“Decades of industrial agriculture have had a high impact on the environment and have raised serious concerns about the future of food production“.
There was a time when industrial agriculture seemed like a miracle solution for a rapidly growing world. Synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and high-yield cereal hybrids promised to reduce hunger, satisfy populations, and stimulate economic prosperity. Between 1960 and 2015, agricultural production tripled, resulting in a reduction in tariffs and averted global food shortages.
But not everything went as expected. Decades of industrial agriculture have had a high impact on the environment and have raised serious concerns about the future of food production. “Efficient agriculture is not just a question of production. It must also take into account environmental sustainability, public health and economic inclusion, ”says James Lomax, an expert with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
The low cost of retail industrialized food can mask the high price of its environmental impacts.
1. Not the bargain it seems
By some estimates, industrialized agriculture, which produces greenhouse gas emissions, pollutes air and water and destroys wildlife, generates environmental costs equivalent to US $ 3 trillion a year.
The industry does not factor in outsourced costs, such as the funds needed to purify contaminated drinking water or treat malnutrition-related illnesses, meaning communities and taxpayers may be picking up the tab without even noticing.
2. May facilitate the spread of viruses from animals to humans
The genetic diversity of animals provides them with natural resistance to disease. Intensive farming can make animals more susceptible to pathogens by producing genetic similarities within herds and herds. When animals are kept close together, viruses can easily spread between them. Intensive livestock farming can also serve as a bridge for pathogens, allowing them to move from wild animals to farm animals and then to humans.
3. It has been linked to zoonotic diseases
Deforesting forests and damaging wildlife to make room for agriculture and moving farms closer to urban centers can also destroy the natural buffers that protect people from circulating viruses in wildlife. According to a recent UNEP assessment, increasing demand for animal protein, unsustainable agricultural intensification and climate change are among the human factors linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
4. Promotes antimicrobial resistance
In addition to preventing and treating disease, antimicrobials are commonly used to accelerate the growth of livestock. Over time, microorganisms develop resistance, which makes antimicrobials less effective as drugs. In fact, around 700,000 people die from resistant infections each year. By 2050, those diseases may cause more deaths than cancer.
According to the World Health Organization, antimicrobial resistance "threatens the achievements of modern medicine" and may precipitate "a post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries that have been treatable for decades will again become life-threatening."
5. Use pesticides that can have adverse health effects
Large volumes of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used to increase agricultural yield. Humans can be exposed to these potentially toxic pesticides through the food they eat, resulting in adverse health effects. Some pesticides have been shown to act as endocrine disruptors, which can affect reproductive functions, increase the incidence of breast cancer, cause abnormal growth patterns and developmental delays in children, and alter immune function.
6. It pollutes water and soil and affects human health
Agriculture releases large amounts of manure, chemicals, antibiotics, and growth hormones into water sources. This poses risks to both aquatic ecosystems and human health. In fact, the most common chemical contaminant in agriculture, nitrate, can cause "blue baby syndrome," which can cause death in babies.
7. Has caused epidemics of obesity and chronic diseases
Industrial agriculture primarily produces staple crops that are then used in a wide variety of cheap, calorie-dense, and widely available foods. 60% of all food energy comes from just three cereal crops: rice, corn and wheat.
Although increased productivity and lower costs have helped to effectively reduce the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, this calorie-based approach does not meet nutritional recommendations, such as those related to the consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes. The popularity of processed, packaged and prepared foods has grown almost everywhere. Obesity is also on the rise globally and many suffer from preventable diseases often related to diet, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
8. Uses the land inefficiently
Although the global supply of pulses, fruits and vegetables is insufficient, livestock is increasingly omnipresent, which has perpetuated a self-sufficient cycle of supply and demand. Between 1970 and 2011, livestock increased from 7.3 billion to 24.2 billion units worldwide, while approximately 60% of all agricultural land is used for grazing. Agriculture has become less about food production and more about generating animal feed, biofuels, and industrial ingredients for processed food products. And while there may be fewer malnourished people in the world, there are now many more people suffering from malnutrition.
9. Strengthen inequality
Although small farms represent 72% of the total, they occupy only 8% of all agricultural land. In contrast, large farms, which represent only 1% of the total, occupy 65% of agricultural land. This gives large producers disproportionate control. Furthermore, there are few incentives to develop technologies that can benefit small farmers with limited resources, including those in developing countries.
At the other end of the supply chain, foods that are affordable to the poor can be energy dense, but nutrient poor. Micronutrient deficiencies can affect cognitive development, decrease resistance to disease, increase risks during labor, and ultimately affect economic productivity. The poor are effectively disadvantaged as both producers and consumers.
10. It conflicts with environmental health
In the early 20th century, the Haber-Bosch process, which would transform modern agriculture, used very high temperatures and pressures to extract nitrogen from the air, combine it with hydrogen, and produce ammonia, which is now the foundation of the chemical fertilizer industry. That made nature's fertilization process (sun, healthy microbiotic soils, crop rotation) obsolete. Today, ammonia production consumes between 1% and 2% of the world's total energy supply and accounts for approximately 1.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) supports a transition to food systems that provide positive effects on nutrition, the environment and the livelihoods of farmers. As part of its contribution to the One Planet network's sustainable food systems program, UNEP has led the development of a guideline for collaborative policy formulation and improved governance.
Source: United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)