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Read up on: Sustainable food production

A summary of some of the sustainability issues around modern food production.
© University of Reading

Food, and where it comes from, is an interesting topic to discuss with children as they all know what it is but will have varying responses to it due to different cultures and experiences at home. In the second of our opportunities to read up on a relevant topic, you’ll be looking at some of the sustainability issues surrounding the modern food production system which is estimated to account for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions 1.

To get to grips with the challenges of sustainable food production, it’s important to understand the food supply chain. Traditionally, the supply chain was viewed as a linear sequence starting with the primary producers: farming and fishing operations. The raw materials they produce are transformed into safe, nutritious food by a vast, global network of food processing operations before the products are transported to shops and then to our plates.

Graphic illustrating a linear food production system: starting with Agriculture (food is supplied by arable, horticultural, livestock and dairy farms); then Industry (the industry enforces quality checks and food standards, also undertakes processing); then Distributors (food reaches consumers through distributors. Supermarkets allow consumers to have choice and compare products); and finally Consumers.

A conventional, linear food supply chain. ©EIT Food

Even products you might not view as ‘processed’ such as fruit and vegetables are sorted and packed to meet consumer demand for visually appealing food with a long shelf-life.

As food travels through each stage of the supply chain it uses resources such as labour, water, energy and fuel. The length and complexity of modern supply chains would result in very expensive food if it weren’t for mechanised, industrial-style farms and fishing operations, super-efficient logistics and government subsidies. But keeping the prices down for the consumer creates costs for the environment in terms of intensive farming and fishing practices, pollution and energy use.

One response is to shorten the food chain and buying direct from the primary producers does reduce the environmental impact while delivering more of the profit margin to the farmers. Eating seasonally and locally also provides traceability and increased connection to where food comes from, is likely to lead to less waste and increases trust among consumers. However, this is not always possible (if you like rice but live in northern Europe for example) and not necessarily the most sustainable option.

As the conventional ‘take, make, dispose’ model isn’t sustainable, new circular economies are being devised to cut down on the extraction of raw materials and waste. Side-products of one manufacturing process circle back and become inputs for another and the ‘end-of-life’ concept is replaced with a heightened awareness of the value in all the components and products.

3 concentric circles. Outer is labelled 'energy'. The middle is divided into 5 sections: production & distribution feeds to consumption & stock feeds to waste & recycling feeds to biological & technical materials feeds to ecodesign which feeds back to production & distribution. The inner circle is labelled reuse, repair, redistribute, refurbish, remanufacture. At the bottom under the heading 'minimise' is extraction and import of natural resources including energy carriers, and emissions (landfill and incineration).

Circular economy system diagram from the European Environment Agency

The global nature of the food system means that selecting products according to their sustainability credentials is complicated. In ‘Planet Partners: Tackling the Climate Crisis Together’, Dr Laurence Smith explains his systems-thinking approach to investigating the environmental burdens associated with particular food products. He describes how lifecycle analysis of a food item analyses everything that goes into producing, for example, a kilogram of wheat, right down to the coal mined to create electricity to power the production process. He demonstrates how this level of detail is key to making food production more sustainable as you can’t manage what you can’t measure. His analysis sometimes reveals surprising results – such as the fact that buying locally grown tomatoes (if you live in northern Europe) may be less sustainable, despite the air miles, than buying those grown and transported from warmer climates like Spain.

Although the complexity of the global food system can be overwhelming, it impacts all of us and individual choice can make a difference. In the video in the previous Step, you saw how growing some simple food crops or visiting a food production facility helps children place a higher value on what they eat. Learning to think about things we take for granted, such as where our food comes from, is a skill that will turn them into the innovators, researchers and policy makers of the future.

1 Our World in Data: Emissions by sector
© University of Reading
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