Producing food to nourish a global population of 7.7 billion is an enormous undertaking, relying on the labor of billions of people and vast financial and environmental resources. The abundance of food options in high-income nations belies the often unsustainable methods that bring these products from farm to table.
In high-income nations like the US, food production is dominated by large industrialized farms linked closely with agribusiness corporations. The methods and materials of industrial agriculture harm environmental health, exploit animals, and harm rural economies. Despite these harms, agribusiness corporations continue to expand industrial agriculture globally with the backing of governments and food companies.
Fortunately, sustainable food production offers an alternative to the harms of industrial farming. Sustainable methods use resources carefully, treat people and animals with respect, incorporate traditional farming knowledge, and focus on long-term environmental health.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION?
Sustainable food production aims to eliminate industrial food production‘s negative impacts by maintaining a high standard of environmental and social responsibility throughout the food supply chain. Sustainable methods maintain and regenerate agroecosystems, avoid toxins that damage human and environmental health, and respect planetary boundaries. Instead of prioritizing profit for agribusiness firms, sustainable farming prioritizes societal wellbeing by fairly compensating food system workers and empowering farming communities.
WHY IS SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION IMPORTANT?
From small family farms to large corporate farms, the global food system is increasingly influenced by the activities of agribusiness corporations and the practices of industrial agriculture.
Hallmarks of industrialized field agriculture—at any scale—include farming of single crops for a commercial market, relying on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to support production, and prioritizing crop yields over ecosystem health. Industrialization of farmed animal production is characterized by producing a single type of animal, keeping animals in confinement, using commercial feed mixtures, and controlling animal health through pharmaceuticals including growth hormones and routine antibiotics.
Conventional industrial farming concentrates wealth and power into the hands of multinational agribusiness corporations, contributing to rural poverty and short-term approaches to natural resource use. Sustainable food production, on the other hand, restructures agriculture to return farm profits and control of production methods to farmers. Sustainable farming methods can prevent or reverse environmental degradation that contributes to disease, hunger, displacement, and conflict. Maintaining the long-term health and productivity of farmland and protecting natural resources, including fresh water and clean air, secures the wellbeing of both rural and urban populations.
THE GLOBAL POTENTIAL OF SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION
A global transition to sustainable food production is critical for achieving the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include goals such as ending poverty and hunger, improving environmental health, and reducing global carbon emissions. Unsustainable global food production—including the production of feed crops to feed industrially farmed animals—currently contributes to climate change, worsening inequality, and damage to the land, water, and air on which human societies depend. Sustainable agriculture has the potential to improve global outcomes on a range of human and environmental concerns related to the SDGs.
Shifting to a sustainable, plant-based food system offers significant benefits for managing climate threats. Agriculture is currently responsible for 26% of the yearly anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that drive global climate change. The production of farmed animals for meat, dairy, and eggs generates 14.5%[i] of total emissions—a share equal to the emissions from global transportation.
Climate change increasingly threatens the future of food production, demanding sustainable solutions. The diverse impacts of changing climates are estimated to have caused a 21% loss in agricultural productivity since 1961, despite the development of advanced synthetic crop inputs and biotechnology to increase crop yields. In areas of the world with vulnerable agrarian populations, the ongoing impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity are likely to increase the societal instability that leads to hunger and migration.
Although commercial activities and personal lifestyles and diets in higher-income nations generate enormous environmental damage and are responsible for the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of climate change will be felt worldwide. Unfortunately, the lower-income countries most ill-equipped to withstand the current and future impacts of climate alteration are also those that have contributed the least to the climate crisis.
Adopting sustainable food production methods is an essential undertaking for every country, but especially important for high-income nations that currently account for the majority of industrial agriculture, including industrial meat production and consumption.
Sustainable food production can improve the economic outlook for farmers and workers throughout global supply chains. A 2018 report by the World Resources Institute found that building low-carbon economies could result in $26 trillion in economic benefits before 2030, with $2.3 trillion provided by sustainable agricultural practices such as protecting intact forests, reforming global agricultural subsidies, and reducing food waste.
Industrial animal agriculture threatens the economic viability of rural communities through high costs to human wellbeing, animal welfare, and environmental health. In countries like the US, smaller-scale farmers that contract with monopoly corporations to raise animals such as chickens can be locked into cycles of debt, which has compelled some to turn toward plant-based agriculture. The plant-based food sector has seen massive growth in recent years and, if properly managed, could contribute to a sustainable agriculture revolution.
Sustainable food production practices can improve soil fertility and lessen erosion; prevent the pollution of water, land, and air; and support biodiversity, all of which are crucial for environmental health and sustained agricultural output.
Industrial agriculture and the production of industrially farmed animals pollute land, water, and air. Excess nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers contributes to the eutrophication of water bodies and the widespread death of marine organisms. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) generate enormous volumes of manure, leading to dangerous air pollution, particularly for adjacent communities.
Additionally, pesticide and herbicide use have increased dramatically around the world since the mid-twentieth century due to promotion by agribusiness corporations, causing immense environmental damage. Glyphosate, a common herbicide in industrial farming, promotes the development of “super-weeds,” caused by changes to soil microflora which can render plants more susceptible to disease and is a probable human carcinogen.
Sustainable agriculture presents solutions for environmental damage by minimizing agrichemical use, prioritizing diverse, plant-based farming, and reducing or eliminating the production of farmed animals.
FOOD SECURITY AND FOOD SOVEREIGNTY
Although the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recognizes that physical and economic access to adequate food is a basic human right, market forces in agriculture can lead to hunger and poverty.
Preserving the quality and productivity of agricultural lands is imperative for improving food security among the world’s most vulnerable populations. Sustainable agricultural approaches, including agroecology, combined with wise use of natural resources, can result in plentiful yields, increased farmer incomes, and improvements to local environments. Stable agriculture can, in turn, contribute to reduced pressure on nearby forest and wild ecosystems, ensuring the continued capacity of these lands to provide ecosystem services such as water purification, habitat for pollinators, and carbon sequestration.
Yet even sustainable agriculture methods can, at times, retain the top-down capitalist approach to food production that contributes to inequality and hunger. The food sovereignty movement champions a bottom-up approach to sustainable food production that prioritizes human and environmental wellbeing. Organizations leading this movement, including La Via Campesina and Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, foreground the concerns of small farmers, migrant workers, and Indigenous peoples. These activists are working to re-localize food systems, fairly compensate farmers and farmworkers, reject the privatization and commodification of food, and align production practices with nature for the benefit of all.
Sustainable food production policies and practices that conserve resources and mitigate the impacts of climate change are among the most important and viable means of stabilizing societies worldwide.
When conventional agriculture leaves lasting damage to local natural resources, or when food production capacity in vulnerable areas is used to produce export crops rather than to feed domestic populations, food insecurity can lead to conflict and political uprising. Food insecure people may have little choice but to emigrate in search of greater opportunity, as evidenced by the net out-migration of farmers and rural people from Central American nations impacted in part by US agricultural and trade policy.
Compared to industrial agriculture, sustainable farming can contribute to improving food security while also enhancing environmental health. Sustainable agriculture that conserves and protects ecosystem services has been found to increase crop yields for farmers in low- and middle-income nations by an average of 79% while improving ecological health and reducing pesticide use.
Under President Obama, the US pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to Central American countries to address the conditions that give rise to migration. Unfortunately, the funds were not allocated toward environmental sustainability, although roughly one-third of people employed in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras make their living in agriculture. The Trump administration later cut funding for many projects in Central America related to climate change and food insecurity, intensifying the combined social, political, and environmental pressures destabilizing local communities.
Sustainable farming with wise use of water resources is critical for safeguarding agricultural productivity against the effects of climate change. Agriculture is the largest user of water resources worldwide, and water use for food production is expected to increase by as much as 50% by 2100. Additionally, many global rivers and other freshwater sources are being used unsustainably in ways that may lead to an environmental collapse in freshwater systems.
The vulnerability of agriculture to changing water availability is particularly visible in semi-arid regions of the world, where agricultural lands that have traditionally been rain-fed are facing a drought-prone future. One report estimated that sustainable approaches to irrigation worldwide could provide an additional 840 million people with food while conserving critical water resources.
Practical solutions for water scarcity in a future marked by climate change will require collaboration between the disciplines of agriculture, climate mitigation, and poverty alleviation. Lower-income populations are at the most significant risk of displacement due to drought-induced disruption of agriculture. Competition over increasingly scarce water resources will intensify the dangers of unsustainable agriculture and heavy urban development in arid regions such as the US Southwest and the Mexican Northwest.
EXAMPLES OF SUSTAINABLE FOOD
Across the board, plant-based foods require fewer natural resources to produce than animal-source foods, making plant-based foods inherently more environmentally sustainable. Plant-based foods that are minimally processed—including legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—also generate fewer environmental impacts than processed plant-based foods because the processing involves additional greenhouse gas emissions and environmentally harmful packaging materials.
Food labels can provide additional information regarding sustainability. For example, in the US, the USDA Organic label indicates that foods have been grown using minimally impactful farming practices, in accordance with organic standards that prohibit the use of synthetic agrichemicals. However, many competing sustainable claims and eco-labels exist, and not all labeling systems provide complete transparency or verifiable benefits.
BARRIERS TO SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION
Despite the proven benefits of sustainable agriculture approaches, industrial food production models are still considered conventional in many high-income nations. In the US, conventional industrial agriculture receives the majority of public financial assistance, crop insurance, and private bank loans, even though it prioritizes short-term economic gains for agribusiness at the expense of ecosystem health and farmers’ wellbeing. Public subsidies to industrial livestock and commodity crop producers have long incentivized unsustainable practices such as extreme confinement of animals, monocropping of soy and corn, and the application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Transitioning conventional farming to new crops and more sustainable methods requires adopting a new agricultural paradigm based on environmental, animal, and societal benefit. Incorporating traditional and Indigenous farming knowledge can further enhance sustainability and resilience. Yet, this knowledge is often overlooked in favor of sustainability promises made by the same agribusiness interests whose actions intensify the harms of industrial agriculture.
Many farmers also face stark financial barriers to transitioning their farms or animal production facilities to more sustainable alternatives. Farmers face restrictive production contracts with agribusiness companies and loans and equipment investments tied to current contracts. Farmers who do consider changing crops or farming methods face difficulty getting loans for unconventional crops, finding buyers in new supply chains, and securing insurance against harvest losses or weather events. Risk-averse farmers are understandably hesitant about change in the face of high transition costs and potential loss of stability. Yet, one study in the US South found that farm transition reluctance was based, in part, on a lack of information about transition opportunities and poor design of government efforts to encourage and support farmers to make the transition.
WHAT CAN ADVOCATES DO?
Many governments—including the US—have yet to implement sufficient economic incentives to support the proliferation of sustainable food production processes. Improvements to food policy could usher in a new era for the US food system and the global food system. Instead of financially supporting industrial agriculture with publicly funded research and development, crop insurance, agricultural extension personnel, and commodity crop payouts, more sustainable agricultural policy could incentivize crop diversity, cover cropping, and integrated pest management.
For those who have access to them, purchasing sustainable foods that are produced using alternatives to industrial methods helps to strengthen the supply chains for alternative foods. Sustainable food can often be found at farmers’ markets, locally-owned grocery stores, or through community-supported agriculture programs. In institutional settings such as workplace cafeterias, schools, hospitals, and eldercare facilities, purchasing initiatives focusing on local, sustainable foods can help to raise the profile of sustainable agriculture within local economies and lead to improvements in the public support services offered to farmers interested in sustainable agriculture.
With global poverty and hunger rates continuing to climb and the climate crisis looming ever larger, a large-scale movement toward sustainable food production is more important now than ever before. Conventional agricultural practices must be replaced by practices that work with nature, not against it, to protect long-term farm productivity and improve human and animal wellbeing.
[i] This figure includes emissions from the production of animal feed crops, and emissions related to land use change for the production of animals and their feed.
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