for 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide behind China and the United States.
It might seem like we have more choice than ever when it comes to food, but in truth, our food system is growing increasingly homogenous.
75% of the world’s food now comes from just 12 plants and five animal species; and just three plants– wheat, maize and rice – supply over 50%. Even within species, genetic diversity is vanishing.
Just one variety of cow, the Holstein Friesian, makes up about 90% of cow livestock on average, with that number climbing to 99% in the dairy industry. Likewise, 96% of bananas on the international market are of the Cavendish variety, one of over a hundred types of bananas. All of our eggs are in one basket.
An over-dependence on a few staple foods leaves the global food system vulnerable to disruptions, be that from war, disease or climate change. Already, Putin’s war in Ukraine has highlighted key weaknesses in global supply chains, whilst the plant virus TR4 continues to threaten the predominant Cavendish banana variety with extinction.
Suffice it to say, the global food system is in a precarious situation.
All of these statistics tell the same story: our current food system is broken, failing both people and the planet, but it can change.
If we act now, we can find ways to ensure food security without accelerating planetary warming, degrading soil health and undermining biodiversity.
Already there is exciting innovation in this space, from precision fermented proteins and lab-grown meat to international projects safeguarding the world’s precious biodiversity.
There’s plenty to be excited about, but we can’t get complacent. Instead, we must put our heads together as an industry to find solutions to the foremost sustainability issues.
Be a part of the solution at Food Matters Live Sustainable Food Week, a new landmark event
Tapping into Food Matters Live’s global network of food professionals, Sustainable Food Week will connect people, technology and research to help reform the global food system.
At the centre of the week will be our Sustainable Food Forum, a landmark event bringing together leading innovators across the sustainability space.
Hosted by Seyi Rhodes and Samira Ahmed, with backing from the WWF and our international partner, ICEX Spain Trade and Investment, the event will explore challenges to a sustainable food future, spotlight green innovation and lay out a roadmap for the industry going forward.
In addition to the Sustainable Food Forum in London, the week will play host to a number of in-person and online events including thought-provoking podcasts, global sustainable food trend panels and culinary demonstrations.
You can also check out the Sustainable Food Digest, a new publication from Food Matters Live exploring tech, innovation and initiatives promoting a sustainable food future. With features from key thought-leaders such as the Plant-Based Alliance, World Wildlife Fund and Sir Jonathon Porritt, there are plenty of key insights to be gleaned.