We have been relying on the same food practices since the invention of agriculture thousands of years ago, but in the 21st century the world needs to deeply rethink these practices and find new ways of feeding the planet. We have to find ways of maintaining our food cultural heritage without continuing to seriously impact the environment in the process. It is without doubt a serious challenge.
“Food” or “way of life” security?
We often talk about food security issues, asking ourselves whether the Earth’s resources will be sufficient to feed a growing population. This is actually the wrong question – the answer is clearly ‘yes’. There are sufficient food resources on the planet to feed the current population and, in fact, many more.
The real question is whether many countries (especially developed nations) can continue to sustain their food habits while dealing with a rapidly increasing population and mounting environmental pressures. The answer to that one is clearly ‘no’.
Indeed, we can easily feed people just for the sake of feeding them (i.e. producing food that provides sufficient nutrients to keep people alive). For instance, many abundantly available and nutritious food supplies are to date virtually unexploited (e.g. deriving energetic food from insects, which are very rich in protein and vitamins). However, while such practices could be seen as a life saver to feed populations in desperate need or in disaster affected areas, it raises serious ethical questions.
The reality is that most societies are quite understandably not ready, or willing, to adopt such practices. Food habits are deeply embedded within a nation’s cultural heritage and the appreciation of “good” food is one of the joys of life. Many would agree that subsisting on concentrated pills is not an aspired way of life.
However, if we want to avoid such extreme practices some day in the future, we must not forget the current trends. In order to maintain our way of life and eating habits, major changes and sacrifices will unconditionally have to be made.
Generally speaking, agriculture and fisheries have caused serious environmental damage since the industrial revolution and the need for mass food production. While ecosystems have so far been able to cope and buffer the pressures, we are reaching a tipping point. An imminent significant change of practices is required to avoid great instability in the global food industry.
Unsustainability in current practices
The reality is that the traditional agricultural and fisheries practices widely used today are simply unsustainable and no longer meet the requirements of a fast-changing world. Three factors point to the urgent need for change:
The world population is quickly expanding and expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 (some studies actually now forecast 11 billion). As a result, the increase in demand for food in the coming decades will be tremendous;
Many natural food supplies are diminishing fast, and numerous ecosystems are on the verge of collapse due to overexploitation;
Climate change is becoming a very serious threat to global food security by altering weather patterns around the globe. Additionally, it will significantly reduce the surface areas of cultivable lands around the world through the impacts of sea level rise and salt water infiltration.
In addition to the above, many current food industry practices are unsustainable. These include the extensive use of pesticides and fertilisers for land agriculture (which we should not forget are petroleum derivatives), the overexploitation of resources (especially fisheries), a lack of respect for food chains and natural food cycles, unethical practices such as the excessive and uncontrolled use of genetic engineering, the reconversion of land and associated deforestation, and more.
Many of these practices are responsible not only for unsustainable methods, but also for severe environmental damage.
We have to apply more sustainable practices at all levels for the food industry to support us in the long term:
Respect food chains: A greater respect and understanding of food chains through integrated cultures is required. We need to produce food in large quantities through closed loop systems. In order to achieve this, we must put greater emphasis on primary food producers such as microorganisms, whose by-products can feed larger organisms (which in turn are fed to livestock). In recent years, numerous small-scale projects, such as aquaponic systems and integrated organic farming, demonstrate that such practices are not only feasible, but also financially viable. However, more research is required to scale up these efforts. Governments and the private sector should invest heavily in those areas;
Put more emphasis on the oceans as primary food sources: Oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface; therefore, it would make sense that the majority of our food should come from the oceans rather than from land;
De-centralise food production: (i.e. produce food locally where needed). Businesses and individuals should start to produce part of their food supply on site. Urban agriculture and aquaculture through vertical and integrated urban farming is the way to go to reduce the amount of land needed for food production purposes;
Reduce reliance on pesticides and fertilisers: The current food industry uses chemicals heavily – to the point that it is a health hazard (latent toxicity). Through the adoption of integrated systems, we can not only come up with processes that are better for the environment, but also much healthier because they significantly reduce the use of chemicals;
Demography control: The main problem with food security is that there are too many people to feed and the trend is quickly worsening. Demography control seems inevitable and should be a priority. Current food production practices will not be sufficient to meet the needs of nations for much longer without dramatic degradation of our environment. It is also clear that with growing populations, quantity will be increasingly favoured over quality for the food that we eat.
The way forward is not a question of food security versus sustainable development, but rather achieving food security through sustainability.
Real sustainability in all aspects – should it be energy, pollution, fisheries or agriculture – comes down to a single point that needs to recognised by decision makers and society in general: we need to maintain healthy ecosystems by working with nature, not against it.