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The impact of food production on our environment

All food production relies on using resources from the natural environment. This article looks at the impact of doing so.
Every type of food production has some impact on our environment.
An environmental impact is defined as any change within the ecosystem following our use of resources or other interaction with any component of the ecosystem.
This impact can be positive or negative. Historically, food production worked with and imitated natural processes, and had a minimal impact on nature.
However, in the last century or so, the intensification and industrialisation of food production has significantly increased the exploitation of natural processes and resources and is the source of many negative environmental impacts.
A montage of a natural ecosystem and industrial farming

Measuring the impact of food production

Promoting positive impacts (such as creating havens on farms for the pollinators that many ecosystems rely on) and minimising negative environmental impacts (such as reducing the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are carbon-intensive and can enter and pollute watercourses) is integral to the principles of ‘sustainable agricultural development’.
Key indicators which measure environmental sustainability impacts include:
  • biodiversity change (such as loss of critical pollinators and endemic species and/or introduction of alien species)
  • land-use change (such as soil erosion, soil degradation and deforestation)
  • water use (such as continued availability and easy access following water impoundment, watercourse diversion, use of irrigation and/or changes to local crop cultivation and/or livestock rearing)
  • waste production (such as from diseased crops or unused crop and livestock residues)
  • pollution of air, land and water, including leaching of chemicals (from pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics) and organic material (such as animal or vegetation residues), and greenhouse gas emissions (such as methane from decomposition of food waste)
  • zoonoses, which are diseases caused or transmitted by living organisms including animal parasites, bacteria, fungi, viruses and prions.

Environmental impact assessments

Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are conducted by competent auditors, but it is important for people interested in NSA to understand environmental impacts and consider them when planning, implementing and recording NSA interventions.
A guide to these EIAs is provided by the FAO.
The FAO broadly classifies projects into three categories.

Category A

Projects with significant potential for negative or adverse environmental impacts. These include the most intensive and industrialised forms of farming (crops and livestock) and fisheries.
A lot of these typically require land-use change and significant additional inputs (such as fertilisers and fossil fuels). The aim of ‘sustainable intensification is to eliminate, minimise or mitigate negative environmental impacts as much as practicably possible.

Category B

Projects with fewer negative or adverse environmental impacts. These include small- and medium-sized agriculture and aquaculture projects and include those projects introducing new species of crops and animals.
Most NSA projects would fall under this category, and therefore it is important to be aware of the potential environmental impacts of any NSA project or intervention.

Category C

Projects with minimal or no adverse impacts on the environment or environment of other stakeholders. Such projects are rare, but they include activities that support subsistence smallholder farming and fishing.
EIAs generally include the activities described in the image below. There is a more accessible version available in the Downloads section.
Environmental impact assessment process.
For Category A projects, it would be expected that all steps of an EIA would be followed with the production of a detailed environmental management plan to continually monitor and manage impacts.
For a Category B project, an analysis of known or expected direct impacts and a monitoring plan is required, with a more detailed EIA undertaken if practicable.
Category C projects do not formally require an impact assessment or management plan, but project screening should be undertaken to confirm that there are no risks to the environment.

Environmental impacts of NSA interventions

NSA interventions, being small- and medium-scale, should have lower and fewer local environmental impacts. However, the accumulative impacts of many small scale interventions over a wider area can be significant.
Therefore, NSA interventions should ideally be ‘regenerative’ or ‘restorative’ wherever possible. Regenerative or restorative agriculture is based on farming systems that restore and conserve natural habitats and agroecosystems.
This is mainly through the protection and restoration of topsoils and rural ecosystems, working with natural capital and processes (for example, pollinators, natural pest control, water sources and forests) to produce food.

Regenerative or restorative agriculture

Regenerative or restorative agriculture can be compared to the principles of a circular economy, in which inputs are minimised, resources are used in multiple innovative ways, and any waste outputs are reused, repurposed or recycled as agricultural inputs.
The diagram below gives an example of regenerative agriculture. A more accessible version is available in the Downloads section.
Regenerative agriculture.
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A Nutritional Approach to Agriculture and Food Security

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