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Environmental Impacts

Food systems crucially depend on natural resources like water, soil, land, minerals and fossil fuels, terrestrial and marine biodiversity.

Food systems are at the core of future agendas for sustainable development, which includes a historic global commitment to face and suppress poverty and hunger.

Food systems depend on natural resources like water, soil, land, minerals, fossil fuels and terrestrial and marine biodiversity. As the world population continues to grow rapidly towards the 10 billion people expected in 2050, it has been estimated that 220% more water and 43% more crop land will be required if dietary trends continue. Worringly, the agri-food sector is already facing competition and scaracity of land, water and energy for food production and over exploitation of the wild fisheries which could affect our ability to produce this food.

It is vital that we look again at how we produce, distribute, value and consumer food and start to work towards a more sustainable food system.

Environmental Impacts

Various environmental impacts, such as the loss of biodiversity, soil deterioration, water exhaustion and greenhouse gas emissions are majorly and directly driven by the production processes characterizing current food systems. Most of the environmental impacts result from the use, and abuse, of chemical components like antibiotics, pesticides, plastics and hormones, which alters natural processes and can lead to contamination of the quality of air, water and soil.

Moreover, the agri-food sector is heavily dependent on fossil fuel derived inputs, like fuel and fertilizers. Consequently, the cost of food continues to rise following the increase of fossil energy prices, and biofuel production becomes more and more attractive. Whilst food packaging containing paper, card, plastics, steel and aluminium also have negative impacts on a variety of natural resources.

A number of social, political and environmental developments are having important consequences in relation to the natural resources needed in our food systems. The expected population growth implies a higher demand for food, whose production, in turn, will be affected by climate change. Furthermore, the increase of wealth in a large number of developing countries, will probably lead to adoption of new diets (e.g. higher meat consumption) that require richer resources and more intensive food production.

Managing Natural Resources

The efficiency of natural resources used within a food system can be ensured, either, when produced food is consumed with the same amount of resources, or when food production requires fewer resources. The increase of production efficiency, also called decoupling, along with the reduction of food demand and consumption help realize a resource-use effective food system. To guarantee the fulfillment of all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is imperative to sustainably and efficiently manage the natural resources.

Effective interventions can be initiated and promoted by different actors such as governments, civil society and companies:

  • Governments

Governments have indeed an important task in setting the institutional and regulatory framework as well as an important role in educating the general public and future consumers on the environmental and social meaning of food choices, how to choose raw materials and how to prepare healthy, tasty and sustainable food from basic ingredients.

Food systems, as much as the use of natural resources, are directly and indirectly influenced by a large set of local, national and international regulations. If aligned they might contribute to sustainable food systems, therefore their harmonization should represent an important mission for authorities at various levels of government. Moreover, governments also play a key role in stimulating innovations, promoting new initiatives, initiating collaboration and cooperation within the system.

  • Private Actors

Private actors are important players in food systems, although they are not always given the right incentives or the awareness tools, to promote more sustainable practices. Nevertheless, many companies are increasingly realizing the potential of a long term investment in more sustainable supply chains.

Private companies could in fact pay farmers and fishermen to help them better manage their natural resources and invest in farms and small agri-food businesses to help them develop more sustainable activities.

Furthermore, private enterprises could be important agents in connecting smallholder farmers to modern food chains, especially in developing countries, helping them widen their consumers target as well as entering in the export markets. These actors, such as retailers and food companies, could invest in local supply chains and local products, while assisting farmers and small business to increase production in a sustainable way.

  • Civil Society

Actors from civil society can play a key part in improving their quality of food and therefore of life. They can in fact stimulate governments and private stakeholders to take action, both raising awareness and initiating constructive dialogues, as well as encourage certain niche players, and thus challenge incumbent actors to be more reactive and to promptly act.

What we would like you to do

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below:

  • Do you think you can influence the sustainability of the food system?
  • Do you think you can stimulate the government and private stakeholders to take action?
  • Why / Why not?
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Introduction to Food Science

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