The Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Implications for Food Security

By Bridget McDonald

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Earth has undergone a series of irrevocable changes that have impacted its citizens and the natural environment. Through industrialization and population growth, countries have rapidly grown via the expansion of new technologies, urban sprawl, and development. Clearly, such development has yields both positive and negative consequences. Population growth and expansion has resulted in the increased use of fossil fuels and the subsequent depletion of natural resources – most notably, the production of food. What once was an industry that relied on localized and manageable demands the agricultural sector is now marked by extreme mechanization and mass production. As a result, environmental degradation has coincided with the recent growth of agriculture.

Indiana cornfield. Image: Reuters/John Sommers II

Local Ecosystem Pollution

Food production is accompanied by a host of environmental issues, especially as production numbers have grown to meet population demands. A growing environmental issue associated with food production is localized point and non-point source pollution. For example, large farms typically rely on fertilizers and pesticides to promote healthy crop growth. The excessive use of both of these agents has been linked to contaminated runoff and groundwater pollution, which can significantly impact aquatic and marine ecosystems through the process of eutrophication.

Food production also has a local impact on land use and habitat degradation. In the early stages of the agriculture industry, farmers used open land space for crop growth and livestock grazing. Today, the amount of land used for crop fields and livestock yards is staggering. For example, in the western United States, more than 260 million acres of forests were cleared to create more open space for cattle. The destruction of various habitats can result in variety of problems including the loss of biodiversity and the threat of extinction for some species. Outside of the United States, many countries such as Brazil, have witnessed the extreme degradation of rainforests in an effort to make more land available for agricultural crops and cattle grazing. As a result, many species are now listed as threatened or endangered and many vital ecosystem services have been lost.

Climate Change and Natural Disasters

Food production has both a localized and global impact on environmental health. The food and agriculture industry are currently responsible for more than 15% of all greenhouse gases around the world. For example, the industrialization of the agricultural industry has called for the use of large farm equipment. Such machinery requires the use of fossil fuels, which are major contributors to smog and air pollution. Likewise, livestock production is an important source of atmospheric pollutants. Cattle, which are raised for milk and meat, are known to belch methane. While one cow’s methane-filled-belches have little impact on the atmosphere, the collective input of millions of cows makes a considerable impact. Livestock animals are responsible for nearly 20% of all atmospheric methane (a major greenhouse gas). Therefore, the increase in affluence, wealth, and population numbers in various countries has resulted in the demand for more meat, and thus a marked increase in global air pollution.

Concentrated Animal Feed Operation. Image: US Environmental Protection Agency

Climate change not only is negatively impacted by food production, but also contributes to food security and safety. Recent reports have demonstrated the grave impact of climate change on food production and water availability. Throughout the United States, Midwestern states are experiencing unprecedented amounts of drought, namely associated with warmer atmospheric temperatures and the lack of rain. As a result, crops are withering before maturity and harvest, thus resulting in the shortage of crucial resources such as corn, wheat, and soy. Many farmers are taking a grave economic hit while buyers are noticing price hikes due to resource shortages. The price hikes and lack of available crops is directly associated with food security because it does not guarantee affordable and available food for every customer.

Should temperatures and prices continue to rise, citizens will experience a difficult time purchasing regularly inexpensive food items. On a global scale, high atmospheric temperatures and persistent drought have plagued the United Kingdom, as well as other parts of Europe. As reported by the Washington Post, pig farmers are struggling to meet the costs of feed, and therefore, are witnessing smaller sow herd populations. The global drought crisis is yet another example of the consequences of rising atmospheric temperatures, which, as stated previously, are likely responsible for unfavorable crop-growing conditions, and ultimately, higher food prices.

In summary, food production has increased at an astounding rate to meet the rising demands of a growing global population. Many variables and risks coincide with increased production, especially those pertaining to local and global environmental pollution, as well as food availability. Through effective spatial planning and proper crop generation, farmers and governments can hopefully work to reduce their impact on the environment while maintaining a readily available source of food for their citizens.

About the Author:Bridget McDonald is pursuing her Master’s Degree in the Dornsife Environmental Studies Program at the University of Southern California. After completing her degree, she plans to attend law school and pursue a career in the environmental and animal law sector.