Moving to more sustainable food systems must be the priority

Switching to a plant-based diet and shopping local is helping our environment, but sustainable food systems can make an impact on a global scale. Lottie Harold tells us why.

The global food system is linked with significant interconnected challenges related to climate change. These include natural resource depletion, water and energy scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and food insecurity. A European Union review has credited the food system with up to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions, incorporating crop and livestock production, transportation, changing land use, and food waste.

One of the greatest impacts of food production is on land itself, which is needed to grow crops and rear animals. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that agriculture is responsible for approximately 38% of global land use. The expansion of agriculture has resulted in deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion, leading to the destruction of ecosystems and the displacement of species. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), farming is one of the most significant drivers of biodiversity loss worldwide, with an astonishing 94% of the world’s mammal biomass (excluding humans) being livestock. Clearly moving to more sustainable food systems is critical.

Sustainable food systems
The FAO's describes a sustainable food system is one that “delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”. This is central part of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

While this may sound simple, there are significant obstacles to realising this future and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Large food production and distribution companies are powerful, providing jobs for local people as well as economic growth at a national scale. But change is possible, and outlined here are some key concepts of sustainable food systems that must be adopted to ensure long-term sustainability and fairness globally.

Improved resource use efficiency
Sustainable practices that focus on minimising the use of resources are needed to achieve the National Farmers’ Union’s target of net zero for agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. Most food-related emissions (around 75%) come from the production and processing of food, including livestock production, fertiliser application, and energy-intensive practices such as irrigation and machine use. UK farms are introducing energy efficient technologies including biomass boilers, hydroelectric power, LED lighting, and bio-based packaging. However, an adequate investment in infrastructure is required for a fair, low carbon

transition. Greenhouse gas removal through carbon capture and storage methods, including woodland and hedgerow creation on marginal land and biochar spreading, offer a promising nature-based solution.

Agriculture is one of the largest consumers of freshwater globally, accounting for about 70% of its use, primarily for irrigation. Whilst irrigated land is, on average, twice as productive as rainfed land, inefficient practices can lead to water scarcity and soil salination. Investment is needed into water management, including technologies such as soil moisture sensors, satellite evapotranspiration measurements and rainwater harvesting techniques to combat increased water stress.

Reduced use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics
The use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides increased exponentially throughout the 20th century. This was driven by a desire to increase production, reduce damage caused by pests and weeds, and prolong the shelf life of crops. It is now becoming clear that the drawbacks of synthetic inputs, which include soil degradation, water pollution, air pollution, habitat destruction, resistance development, and human health risks, far outweigh the benefits.

Antimicrobial resistance may be one of the greatest threats to human health globally, with the UN estimating this resistance to be responsible for 10 million deaths annually by 2050. The EU banned routine antibiotic use for farm animals in 2018. Yet in the UK, 33.6% of total antibiotics are used on animals, including 1 billion farm animals annually, leading to the emergence of bacteria that are more resistant to human immune systems. Action to promote the responsible use of antibiotics in UK farming must be taken.

Crop rotation and intercropping
Approximately three quarters of the food we eat comes from just 12 plant and five animal species, with monocropping being a primary driver of biodiversity loss. Crop rotation and intercropping are sustainable farming practices that have several environmental benefits. Crop rotation is the regular changing of the crop grown on an area of land, while intercropping is the practice of simultaneously planting two or more crops within the same area of land. Some of the advantages of these practices include a reduction in soil erosion and water, natural pest control, reduced need for synthetic fertilisers, and biodiversity conservation.

However, these benefits do not come without their caveats. Both crop rotation and intercropping require more complex planning to maintain correct soil nutrient and water balance and increased difficulties with harvesting more than one crop simultaneously. Farmers are also subject to market forces dictating the demand of certain crops. These issues will require meaningful changes to our global farming practices, both from a management and an economic perspective.

Consumer choices
The onus placed on the individual to make good environmental choices when it comes to food consumption is a contentious point. To an extent, we can ‘vote with our money’ and affect change by demonstrating our personal health, economic, and environmental desires. Yet the iron grip that a small number of global corporations have on our choices can limit the amount of power the individual has.

Happily, there has been a growing awareness around sustainable food consumption, led by documentaries such as Cowspiracy, with a rise in the number of people choosing a plant-based or vegan diet. Less well understood, perhaps, is that switching to a plant-based diet alone cannot solve the problems in global food production. With food transportation accounting for nearly 20% of total food system emissions, eating local, nutrient-rich, in-season plants is equally important and will maximise our impact.

Most people in urban areas live within reach of food co-operatives and sustainable supermarkets. These smaller and local alternatives to the large supermarkets can provide an ethical and sustainable source of food at surprisingly low costs. Those of us that live in more rural locations often have direct access to local farm shops, further reducing the carbon footprint of the food purchased as it is almost directly from source.

As 70% of UK food waste comes from the home, consumers are in a critical position to tackle the food waste problem that is accountable for 8% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) calculated that UK households waste 6.6 million tonnes of food each year – of which 4.5 million tonnes is edible. The UN have set a target of halving food waste by 2030, and suggestions for consumers to reduce their food waste include planning meals ahead, using up leftovers to create new dishes and more effective storage such as freezing food and keeping fruit in fridges.

In the UK, several organisations are helping to deliver sustainable food systems.

The Future Food Movement, a community encouraging the big players to participate in climate action, is hoping to facilitate a cultural shift within the food industry. The movement has recently appointed the UK’s first food and climate Youth Advisory Board. Made up of seventeen 13- to 18-year-olds across the UK, the Youth Advisory Board are hoping to inspire change at school, be a voice for marginalised groups, and show business leaders how global environmental issues matter to young people. The community hope to network with business allies and upskill leaders to close the climate skills gap.

The Soil Association are a charity who have been supporting farming and the natural world for over 75 years. As a founder of the organic movement, the Soil Association campaign for change, develop global standards and support innovation in farming with nature-friendly farming methods. With their Food for Life programme, they aim to make healthy, sustainable food the norm, by supporting schools to get growing and cooking, and developing the Green Kitchen Standard. Similarly, the Land Worker’s Alliance are a union of farmers, growers and land-based workers who work towards a socially and environmentally just food system, where everyone has access to healthy food from local producers who earn a living wage in a safe environment.

Compassion in World Farming is an animal welfare charity campaigning to end factory farming. Their undercover investigations of cruelty associated with intensive farming and political lobbying have already led to the outlawing of veal crates, battery cages and sow stalls across the EU. The organisation has created a ‘high welfare shopping guide’, advising consumers on labels to look for to shop compassionately.

It is fair to say that an individual is unlikely to be capable of eating a completely sustainable diet in today’s market, but there is much that we can each do to improve our habits. Shopping locally, organically, and waste-free can have a large impact on reducing global emissions, chemical usage, and biodiversity loss. - and it doesn’t need to cost any more than shopping in a supermarket. Education and access will play a key

role in helping people to make these changes. Learning about environmentally friendly alternatives, and having access to them, is imperative.

However, environmental justice will never be possible without social justice. There are large social and economic barriers to the resources we need to live healthier and more environmentally friendly lives. Despite producing enough food globally to wipe out hunger, 821 million people are chronically malnourished, whilst obesity simultaneously increases with the rise of cheap convenience food. While we as individuals can play our part, governments need to prioritise embedding sustainable food systems that can truly change the way food is produced and distributed.

Lottie Harold MCIWEM, 27, is a Geoenvironmental Engineer at Arup. She spends her spare time enjoying nature, climbing crags, and hiking the Lake District fells

This story was first published in The Environment magazine in Sept 2023

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