by Tilly Bray and Prof Rob Thomas (update Feb 2023)
The Human race has more than tripled in the last 25 years and with increased population comes a greater demand for food. In six of the last eleven years we have consumed more food than was produced calling for the urgent expansion of agriculture. Virtually all of the productive land globally is being exploited by agriculture with nearly half of this land is cultivated for meat production, plants grown for animals or waste storage.
This precious land is often exploited ineffectively to make meat leading to multiple negative outcomes including contamination and over extraction of water supplies, soil erosion and in an attempt to meet demand, mass scale deforestation. This, coupled with increased contributions to greenhouse gas from livestock and industry, is accelerating the effects on global warming and subsequent climate change leading to flash floods, droughts, damaged habitats and dessert formation. In the UK, damage to our environment is already costing an extra £2.3 billion a year. South Africa is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years causing harvests to fail and food stockpiles to disappear. In Kenya it has become 4 times more common for periods of devastating drought to occur since records began.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agree that we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 80% by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Unfortunately, the reverse trend is happening, the World is forecast to increase emissions and exceed the safe maximum carbon equivalent of green house gas emissions by 565 gigatonnes by 2030. This is not helped by the fact that as emerging countries get richer they start to consume more meat and dairy. Academic organisations estimate that livestock production is responsible for 15-50% per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, short-term scientific innovations in farming technology that are trying to feed the increasing human population with high yield crops may be contributing to long-term serious environmental damage. This article discusses the consequences of the global rush for cheap food to feed its ever-increasing population:
The revolution in industrial farming, although producing more food per acre, is devastating less efficient subsistence farming communities especially in low-income countries that are lacking in arable land for a stable economy. New crop varieties usually require specific pesticide and fertiliser use, often bought from the same company who supply the grains. Notwithstanding the effect on the environment, this is putting financial pressures on smaller farmers to buy expensive pesticides and fertilisers, leading to debt. So as pesticide and land prices increase, subsistence farmers, unable to compete, sell-out to the corporate farms. Although corporate farms initially offer alternative employment to the dwindling numbers of subsistence farmers, this is short lived as most often workers are then replaced by computer operated machinery, resulting in a mass unemployment and poverty. Governments are struggling to protect their local farmers in the face of a strong competition for food and space especially, as with so much money at stake, backhanded deals and corruption is commonplace. It is well documented that a combination of corruption, poverty, unemployment, and political marginalisation is a perfect storm for social unrest and riot. On top of this, globalisation of the media means that even poverty stricken, unemployed and hungry farmers sitting in squalid bar in the depths of Africa can watch, with probably resentment, affluent, well fed, teenagers jumping into swimming pools in California on the Disney channel. It’s no wonder that recruitment for war and terrorism continues.
India, a country with the fastest growing population in the world, (17 million increase per year) was forecast to benefit massively from the green revolution and therefore invested much of its economy into high input farming. However, after decades of intensive agriculture and drainage of water supplies, this has lead to a dependence on imported food since 2006, as they are no longer self-sufficient and now depend on the importation of 6 million tones of wheat per year. Small-scale farmers have to dig lower wells to irrigate their crops. This comes at a price through the increased costs of labour to dig the wells. Water from a lower level has increased salinity makes it less beneficial to crops. In India, the water table has dropped by 1m per year. Over 1 million people now do not have access to safe water and water consumption is predicted to double each year. Furthermore, the increasing taste for meat in India is exacerbating the problem, as animals require more water to be raised. Researchers estimate that water consumption per day in India for humans is about 5.2 billion gallons in comparison to 45 billion gallons for livestock.
As the population expands, an estimated one acre of land will be lost for every person added to the US population to maintain dietary standards. This is resulting in enormous pressure to find new farming land by deforestation. In 2013 the rainforest was being cut down at an acre per second and already 91% of the Brazils Amazon rainforest had been destroyed. 136 million acres of the rainforest destruction has been a direct result of livestock farming and feed crops.
Reduction in biodiversity
Free living animals, 10,000 years ago, made up 98% of biomass on the planet and humans made up 2%. In 2013 the ratio reversed. Wild free-living animals became 2% of the planet’s biomass, the remainder is humans and livestock owned by humans, used in food production. This has lead to a dramatic decrease in biodiversity and extinction of many species, which will never return.
In an attempt to reduce the global emissions and environmental damage from meat production, intensive farming methods reduce the animal’s lifespan and hence carbon footprint. This includes giving animals genetically modified supercharged feed with a high protein content to enhance muscular development. This coupled with antibiotics to prevent sickness and close confinement to reduce heat loss and extend the breeding season. This combination concentrates the time to full growth in as short a period as possible, in turn reducing the emissions. Many would argue this is cruel to animal and this level of science and intensity adds a further gap between industrial farms and subsistence farmers.
What can we do to help avert catastrophe?
Eat less meat
In 2015 the consumption of crops by human per day on average was 21 billion pounds in comparison to the per day consumption by livestock which was 135 billion pounds. Grain would go much further if they were eaten directly rather than by livestock. Livestock or livestock feed now occupy a 1/3 of the earth’s ice- free land and demand is growing. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, nitrogen flooded dead zones in our oceans and habitat destruction. Notwithstanding the devastating effect meat production is having on our environment, excess meat intake is a major contributor to human disease. In 2010, a study carried out by Oxford University’s department of public health found that eating meat no more than three times a week could prevent 31,000 deaths from heart disease, 9,000 deaths from cancer and 5,000 deaths from stroke a year. The World Cancer Research Fund conclude that if we all limit red meat and avoid processed meat, this could save the NHS £1.2 billion in costs each year. In agreement, the former chief scientific officer Sir Liam Donaldson has said that reducing the UK’s consumption of animal products by 30 per cent, by 2030 would prevent 18,000 premature deaths every year. We can make an effort to either stop eating meat or reduce to 2-3 times a week. Choosing quality over quantity with emphasis on grass fed, organic or traditional, preferably local farms.
Make ethically consciences food choices and habits
Although it’s easy to point a finger of responsibility at governments and global industry, we can all make a small contribution. We, as consumers can, collectively influence food production, as supermarkets would adapt quickly to market forces in order to compete with their rivals. We can choose to buy less meat and particularly avoid cheap processed meat products, buy more organic foods, produce from local farms, fish from sustainable fishing practices and buy funny shaped fruit and vegetables as these are often thrown away. Time allowing, keep a vegetable patch or an allotment or on a smaller scale even grow herbs in pots on the windowsill. Keep a lawn and condemn the practice of replacing lawns with concrete or artificial grass.
Avoid food waste
The United Nation researchers have estimated that the amount of food waste produced globally each year would feed nearly 1 billion hungry people in emerging countries. Although clearly impractical to send buffet left-overs to Ethiopia but there are several measures we could all to avoid waste and in time this will filter back to less over production. For example, before you shop check your fridge from what is left last week’s shop and write a list of all the items you need and know will be eaten. In the supermarket, check the use by dates to make sure you are able to use them in time. Take a cool bag so you can keep your chilled foods cooler on the journey home, the put them in the fridge immediately, this will extend the storage time. Think of buying fresh produce in smaller quantities more often so you can enjoy it at its best. Don’t be tempted in the 3 or 2 offers as these often mean you waste one. When storing food put any food at the back of the cupboard or fridge that needs used up first, to the front. Fruit and veg packaging has been designed to help it stay at it’s best for longer, so don’t take the packaging off until you’re ready to eat the food. Once opened, food like cheese will keep better if they’re well wrapped by re-closing the pack, wrapping in cling film or foil, or putting it in an airtight container. When cooking try measure appropriately for the number of people eating. Cooking too little is better than cooking too much both to reduce waste and reduce the waist! Once or twice a week consider dished to make the most of your left over such as stews, soups and curries that could even be frozen for a later date.
Chose more organic foods
Although it is not feasible to buy all foods organically, trying to buy much as possible will certainly help the environment. Organic agriculture involves avoiding use of genetically modified plants, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, instead use holistic methods weed control and deterring crop disease such as long crop rotations, using predator insects or insect traps all of which providing habitat variety which supports more biodiversity. This practice also does not contribute to fossil fuels in the making of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. These techniques store more carbon in permanent grassland and recycle nutrients. Livestock tend to be are free from malnutrition, physical and psychological discomfort, disease and unnecessary restriction in behaviour. – read more about the benefits of organic food
Spread the word
We can all do our little bit and spread the word among friend and family. The more politically active could even spread the word on social media and even lobby their local MP.
What can governments do to help?
Despite the environmental and health risks of meat production and consumption there has been little or no co-ordinated efforts from government bodies to educate the population about reducing intake. With ever increasing evidence and support from organisations such as the United Nations and Word Cancer Research Fund it’s time government stood up to the meat industry and put a clear message out to the population by banning meat adverts, highlighting the issue in their own websites and literature, educating children in schools and leading by example by increasing cheaper non-meat options in schools and government departments.
Invest in science
The damage already done to our ecosystem provides a strong argument that man would be unlikely to survive without some well designed scientifically modified crops. One advantage for some modified crops is their increased resilience allows then to be grown in areas affected by climate change. For example, in Sub- Saharan Africa, only 20% of the potential yields are being exploited and genetically modified crops, requiring less water, have been known to cause a 50% increase in yields. On the other hand, as mentioned above, modified crops are expensive for local farmers but government subsidies could help iron out inequalities. Opponents also point out that contamination of surrounding plants increase the likelihood of creation of mutated hybrid weeds. Friends of the Earth strongly oppose genetically modified crops they may lead to cross-pollination between other neighbouring organisms and affect the lifecycle of insects, which pollinate the crops. Similarly pests can develop immunities to the herbicides causing unwanted species of pests to emerge and further affect the symbiosis of ecosystems. Nevertheless the evolutional advantage mankind has over its ancestors, is its intellect, which hopefully can be used to safely save itself.
Promote equitable food distribution
In 2016, 900 million people are hungry worldwide yet half of the western World are obese or over weight. The United Nations has called for governments to maintain larger food reserves, to keep prices level in times of crop failure. Simply giving food to poorer countries, unless in emerge situation, is not the solution as it undermines local farmers. Governments need to work together to make meat more expensive and plant based foods cheaper in the west. Likewise in poor countries giving support and subsidies to local sustainable farms would restore communities, self esteem and help avert poverty.
Current food production methods are driving the globe into environmental and population jeopardy. Urgent, cross boarder collaborative intervention; national education programmes and changes in individual responsible shopping and eating habits are urgently required to avert disaster.
Our previous blogs and links:
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- How good bacteria help our gut and general health
- How topical polyphenol rich oils protect out nails
- 6 ways sleep can fight cancer – tips to improve sleep patterns
- What makes coffee so healthy
- How polyphenols protect you from diabetes
- How polyphenols protect you from cancer
- High dose Vitamin C – the evidence reviewed
- Cycling and prostate cancer
- Cooking with Buckwheat
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