Eating as an Ecological Act: Environmental Impact of the Food System


This past week, my Master course confronted some not-so-promising realities about the environmental dimensions of our contemporary food system, and dreamed up ways to promote the shift to more sustainable diets. Dr. Colin Sage, a professor of geography at University College Cork and regular guest professor for UNISG, traveled from Ireland to Italy to lead us in an exploration of Food, Environment and Sustainability. His lectures on contemporary challenges to the food system, food consumption and food security, and moving toward a sustainable food system were complemented by readings from his new 2012 book Environment and Food (Routledge).

I was impressed by Dr. Sage’s nuanced study of the interconnections between food and the environment, and especially taken by his reminder that as students of gastronomic communications, we play a vital role in encouraging sustainable food futures. I thought I would present a little redux of Dr. Sage’s course in order to call attention to the consequences of our current agri-food system and to offer some hope about how we can build sustainable alternatives.

The crux of Dr. Sage’s arguments about the ties between the Earth’s resources and our food system lies in his assertions that “eating is an ecological act” and that “what we eat and how we eat has more impact on the Earth than almost anything else.”

In class, we first traced how our food system has become the juggernaut it is today. Since the mid-20th century, a wide array of global public policy and corporate forces have transformed the production and consumption of food, and this transformation has been greater than any other since the establishment of farming 12,000 years ago. What we now have is a global agri-food system; global being the operative word, as it emphasizes a great break with the tradition of local food. As Sage writes in his book, “for must of human history, long-range trade in food was limited to luxury items, with every society growing its own staples.” Modern global integration isn’t just a logical progression from the traditions of importing things like sugar — it marks a “new and profound shift in the development of the global agri-food system.” The move towards internationalizing food chains has occurred in large part thanks to the creation of multilateral international agencies, like the World Trade Organization, that foster open markets. With more liberal trade agreements in place, transnational corporations like Cargill and ConAgra pounced on the opportunity to exploit export economies. Indeed, once the global food market opened up, rapid developments took place across the entire system: “agri-technology suppliers built local supply chains to deliver the large volumes of chemical fertilisers and pesticides required to improve export production; food processors and manufacturers established a presence for their globally branded soft drinks, snacks, and other convenience food products…”  In addition, since the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, in which chemical pesticides and fertilizers were made ubiquitous, a productivist paradigm has come to prevail, emphasizing yield without regard for quality, resource depletion, or social justice. Essentially, intensive agriculture (& food processing & retailing…) ignores the real cost of food in pursuit of ever greater quantities of food available at ever cheaper prices.

The global food chain as it exists today can be simplified into five parts: the agri-technology industries, like Monsanto, that make machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds; primary food producers like farmers; final food manufacturers, e.g. processors like Nestlé; food retailers like Wal-Mart and food service providers like McDonalds; and finally consumers. The losers in this chain are the farmers — who have been forced on what Colin Sage calls the “agricultural treadmill,” and the consumers. I found the agricultural treadmill to be a useful image in describing the pressures that the global food system has put on farmers: they adopt new technologies in homes of raising yields and increasing incomes, but other farmers do so too, flooding the market with food and causing prices to drop. Farmers’ input costs (in terms of machines, fertilizers) go up, their profits go down, and local knowledge and biodiversity is thrown to the wayside. They have no choice but to stay on the treadmill lest they get driven out of the food system by other conventional farmers who can use the new technology to provide the greater yields that processors and retailers demand. While the agri-tech, food processors, and retailer links of the chain benefit from the agricultural treadmill (more money for them!) consumers are further disempowered and distanced from their food sources. Farm activities are increasingly being regarded as hazardous and not for the likes of us, and corporate domination of food manufacturing and retailing has shaped a consumption discourse that focuses only on convenience and low prices. Indeed, according to Dr. Sage, corporations trump all in the modern global food chain.

[All that seems pretty grim, and I haven’t even gotten to the environmental impacts of productivism yet! Bear with me — things will be looking better by the time I’m finished.]

The food system as it currently stands is unsustainable in three environmental realms: climate change, freshwater usage, and energy depletion. In Environment and Food, Dr. Sage claims that what we eat has the biggest impact on the climate, as all aspects of the global food chain emit greenhouse gases, “from the agri-technologies supply industry, through primary production, processing, manufacturing, distribution and retail, right down to the domestic arena of the storage, cooking and disposal of food.” While carbon dioxide, which results from the burning of fossil fuels (used for farm equipment and transportation) is the most significant greenhouse gas, agriculture produces more emissions of methane (from ruminant livestock and rice paddies) and nitrous oxide (from nitrogen fertilizers), and these latter two have a global warming potential of 23 and 296 times that of CO2, respectively. In the EU alone, the food sector accounts for 31% of greenhouse gas emissions. This points to two necessary changes in the food system: we need to eat less meat so as to produce less livestock and thus fewer methane emissions, and we need to focus on farming practices that can sequester greenhouse gases and fix nitrogen in the soil, such as the practice of crop rotation, which has been abandoned by conventional farming in favor of intensive production.

The situation with water is even worse: agricultural production accounts for 90% of freshwater consumption worldwide. The amount of rain in a region should dictate what we grow there, but we assume that there is always enough water to grow thirsty crops in inhospitable environments. As a result, countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where many people lack access to clean drinking water, currently grow cash-crops like green beans, which require lots of irrigation. (Indeed, growing things like green beans and cut flowers in Africa points to another issue of the global food system: poor countries are focusing on export agriculture for rich nations instead of appropriate subsistence agriculture for themselves.) This so-called “humid zone” wishful thinking about water availability cannot be maintained: there is not enough water on current cropland to produce enough food for an estimated 9 billion people in 2050 based on current dietary trends.

The most unsustainable, though, is the food system’s energy usage practices. The global food system rests upon cheap energy for inputs (pesticides, fertilizers…), machinery, processing, and distribution. But, the world is running out of cheap oil in particular. Dr. Sage introduced us to the concept of “peak oil,” which is the point of maximum production rate of oil for a particular country. Worldwide, we are close to reaching a situation of “peak oil,” where “we have used up approximately half he geological endowment of conventional oil and natural gas. This would suggest a near future of much tighter energy markets as supply is unable to meet demand and prices will rise.” Indeed, the price of food is closely tied to the price of oil, and in 2008 as oil prices skyrocketed, the price of food did too. Food price volatility does not so much effect those of us in first world countries, as we now spend a very small percentage of our incomes on food (because food prices do not reflect their real environmental costs), but it does very much effect the poor, where 70% of income goes toward food. When people cannot afford to feed themselves because of oil-induced food-price inflation, political unrest brews: in 2008, rioters took to the streets in Cameroon, Senegal, Mexico, Pakistan, and Mauritania, burning government buildings, looting stores, and causing deaths. And in 2011, rising food prices helped to trigger the Arab Spring.

Clearly, our food system is unsustainable not only in the environmental realm but also in the social realm, as issues of food security and public health repercussions loom large. Despite the prevailing productivist paradigm in the food system, where the drive is always to produce more food, we have not yet solved the problem of hunger: “more than 920 million people in the developing world do not have enough to eat, and a further 34 million people in industrialized countries and economies in transition also suffer from chronic food insecurity.” The fact is that though we are producing enough food to feed the world now, access and availability of that food is still lacking around the world: many of those who are going hungry lack entitlements and financial power to procure enough to eat. On the other end of the spectrum, there are another 1.5 billion people worldwide who are overweight obese, which according to Dr. Sage says a lot about the quality and availability of the food we are eating. Indeed, the public health impacts of our food system, which emphasizes a meat-and-processed-foods heavy “Western” diet are serious and go beyond just weight-related issues like cardiovascular diseases. Due to the high global demand for ever increasing quantities of meat, (especially in the United States, where per capita meat consumption per year is about 280 lbs a year) the conventional livestock raising industry has transformed into something really quite frightful. I won’t go into great details about this here (watch the documentary Food Inc. if you haven’t yet for some more info on meat), but essentially, intensive livestock raising methods force animals to live in extremely tight quarters and eat a diet that their stomachs are not designed for so that they can put on weight as quickly as possible. The combination of packed-in-animals and grain-based diets make the use of heavy antibiotics in animal feed necessary to prevent disease, but this has in fact caused the growth of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria to enter the food supply (e.g. E. coli in beef).

[Oof. Depressing and exasperating stuff. Here comes the flip side.]

Our final class was titled “Moving towards a sustainable food future,” and explored some possible solutions to the current issues of the agri-food system. According to Dr. Sage, a “sustainable food system must be able to demonstrate that it can optimise agricultural output without compromising the stock of natural resources and ecosystem services,” but the ideals of sustainability reach beyond environmental preservation. Dr. Sage’s vision for a sustainable food system reaches into the social realm and would:

  1. Be health-centered, enhancing well-being through a varied diet
  2. Re-establish the pleasure and intimacy of food
  3. Recover a sense of local food culture and heritage
  4. Emphasize food skills and nutritional education
  5. Be inclusionary, enabling communities to resolve their limited food choices through collective action-and-
  6. Put forth regulations that encourage the pursuit of quality over uniformity.

The imperative is, then, to find ways to make such goals reality. I think that the critical first step in all of this is that we that we shake off our status as passive consumers and instead think of ourselves as food citizens, wherein it would be our civic duty to look for collective solutions to common food system problems. As food citizens, we need to seek out quality food, support our local food economies, and build relationships of trust with food producers. This emphasizes what Dr. Sage called a “moral turn in consumption,” whereby food citizens take responsibility to find out where their food comes from and what its environmental impacts are.

The good news that a lot of this work is already being done, as consumers are turning away from the global food system in favor of reconnecting with the local. Initiatives like CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and farmer’s markets are helping to recover quality, reestablish support for local producers, and reestablish trust in those producers. Indeed, community efforts like Philadelphia’s Food Trust, which is dedicated to ensuring that Philadelphians have access to affordable and nutritious food, are making great strides in these regards. Dr. Sage thinks that food is a great site for social mobilization because it has a low entry threshold (it’s easy to learn how to start an urban vegetable garden, for example); it reveals territorial resource endowments hidden by phases of modernization (reestablishing a sense of place); aids in connectivity and aggregation in the community; and intersects with other institutional initiatives, like urban planning.

So, there is a lot of work to be done, but the first step is getting people to realize the real cost of the global agri-food system and encouraging them to carve out alternative food chains at the local level.


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