Sustainable Production of Food

Have you ever thought about how the food you eat every day is produced? It may be surprising to hear that food production is incredibly unsustainable. It is becoming more important to change our lifestyles to become more sustainable. With the changing climate and rising food insecurity around the world, it is vital that new methods of food production are used, to conserve the planet and the future of humanity. How can we produce food sustainably? Are we already achieving it in some parts of the world? Let's take a look. 

Sustainable Production of Food Sustainable Production of Food

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Table of contents

    What is the definition of sustainable food production?

    Firstly, what is sustainability?

    Sustainability is finding ways to live and meet current demands in a way that doesn't negatively affect future generations or the planet.

    Sustainable food production is going to become vital for the future preservation of the planet and humanity. But what is sustainable food production?

    Sustainable food production is a way of producing food that does not damage the environment, is economically efficient, meets current demands and can be used well into the future.

    Finding ways to produce food more sustainably, will help to protect the planet, and provide better food supplies for people around the world for current and future generations.

    Permaculture is important for understanding sustainable food production. Permaculture is agriculture which is sustainable and efficient.

    Importance of sustainable food production

    Sustainability and sustainable food production have never been so crucial. Let's find out why.

    Environmental degradation

    Food production is damaging to the environment, as it uses vast amounts of vital resources, such as water or fossil fuels. Crop growth and animal rearing can cause land damage, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and can cause severe Deforestation, which can have many negative impacts on the environment. Take a look at our Deforestation explanation for more.

    Greenhouse gases are gases which trap heat, contributing to the heating of the earth.

    Deforestation is the removal of trees from an area.

    Unsustainable agriculture also causes damage to soils, through soil erosion. This is when the top layer of soil is removed, which can make crop growth very difficult, as vital nutrients for plant growth are reduced. The use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides can remedy this, but damage ecosystems and pollute water systems in the process. Sustainable practices are essential to reduce these issues.

    Food and water insecurity

    Food insecurity is a large problem globally, both in the developing world and the developed world.

    Food insecurity is when people do not have access to nutritious and affordable food.

    With sustainable food production, fewer people will become food insecure, through increased food production and more efficient ways of producing food. Food insecurity can result in issues such as civil unrest, undernourishment, and famine; sustainable methods of food production are vital for reducing food insecurities globally.

    Take a look at our Impacts of Food Insecurity explanation for more information on this topic!

    Water insecurity occurs when people do not have access to safe water sources. Agriculture uses large amounts of water for crop growth and animal production, as well as polluting water sources, reducing water supplies. Finding sustainable ways to reduce water consumption for food production is vital.

    Climate change

    The threat of Climate Change is becoming ever more present. Climate Change has a large impact on the production of food; droughts, flooding or even wildfires will become more common as the planet gets warmer, which reduces the amount of food that is able to be produced. Water is vital for food production, and with the warming planet, comes with it, less water availability. Food insecurities will rise globally as climate change worsens, reducing people's accessibility to food. Food production itself contributes to climate change, as previously mentioned. Sustainable food production will become increasingly important to reduce the damage that food production has on the environment and to find ways of producing food to match the ever-increasing demand in an ever-warming world.

    Check out our Climate Change explanation for more on this important topic.

    Methods and examples of sustainable food production

    Let's take a look at some problems of non-sustainable food production, and the sustainable methods and solutions being used to reduce these issues.

    Some examples will be discussed too, which are vital for your exam!

    Organic farming

    Organic farming methods are those which use more environmentally friendly methods of agricultural production. Let's take a look at some examples.

    Natural pesticides and fertilisers

    Pesticides and fertilisers, which help to reduce disease and help plants grow, are often full of chemicals that are damaging to the environment, water supplies and ecosystems. Organic farming uses more natural and eco-friendly methods, such as plant or animal waste as a natural fertiliser (compost or green manure!).

    Crop rotation and crop diversity

    Crop rotation means that farmers grow a different type of crop on the land each year. This helps to reduce soil damage, and improves soil quality, by enriching it with many types of nutrients. Crop diversity is essentially using different types of crops, instead of just one, which produces a polyculture. This is also helpful for enriching the soil. When soil is enriched, production is improved. This will enable the products to provide for more people.

    Polyculture is the use of multiple types of crops during farming, rather than just one.

    Management of weeds

    Weeds are nasty plants that leach the soil of nutrients, making crop growth more difficult. Instead of using chemicals to remove them, methods such as mulching can be used. This involves using a soil cover, such as a plastic sheet, which can stop the weeds from growing.

    When thinking about sustainable food production, it is important to consider Genetically Modified (GM) crops. GM crops are those which, put simply, have been modified or changed. DNA is inserted into plants, which may help the plant to become disease-resistant, or grow more effectively.

    Sustainable fish and meat

    Animal consumption is generally an unsustainable practice. Many people today are turning towards vegetarian or vegan diets, either reducing their animal or animal product consumption or stopping consumption entirely. If animals are to be consumed, more sustainable methods are needed.

    Meat

    Meat production uses vast amounts of water, and reduces the number of crops available for human consumption, as they are used for animal food. Meat, (especially red meat), has a very negative impact on the environment; beef production is the highest cause of Deforestation in tropical rainforests across the world.

    More sustainable forms of agriculture can involve feeding animals with grass (rather than grain), and allowing animals to move freely over grazing places, to reduce overgrazing (which damages the soil). Recycling water is also important to help reduce water usage for meat production.

    Sustainable Food Production Figure 1 Protester StudySmarterFig. 1 - animal production has many negative effects on the environment. Some protest against the consumption of meat

    Fish

    Overfishing is a large problem, causing whole habitats to be wiped out. The use of large nets can damage the sea floor, and can kill species that are not needed in the fishing process. This is known as bycatching. Some nets can be left behind (ghost nets), causing wildlife damage. Sustainable fishing practices, such as hook and line fishing, help to limit the number of fish that are killed; if the wrong fish are caught, they can be just put back into the ocean unharmed. Traps are also more sustainable than nets, as they tend to float in the water, reducing damage to the seafloor and limiting the amount of bycatch.

    Illegal fishing is also an issue. Those who illegally fish and break fishing laws can cause damage to both ecosystems and the livelihoods of people who fish lawfully.

    Seasonality and locality

    Foods are often imported from all over the world. In the UK, we are able to eat all types of fruits and vegetables that have been grown abroad in a more appropriate climate, for example, we can consume strawberries all year round. The UK can grow strawberries when they are in season; they are accessible all year because of international imports. This results in a high carbon footprint, which is not sustainable.

    The carbon footprint is how much carbon dioxide is sent into the atmosphere by certain practices.

    Also, in the UK, hot and cold storage facilities are used to preserve food, which uses vast amounts of electricity. To be more sustainable, eating foods that are in season and produced more locally is important.

    When shopping locally, local businesses can benefit economically. Shopping with a focus on seasonality helps to improve the origin farmer's access to their products; they may normally have less access, as they are shipping their products overseas.

    Waste reduction

    In the United Kingdom, roughly 9.5 million tonnes of food are thrown away yearly. Food waste contributes to an increase in greenhouse gases, for example, when the food gets dumped in landfills. The 'use by' and 'best before' dates found on food products are also harmful; food is thrown away by supermarkets as it can't be sold past a particular date. People often follow these dates, even though the food is (in most cases) perfectly fine.

    In Norway, the government has been moving towards changing how 'use by' dates are perceived. Supermarkets either give away or sell foods at a very reduced price, that may be out of date. Some supermarkets exist that sell only these products!

    In lower-income countries, a lack of access to things like effective storage facilities to keep foods cool and fresh can result in increased food waste. Finding low-cost technological solutions for these countries is vital. Conscious household choices about purchasing food can help to reduce waste too, i.e., only buy what you need. In the face of rising food insecurities, food waste must be reduced.

    Sustainable Food Production Food Waste StudySmarterFood waste is an increasing concern that must be addressed

    Agroforestry

    Agroforestry is the method of planting trees or shrubs on the same land that is being used for crop growth or animal rearing. Soil erosion reduces the nutrients in the top layer of the soil, making it difficult for crops to grow. Agroforestry helps to reduce this soil erosion; trees help the soil to become more compact, reducing the impacts of high rainfall which can erode the soil away. This helps stops the damage to soil quality and therefore increases crop growth.

    Water pollution and water losses are reduced, as the trees take in excess water through their roots. Trees are also useful for reducing greenhouse gases, as they store carbon; this agroforestry can be described as a carbon sink, because of this.

    Further examples

    Let's take a look at a few other sustainable examples of food production.

    Rice-fish farming

    In Bangladesh (among other places), a fascinating method of sustainable agriculture is practised. Rice is commonly grown here, where the land is often flooded with water for good crop growth. In rice-fish farming, the rice is grown on the flooded land, and fish are placed into this water. The fish provide nutrients for the rice growth and reduce disease for the plants too. The fish for consumption is an added benefit! This is an incredibly sustainable way to produce food to reduce insecurities for developing countries, by ensuring local people are fed, as well as being able to make a profit from improved crop yields.

    A crop yield is the number of crops that have been produced.

    Sustainable Food Production Figure 3 Rice-Fish Farming StudySmarterFig. 3 - rice/ fish farming in Indonesia

    Urban farming initiatives

    Urban farming is the process of agricultural production in urban areas. Gotham Greens is a sustainable farming company in the United States, working toward sustainable food production. They use solar and wind-powered greenhouses with hydroponics.

    Hydroponics is where plants are grown without the use of soil.

    A unique hydroponic greenhouse technology means using less land, less water and less energy, while producing less pollution and less waste1.

    These greenhouses, located in many cities, produce salad greens and herbs. The use of hydroponics means that less water is used, and more plants can be produced the whole year round.

    Sustainable Production of Food - Key takeaways

    • It is becoming increasingly important to turn to sustainable forms of food production.

    • Sustainable food production is essential for reducing environmental degradation, food insecurities, improving the economy, and combatting the challenges of climate change.

    • Some methods and examples of sustainable food production are organic farming (natural pesticides or fertilisers, crop rotation and crop diversity, and weed management), sustainable fish and meat, seasonality, reducing waste, and agroforestry.


    References

    1. Gotham Greens, Sustainability, https://www.gothamgreens.com/our-story/
    2. Figure 1: Protest against meat consumption (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Protester_holding_a_sign_with_the_message_%22Less_meat,_less_heat%22_(51525655880).jpg) by Ivan Radic (https://www.flickr.com/people/26344495@N05) License type: CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode)
    3. Figure 3: Rice fish farming in Indonesia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mina_padi_java_Pj_IMG-20150313-WA0004.jpg) by Kembangraps (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Kembangraps) License type: CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainable Production of Food

    What is sustainable production of food? 

    Sustainable food production is a way of producing food that has a limited effect on the environment, it is economically efficient, and can be used for future generations. 

    Why is sustainable food production important?

    Sustainable food production is important due to the increasing threats from climate change, environmental degradation caused by food production, and rising food insecurity. 

    What are sustainable solutions for food production? 

    The sustainable solutions for food production can be organic farming (natural pesticides and fertilisers, crop rotation and crop diversity, management of weeds, and even GM crops), sustainable fish and meat, seasonality and locality, waste reduction, agroforestry, urban farming initiatives and other sustainable agricultural methods such as rice-fish farming. 

    What are examples of sustainable food? 

    Examples of sustainable food include sustainably sourced fish and meat, locally sourced foods and more in-season foods. Rice-fish farming and urban farming initiatives offer further examples. 

    What is the main goal of sustainable food production? 

    To reduce the negative effects of food production, to protect the planet and provide enough food supplies for people in current and future generations. 

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