1. Compare intensive (e.g. conventional) and extensive (e.g. organic) food production systems in terms of their sustainability performance.
To judge the sustainability performance of these production systems environmental, social and economic influences need to be considered. In terms of environment, organic farming has positives regarding the lack of synthetic pesticides, higher carbon content in soil (Pimentel et al. 2005) and promoted biodiversity. As organic farms have 50% more organisms and greater (>30%) species richness over conventional/intensive farms (Tuomisto et al. 2012). Positive environmental practices include; crop rotation, and emphasis on composting, nutrient recycling and farm balance where energy and water inputs are managed.
These positives are directly comparable to conventional/extensive farming which has been linked with soil degradation (Delate et al. 2017) due to intense cropping and monocultures, lack of nutrient recycling, biodiversity destruction and use of synthetic pesticides, and higher levels of freshwater eutrophication (Rockström & Klum 2012). However, issues with organic/extensive farming involve the yield and greater land use requirements (Gabriel et al. 2013). With yield directly linked with food security/ availability this production system may not be the most sustainable solution. With 12% out of a safely available threshold of 15% of global arable land already in use, sustainable solutions are needed to supply 9 billion by 2050 (Rockström & Klum 2012) without exceeding this 15% of land or lowering yield.
Economic issues include the risks involved for organic/extensive crops where disease threatens the incomes of many farmers without the use of pesticides. However, on the opposite side of this argument where low income farmers who shift to organic farming have higher profit margins and higher income due to premium pricing (Crowder & Reganold 2015). Conversely, other statistics show how intensive farming as a whole requires less costs and higher profits (Gabriel et al. 2013).
2. Argue for the environmental superiority of animal-free diets.
Animal free- diets are not free of environmental impacts but are inherently more efficient. In terms of sustenance for humans the energy flow from tropic levels in animals is inefficient as 90% of energy from solar energy via photosynthesis is lost during metabolism (Gliessman 2014). This efficiency is of significance as production of 1 calorie of animal protein can be measured as 2.5-10 times more energy intensive than 1 calorie of its plant equivalent (Molden 2007). Academically identified environmental impacts from anthropogenic activities have been identified in the form of planetary boundaries (Rockström & Klum 2012). Key areas where agriculture impacts the planet come in the form of; climate change, ocean acidification, biochemical flows, land use, freshwater use and biosphere integrity.
Many climate change emissions emanate from the ruminant livestock category, where 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions occur annually in the form of Methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide (Co₂) (Steinfeld et al. 2006). The animal sector contributes to 37% of global methane (CH₄) which has 20 time the global warming potential (GWP) of Co₂. As well as 65% of nitrous oxide which is considered to have 300 times the GWP of Co₂. From the 14.5% of livestock greenhouse gases equating to 7.1 gigatons (GT) CO2e, 3.3GT come from the necessary feed for livestock, 3. 5 GT from direct production (2.7 GT from ruminant enteric fermentation), and the remaining 0.2 GT from processing and transportation (Gerber et al. 2013). Similarly, due to the high levels of Co₂ this is absorbed by the oceans acidifying and damaging ecosystems in the process.
Approximately 30% of ice free land is currently used for food production 50% of which feeds live stock (Sansoucy 1995). On this land issues such as soils erosion, overgrazing, deforestation are prevalent that lead to biosphere integrity impacts where habitats are transformed and damaged (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Similarly linked with efficiency dynamic between plant and animal foods 1 kilogram of beef requires 22,500 liters of water when directly compared to grain which requires 1,700 liters (Goodland 1997).
3. What are the main sustainability impacts of food systems?
Population is projected to increase to approximately 9 billion by 2050 (Rockström & Klum 2012)with a growing middle class which is creating diverse dietary needs/wants which require more resources to facilitate. Simultaneously, trends in obesity and under nutrition highlight the unsustainable nature of the current food system with a disproportionate allocation of food where over vs underweight statistics equal 641M vs 462M in 2014 (Brandão 2017a). Economic pressures are evident with food prices approaching record highs and with the FAO stating that this is a ‘new era of rising food prices and spreading hunger’. Dietary changes in the richer populations has trended towards unsustainable products which are deemed less healthy. Trends in animal products alongside other food categories require higher levels of energy to produce as well as contain higher calories, fat, sugar and salt (Lang & Heasman 2015).
Another unsustainable impact of the current food system is the current amount of food that is wasted. Wherein it is estimated that 30% of globally produced food is wasted. The current food system has also shifted from being supply driven to demand driven, with a focus on producing the most amount of food at the lowest price at the expense of the environment and society. Overfishing has reached critical points in some region with approximately 75% of European water breaching safe limits (Brandão 2017b) .
Freshwater has been overexploited by the agricultural sector accounting for 70% of available freshwater. Meanwhile 1.4 billion people live in areas with insufficient resources. Use of phosphorus a non-renewable resource is a necessary input for current agricultural systems and is expected to increase in demand by 50-100% by 2050 with phosphate rock abundance a relative uncertainty. Other impacts on sustainability include the current rates of extinction which is 1000 to 10000 times greater than ‘the natural extinction rate’ (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Perhaps one of the most significant impacts on sustainability form food systems is the greenhouse gas emissions; which account for approximately 20-30% of global emissions (Vermeulen, Campbell & Ingram 2012)which creates reinforcing of negative impacts. These emissions contribute to climate change which worsen food security, water access and many other issues such as biodiversity etc.
4. How could intensification help in alleviating the pressure associated to feeding a growing human population on the environment?
Human population growth has increased environmental pressures and risks, with agriculture as the most significant contributor as well as a victim of environmental change require an increase in production by 60-110% by 2050 to meet the population of 9 billion (Pardey et al. 2014). This highlights the need for intensification (Rockström et al. 2017). Increased intensification corresponds with higher yields with a greater number of inputs such as; irrigation, chemical and machinery. (World bank 2007). Intensification has its positive effects regarding conservation as the more intensely a unit of land is optimised this then reduces/slows the area of land that would otherwise be converted to farmland. Which in turn temporarily spares ecosystem services and carbon sequestrating forests. These are the marketable benefits of intensification that counter the debate on extensification; essentially the less land needed the lesser the impact. These benefits however have rarely been the purpose of intensification and have merely been documented after the fact, as intensification has exclusively focused on optimising yield and profits.
With increasing inputs to supply the growing demand for output. However, yields for crops will reach a maximum threshold and expansion is inevitable. Academics have researched potential of utilising sustainable intensification for human development (Rockström et al. 2017).This involves creating more output utilising the same land area and reduction in environmental impacts whilst simultaneously promoting economic growth as well as ecosystem services (Petersen & Snapp 2015). However, this concept has not evolved much from its inception and it is currently a policy goal for nations but has not developed into executed policies.
5. Should we consume only locally-produced food to minimize the sustainability impacts of the food we eat?
This issue is rather dependent on the product and definition of ‘local’. As one issue with the ‘local’ food narrative is that there is not a fully accepted distance threshold within the definition of ‘local’. However, many opinions diverge with a consensus stating that it the limit is 100 miles. Some locations define local on a state or national level (Smith & MacKinnon 2009). The main argument for local food revolves around the premise that the closer a product is to the consumer then the less energy is expended in the transportation to said consumer. As many imported food stuffs require the quantification of food miles. This however, does not consider the whole picture and simply because a product has less distance to travel does not make it more sustainable.
Consideration of other lifecycle impacts need to be quantified. Factors such as; transportation type, load capacity/efficiency, storage energy and how the products were produced (Brandão 2017b). For example, trains can be 10 times more efficient in transporting goods per ton than road vehicles such as trucks. So, in theory if a product was produced in the same way and driven by road from 100 miles away and the same product was transported via train from 1000 miles away then the emissions would be approximately the same (DeWeerdt 2009). Similarly, the production process needs to be considered for local products to be deemed ‘more sustainable’. As research has proven that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions for a consumer in Sweden it is more sustainable to buy tomatoes from Spain than Sweden (Carlsson-Kanyama 1998). The reason for this is that the Spanish tomatoes in this study were grown naturally in fields with a natural climate to promote growth whereas in Sweden they were grown in fuel heated greenhouses.
Essentially a greater focus on the life cycle and cradle-to-grave perspective is required. Having stated these points locally produced foods do have several benefits such as; direct-to-consumer initiatives which eliminate the middle men, community supported agriculture where small towns collectively own a farm to produce for themselves. Also, the status-quo could change regarding long distance freight transport sometimes being more efficient per item than local alternatives. As with the decarbonization of transport, road vehicles will potentially have a smoother transition than larger ships and airplanes.
6. Compare small-scale and large-scale industrial food and farming systems. Which one do you think is the most sustainable? Justify your answer.
The perception that large scale industrialized agricultural production is more efficient than small family farms has gained momentum. This has influenced policy in both China and parts of Europe in order increase agricultural production rates. However, some argue that the belief that bigger are better for efficiency is intuitive but a misconception (Landesa 2011). Researchers from the world bank stated that no example could be found of agricultural ‘economies of scale arising for farm sizes exceeding what one family with a medium tractor could comfortably manage’ (Binswanger & Deininger 1993).This is evident in many developing nations where labor for small farms is minor for the owner and more are employed. However, in industrial practices once size is increased expensive machinery is purchased and one corporation will work vast lands with proportionately less staff. In my opinion the increased mechanization of large scale corporate farms to meet food security issues should not be a policy target. Rather the support and incentivization of smaller sometimes family owned farms should be promoted to increase production and bring about more positive social and potentially environmental progress.
Issues to address to incentives small scale farmers in developing nations is to minimize barriers to land ownership. Often small-scale farmers do not have a high production rates not due to land size but due to the risk of investing heavily in land that is not is not permanently their own. This concern affects production rates, it also effects agroecology initiatives as irrigation improvements or other optimization strategies are an investment. In the same vein the lack of land ownership causes problems with credit or financial services to invest in optimization as well as the ability to seek government subsidy. These barriers to yield optimization are clear, however many benefits arise from small farms. Small scale rice exporters from Vietnam can produce a ton of rice for half the cost of large scale equivalents in Uruguay (Landesa 2011). Export growth has been documented in nations such as; Vietnam, Thailand and Peru where issues regarding security f land ownership for small scale farmers has been addressed (Deininger & Byerlee 2011).
7. How would you solve food insecurity?
Food security refers to the supply of food for the population, there are said to be four pillars of food security in the form of; availability, access, utilization and stability (Pinstrup-Andersen 2009). Availability focuses on the production and distribution of food, access discusses the affordability and division of food among economic, social and cultural demographics. Utilization refers to the use and metabolizing of produced food. Stability refers to the consistency and the food supply. Many of these pillars have present complications such as availability where much of the population live in challenging to access areas thus relying on self-sufficient food production which limits their options. Access is currently very disparate with significantly more food accessible to more economically developed locations. Wherein over vs underweight statistics equal 641M vs 462M in 2014 (Brandão 2017a) meaning access to food is disproportionate among the developed and developing nations. Utilization refers to the food that is produced being actively utilized whereas statistics state the opposite and that 30% of food produced is wasted (Hodges, Buzby & Bennett 2011). Similarly, the present intensive farming systems with high phosphorus inputs and monoculture techniques can damage potential of future crops affecting stability.
To ‘solve’ this insecurity many changes need to be made to the current system. Firstly, producing food to optimize the highest amount of profit and paying workers little is not a socially sustainable practice. Workers should be paid a reasonable wage to make certain foods economically available to them. Also, they should have certain rights so that in times of crisis, they are not the most susceptible victims of failed crops or extreme weather. Similarly, much work has been done in the development of food security reserves, so that in times of crisis communities who cannot access their normal supply do not starve. Much of this work has been implemented in places such as; Burkina Faso. Initiatives need to be made in the developed world to curb trends of food waste alongside obesity rates, if these issues were adequately addressed food for vital sustenance could be utilized more efficiently. The investment and transition of large scale food producers is necessary with a need to dynamically shift to a more agroecological and sustainable intensification system to increase food stability for future populations.
8. Discuss the impacts that increasing demand for land for bioproducts (e.g. bioenergy) may have on sustainability?
Approximately 12% of land suitable for crops is already in use out of potential 36% which could be suitable for crop production. However, boundaries have been theoretically placed regarding using more than 15% of arable land for crop production due to the environmental repercussions (Rockström & Klum 2015). The competition for land between biofuels and food could become a significant issue for sustainability and food security. One such issue arises when trying to quantify the biomass content required to adequately supply energy demand. Many of the environmental ramifications of producing food crops could be made when producing biofuels thus reducing their environmentally friendly image. One feasible solution to this seems to be only using leftover biomass as a biofuel input. Statistics show that for example in the United states with a total land area of 3.7 million square miles, their energy demands of 134 billion gallons of fuel annually (Biofuels.org.uk 2010). In context, soybean biofuel crops would require 5.6 million square miles of land. However, less land consuming biofuel alternatives could be focused on as a more sustainable solution. Corn, sugarcane, and algae would require significantly less land use of 563000, 263000 and 53000 million square miles respectively (Biofuels.org.uk 2010).
The total amount of land used is not the sole concern, but also how the land is used for biofuels. The concept of carbon debt expresses that biofuel farming has large inputs of energy and produces greenhouse gases before it reaches the market. This greatly reduces any potential benefits of offsetting fossil fuel combustion and contributing to a sustainable future.
9. How could farming mitigate climate change?
Farming is a predominant emitter of greenhouse gases which contribute toward climate change. However, some studies show that controlled grazing on degraded land can promote growth transforming bad land into a net carbon sink (Nordborg & Röös 2016). Farming practices are contributors but could mitigate climate change through engaging in different practices such as sustainable intensification, improving fertilizer management, reducing enteric fermentation from livestock, reducing methane from anaerobic digestion processes of rice cultivation as well as adequate manure management (Climatefocus 2014). These listed strategies could act as very substantial mitigation measures against climate change if implemented on a large scale. Other mitigation involves increasing the amount of carbon stored in agricultural soils and demand reduction due to curbed waste levels could reduce the production levels.
To increase fertilizer management strategies plant breeding and genetic modifications can be used to increase the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus absorbed by crops to reduce inputs, alongside better accounting for inputs and use of organic substitutes. To reduce ruminant enteric fermentation strategies such as improved diets, supplements to change the microbiology of rumen, good husbandry and genetic selection can also reduce disease and methane outputs (Climatefocus 2014). Agroforestry can be implemented to increase carbon storage. Improved water management in rice cultivation could reduce flooding and methane emissions. Better manure management alongside potential nutrient recycling in integrated farming systems can significantly improve emissions and offset other fertilizer impacts.
10. What are the main pressures of food systems on ecosystem services and biodiversity?
Ecosystem services are divided into; supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Food systems impact the way in which natural provisioning services cycle nutrients in soils as they are uptakes for crops and transported large distances for consumption. These nutrients once excreted by consumers are rarely brought back to the soils and rather sanitized by different means. The run off fertilizers can also lead to the eutrophication water bodies. The extensive consumption of provisioning services such as crops, and raw materials increases demand and creates a reinforcing cycle. Climate regulation and carbon sequestration provided by regulating services are greatly impeded by increased deforestation and overexploitation of provisioning services. Land use change from forest to agriculture releases carbon stocks (Brandão 2017b). Cultural services are also reduced by these same means of overexploitation.
Biodiversity is impeded by food systems in plethora ways. Deforestaiton for crop or pasturland fragmetns and destroys abitats. Pesticides reduces vermin for the protection of crops but also rob many species of a potnetial food source. Increased ferliser use that is improperly manged can lead to runoff. Approximately 120 million tonnes of nitrogen are used in agriculturla crops with 95 million tonnes reaching freshwater (Brandão 2017b). This can cause eutrophcaiton in freshwater or marine lications starving species of oxygen and damaging ecosystems.
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