Impacts of Food Production on the Earth’s Environment: Vegetarian Diet and Sustainable Agriculture vs. Non-vegetarian Diet and Conventional/Industrial Agriculture

INTRODUCTION

The choice of diet has great impacts on environmental and human health.  Developed countries, such as the United States, tend to use the industrial vegetation and animal agricultural model, which depletes nonrenewable and renewable natural resources at an unsustainable rate.  This mode of producing and processing our food sources has many harmful side effects.  The use of fertilizers, pesticides, and burning fossil fuels contributes immensely to the pollution of our soil, water, air, the loss of biodiversity, and has a negative influence on the biological health of humans and many other organisms around the globe.

Mass animal production for food, which comes from feed lots and factory farms, pollute waterways with their runoff wastes, pollute the air, and harm the health of workers and residents who live downstream or downwind from such development.  New strains of food-borne pathogens have become more common.  The excessively high use of antibiotics in animal agriculture may create resistant strains of microbes in humans.  Genetically engineered foods, both plants and animals, risk the creation of new allergens and may be harmful to the immune system and vital organs.  Consuming a diet high in animal products is a leading cause of many modern chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.

Research has shown that a vegetarian diet which is regionally produced, seasonally consumed, and organically grown protects the environment, reduces pollution, and minimizes global climate changes.

Sustainable agriculture uses methods such as crop rotation and cover crops in order to replenish the balance of nutrients in the soil and naturally control pests.  No-till and low-till farming methods are used to avoid erosion of top soil.  Sustainable agriculture also incorporates healthy soil management, attention to biodiversity, nutrient management, integrated pest management, and rotational grazing of animals into its practices.  Practicing urban agriculture and developing and/or supporting CSAs (community supported agriculture) are also a large part of this agricultural model.

PHYSICAL AND BIOLOGICAL DESCRIPTIONS

The negative biological effects of industrialized agriculture have been many and are complex.  The use of monocultures, the uniform planting of a single crop over a large area, erodes the biodiversity of plants and animals.  The synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers used on these crops pollute the soil, water, and air causing great harm to the health of the environment and humans.  This type of agriculture erodes the soil faster than it is able to be replenished of its fertility and nutrients.

In 1998, the world used 137 million tons -the US used 20 million tons- of fertilizers on their crops.  It has been found that crops actually absorb about 1/3-1/2 of the nitrogen applied, leaving the rest to run off into water sources.  One example is the “dead zone” created in the Gulf of Mexico from the run off of nitrogen into the Mississippi river.  The “dead zone” is created when excess nutrients cause algal blooms, speeding up their growth-and-decay cycle, which depletes oxygen, driving off sea life such as fish and shrimp.  Excess nitrogen is also the cause of less plant diversity.  The application of chemical fertilizers increases the acidity of the soil, over time impeding plant growth.

Pesticides are linked to the widespread decline in bird and beneficial insect populations.  The run off and airborne “drift” of these pesticides pollute surface and ground waters.  Pesticide use is related to the decline in the honeybee populations, developmental abnormalities in amphibians, and compromised immune function in dolphins, seals, and whales.  The widespread use of pesticides allows many target species of weeds and insects to develop resistance to these chemicals.

Industrial agriculture accounts for about 2/3 of all the water used worldwide.  Irrigating fields using surface waters or aquifers diverts water from other potential uses.  The excessive use of chemicals in these agricultural practices pollute surface waters and aquifers, reducing the amount of water suitable for other uses.

HISTORY OF HUMAN INTERACTIONS

Humans have converted natural habitats into agricultural and industrial landscapes, ultimately degrading the land, depleting natural resources, and poisoning the soil, water and air, posing a great threat to biodiversity and greatly adding to the growing effects of climate change.  About 10,000 years ago, the introduction of systematic agriculture and domestication of animals began.  Eventually, Greek invasions of others countries were due to their increasing meat consumption, thus requiring more farmland for fodder production.  Deforestation for farmland and for building purposes has been taking place for thousands of years up to the present.  Industrial agriculture was introduced in the 19th c.  In the late 19th and early 20th c. homesteading settlers spread through North America’s Great Plains.  These farmers used large-scale cultivation of wheat, which eroded the soil.  By the 1930s, a drought, alongside the human impacts of farming and building on the region’s soil, caused what became to know as the Dust Bowl.

CURRENT PROBLEMS

  • Industrial monoculture farming is linked to the loss of plant diversity and soil erosion
  • Widespread use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides pollute our water, soil, air and food and cause high risks for cancers, and reproductive and endocrine disorders.
  • Mass produced meat production leads to a greater risk of illness from food-borne pathogens.
  • Excessive non-medical use of antibiotics in animal production may create resistant strains of microbes in humans.
  • A diet high in animal products is closely linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and high medical costs.
  • The industrial food system harms the health of its workers and residents downstream or downwind.
  • The industrial food system uses unsustainable practices and depletes natural resources.
  • Industrial agriculture is a main contributor of methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases (GHGs) linked to global warming.
  • Other parts of the food system contribute carbon dioxide emissions to the environment (a GHG), drawn from the use of fossil fuels in transport, processing, retailing, storage, and preparation.
  • A non-vegetarian diet requires 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more primary energy, 13 times more fertilizer, and 1.4 times more pesticides than a vegetarian diet, thus exacting a higher cost on the environment.
  • On average, land requirements for meat production are 10 times greater than for plant-protein production.
  • About 40% of the world’s grain harvest is fed to animals.  Half of this could feed everyone starving in the world!
  • The use of huge amounts of animal manure from industrial agriculture causes high levels of potentially carcinogenic nitrates in drinking water and vegetables.
  • Animal production leads to deforestation, overgrazing, and overfishing.

SOLUTIONS TO PROBLEMS

  • Climate change and environmental pollution is curbed by choosing a regionally, organically grown, seasonally consumed vegetarian diet.
  • Sustainable agriculture is based on relatively small, profitable farms that use fewer off-farm inputs.
  • Sustainable agriculture maintains higher biotic diversity.
  • Sustainable agriculture emphasizes technologies that are appropriate to the scale of production.
  • Sustainable agriculture methods make the transition to renewable forms of energy.
  • Environmental and human health would be enhanced from a transition to sustainable agriculture.
  • The environmental impact of organic farming is much lower.
  • Learn where your food comes from.
  • Support local, organic farming, such as CSAs (community supported agriculture).
  • Transition to a more vegetarian diet.
  • Learn how you can grow some of your own food in your backyard or at community gardens.

WORKS CITED

Horrigan, Leo, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker.  How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 110/Number 5/ May 2002/ 445-456.  Center for a Livable Future, John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Carlsson-Kanyama, Annika, and Alejandro D. Gonzalez.  Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89:1704S-1709S, 2009.  First published April 1, 2009; doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736AA

Marlow, Harold J., William K. Hayes, Samuel Soret, Ronald L. Carter, Ernest R. Schwab and Joan Sabate.  Diet and the environment:  does what you eat matter? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89:1699S-1703S, 2009.  First published April 1, 2009; doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736Z

Leitzmann, Claus.  Nutrition ecology:  the contribution of vegetarian diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 78, Number 3, 657S-6595, September 2003

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