Environmental Impact of Our Food System
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
KIN’s food sustainability curriculum discusses our food system and its impact on climate change and the environment. Food, water, and energy form this “nexus” of sustainable development, and are strongly interlinked as food production requires both energy and water. As the demand for all three is predicted to increase with population growth, these resources will need to be preserved. One of the greatest challenges we face is ensuring that future generations will have access to a nutritious diet in a sustainable way. Our intention with KIN is to educate youth on these linkages so they are conscious of how they can each make a difference for themselves and everyone around them!
So what are the environmental impacts of food production?
Food accounts for over a quarter (26%) of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe)
Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture
70% of freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture
78% of ocean and freshwater eutrophication (nutrient-rich pollution) is caused by agriculture
Food production is the largest factor threatening biodiversity loss, with 1/3 of fish stocks overexploited
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGe)
When it comes to climate change, electricity, heat, transport, and industrial processes tend to take the spotlight. And understandably so, as these sectors combined account for around 76% of GHGe. However, our food system alone (production, processing/packaging, distribution, retail) accounts for around a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions! Figure 2 shows that the majority of the food system’s contribution comes from production (rather than processing, transport, packaging, and retail). So it looks like what we choose to eat makes a HUGE impact! That’s something we try to tackle at KIN; by raising awareness of these issues, we hope to shift consumption demand to less resource intensive items, such as plant-based foods, chicken, and eggs. Check out our blog for more information on the environmental impacts of different foods.
Half of the world’s habitable land is used for food production. As we can see in Figure 3, there is an unequal distribution of land between livestock and crops. While livestock accounts for 77% of agricultural land, it only accounts for 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of total protein. On the other hand, crops account for a much lower percentage (23%) but make up the majority of the world’s calories (82%) and total protein (63%). This disproportionate use of land in relation to consumption leads us to question if we are efficiently and sustainably utilizing the limited land we have available for agriculture. Moving forward, it may be important to shift this proportion of land usage so that we can feed our growing population a nutritious diet.
On top of this, converting land to agricultural use has been one of the biggest threats to ecosystems and biodiversity. Of the 28,000 species threatened with extinction, agriculture endangers 24,000 of them! By replacing some meat with plant-based alternatives, we may be able to shift some of this farmland back into natural habitats.
Given the many impacts of food production, we will need to come up with more ways to sustainably produce food for the generations to come. One way to do so is to choose less resource intensive foods in our diets. More sustainable foods can provide the same nutritional profile as resource intensive foods, so why not begin to make this shift? Education is the first step. Check out our blog for helpful tips on how to incorporate more foods that are both beneficial for our health and the environment!