Today, the agricultural industry looks nothing like it did fifty or one hundred years ago. The changes that have taken place have revolutionized farming and have transformed it into a scientifically manipulated, outsourced process. According to Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, the world’s grain harvest has increased from 630 million tons in 1950 to 2 billion tons in 2008, with the help of science and a growing application of chemical fertilizers.
While each advancement made since the industrial age seems justified in attempting to address growing populations and increasing demands, consequences of the current system are evident in the environment and in human health. If valid, why have such developments contributed to environmental degradation and failed to adequately nourish the world? The current global food system produces enough food to feed the nearly 7 billion people living on the planet. However, World Hunger estimates that about one–sixth or a little over 1 billion people in the world are hungry or undernourished. There is a disconnect here and it is just one of the many mysteries of the current food system.
A significant portion of today’s American diet consists of foods grown or produced in other countries. Shifts in food production have transformed a once local and delicate process into the hands of a few large corporations. Most Americans fail to consider how pineapples, oranges, and asparagus arrive in their local grocery stores in the middle of winter in New England. We have grown complacent, accustomed to the availability of all types of produce regardless of the season.
According to The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, the average piece of produce travels between 1300-2000 miles from farm to consumer. Originally coined in 1995 by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City Univeristy in London, these “food miles” are the distance from producer to consumer, which have increased with the availability of cheap oil. Food miles contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and fail to deliver the freshest food to consumers.
Today’s U.S. food system requires large quantities of energy. It depends on chemicals to grow, produce, package, transport and refrigerate food. All of this results in the release of fossil fuels into the environment and the emission of greenhouse gases. If energy could be expressed in dollar signs, the amount of energy the food industry consumes is approximately as much energy as the entire United Kingdom economy. According to Sustainable Table, producing the chemical fertilizers and pesticides for the farming industry utilizes about 40% of the total energy used in the food system while processing and packaging uses 23%. In Brown’s book Plan B 3.0, he estimates that the transporting of goods, or the food miles, account for 14% of the energy used by the U.S. food system.
Three major greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are prevalent in the agriculture industry. Green House Mitigation in Agriculture, estimates that agriculture accounts for about 52% of global anthropogenic methane emissions and about 84% of nitrous oxide emissions. The burning of fossil fuels, which are used to produce and transport food, releases carbon dioxide. Animal excrement releases methane, and nitrous oxide is released through the production and use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. In the United States, agriculture accounts for 8% of greenhouse gas emission, while global agricultural emissions account for more than 20%. Purchasing chemically treated foods that travel long distances affects our health and the environment.
Despite the dangers associated with today’s food system, there are some alternatives that provide healthier, more environmentally friendly dining options. With iconic manifestos like The Omnivore’s Dilemma from the food czar Michael Pollan and documentaries like FRESH and Food, Inc., eat local is a sensible mantra. Eating food grown organically and locally can benefit the well being of our bodies and of the planet. Buying food grown locally reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the transportation of food. If the average American family bought food from only local venues, they could reduce their household GHG emissions up to 5%. As Pollan will tell you along with other fellow foodies like Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, eliminating meat consumption one day each week would have about the same effect.
Locally grown foods are also fresher because they do not have to travel as far as food bought in supermarkets. Some fruits, such as grapes, travel 5,000 miles or more in the winter to reach our local supermarkets. Locally grown products may be more expensive, but the money stimulates the local economy and supports farmers in the community.
The sustainability of the food system requires a shift in eating habits. How will you shift yours?