by Dima Mutran
Did you know that 82% of starving children in the world live in countries where food is fed to animals within livestock systems? These animals, in turn, are slaughtered and then shipped off as food to more well-off individuals in developed nations. With 8 million people in our current population suffering from starvation, food insecurity has become a severe problem that needs immediate attention. If not, humans run the risk of depleting the planet’s resources to the point where life on Earth may no longer be sustainable.
Food insecurity can range from anything between buying less or cheaper food to spending days without food. The four pillars of food security include availability, access, utilization, and sustainability. Amongst these, availability and sustainability have become most critical in recent times due to a host of factors including climate change, rapid population growth, and the depletion of resources from excessive food production.
Global agricultural systems have witnessed significant changes over the past century. Prior to World War II, a single farmer could feed around 20 people. However, with the development of modern agricultural technologies, by 2006 a farmer could feed around 200 people. Such an increase in our capacity to grow food has helped increase efficiency in food production, as well bring about significant reductions in food prices, with household expenditures on food halving over the past fifty years, dropping from 20% in 1960 to 10% in this past decade. However, such a development in agricultural capacity has not had the desired effect when it comes to global food security, as efficiency has come at the expense of the wellbeing of our planet.
For food production to occur, we need land, water and appropriate atmospheric conditions. Many of these, however, suffer from poor distribution and resource allocation. Firstly, about 70% of global freshwater withdrawals have been used for agricultural purposes, with most of these withdrawals used for irrigation. This often results in overconsumption of freshwater supplies, as such areas often are not capable of sustaining human life in such vast numbers. Many waterways, such as the Colorado River, have reduced flows, whilst others, such as the Aral Sea (located in the former Soviet Union), have completely dried up. Such abuse of fresh water supplies can be attributed to the 70 billion livestock animals being raised worldwide. Such a vast amount of livestock require staggering amounts of grains and crops to sustain (recently estimated at 50% of global crop production), which in turn require vast amounts of water to grow.
Secondly, around 40% of global land area is used for agriculture. Land used to breed livestock account for 30 million sq km of the planet’s land (equivalent to the size of Africa), as numerous landscapes have been cleared and altered just to grow food. A common practice, burning tropical rainforests to make way for cattle ranching, is also causing increasing amounts of CO2 to be released into the earth’s atmosphere.
Finally, 22% of greenhouse emissions are caused by the agricultural sector— nearly 80% of which can be attributed to livestock production. This is more than the greenhouse emissions caused by transportation, manufacturing and electricity systems combined. 20% of fossil fuel use goes to into food production in a time where the world is on the verge of running out of these unrenewable energy sources. Fertilizers have increased the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen in the atmosphere at an alarming rate, while the methane produced by cows is 25-100 times more damaging to the world’s atmosphere than the CO2 released from cars.
Additionally, the world population is growing at a terrifying rate. Today, we number just over 7 billion, with the world population still growing by approximately 75 million a year (equivalent to the current size of the German population). At this rate, the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, with food demand projected to double. Growth in food demand, combined with stress from climate change, will intensify competition for both water and energy resources, creating a vicious cycle as each problem perpetuates the other.
So, how will it be possible to increase productivity without harming the environment? There seems to be no single solution to this problem. One of the main issues we need to address is the overconsumption of animals. Simply decreasing meat consumption, for instance, could already have a huge impact on the planet. If everyone in the world participated in Meatless Monday, it would be equivalent to taking out 20 million medium-sized cars off the road. Farming in the past required fewer fertilizers or pesticides, and was harmless to the environment. These days we refer to the traditional farming methods, as “organic farming” —this may be one of many possible solutions.
Another interesting project that aims to address food security and the environment issue is introducing insects to our diet. Insects are promising because on top of being abundant in our ecosystem, they are also high in proteins and omega-3 fatty acids. They require less feed, less water, less land, and less energy to farm, and generate substantially less environmental pollutants. Insects have already become commonly added to dishes in Mexico, Thailand, and Uganda. The problem, however, is that the rest of the world may not be as eager about this solution, owing to our deep-seated aversion to these tiny, crawling creatures.