What's the problems with our current food system?

cartoon eating earth

Eating is a deeply intimate experience.   More than just being required to live, consuming food is an integral part of life’s rituals –from the daily routines such as the evening family meal or a pizza evening with friends, to some of our largest and most important life events such as weddings, and religious festivals.  Sharing food binds our social connections while a solitary meal of favourite dishes comforts us when we are feeling down.  Food excites our senses, raises our passions, and defines our social standing.   Our food choices are intertwined with our culture, social environment, values and our religion.   We are even entertained by food on TV and celebrity chefs are treated like rock stars in our food obsessed society.

So – given the outsized role that food plays in every part of our lives, recognising that our current consumption rates, coupled with the methods of producing and managing our food supply are completely unsustainable, and causing huge damage to our environment, is something many of us would perhaps rather not have to face up to. 

Take for example, our biggest environmental threat of climate change.   The three sectors of our modern economy that contribute the most to climate change are sometimes summarized as “cars, coal and cows”.  These are just shorthand for transport, power generation and food – and of the three, it may be the “cows” / food part that is the hardest for us to change. 

With the agricultural sector contributing approximately one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions[1] according to the IPCC, any plan to reach net-zero clearly must address agriculture and food as part of the solution.

But it’s not just the climate that is being impacted by our lust for food.

Since 1900, the amount of land being used for agriculture has nearly doubled – from 2.5 billion hectares to 4.9 billion hectares in 2016.  Such a huge increase in land use has come at enormous cost to the world’s ecosystems.  Not only have over 500 unique species become extinct in the same time period, but a recent UN report also shows that the extinction rate is accelerating – with over 1 million species now threatened with extinction and huge declines in populations of almost every species on the planet – many ecosystems on land and in water are now either collapsing or are in serious danger of collapse.[2]

Agriculture is – by far – the largest consumer of water on the planet, using 70% of all water used across the world[3].  Not only does over extraction of water degrade and deplete our rivers and aquifers, run-off from agricultural land, containing fertilizer, pesticides and livestock effluent cause even further environmental damage and health impacts for people who live nearby or downstream.

But the problems of our food production go way beyond agriculture.   Plastic pollution, much of it from food packaging, is now ubiquitous across the entire globe, causing even further environmental degradation and health problems for all species, including humans.  Our use of plastics in the food industry now forms a toxic chain from fossil fuel production, through our environment leading directly back into the food we are consuming.[4]

And yet – despite the huge environmental cost of the food we produce, it is shocking to realise that over one third of it is wasted[5].  From crops left in the ground because it is uneconomic to harvest them, through the mountains of out-of-date products that supermarkets dispose of, to the weekly clear out of fridges across the world, every part of our food supply chain is contributing to this enormous pile of waste.  And with nearly 700 million people in the world going hungry each year[6] , such appalling waste is even more difficult to accept.  Furthermore, rotting food will produce methane; a potent greenhouse gas that delivers 30-50 times more warming than CO2.

When you take these statistics and add the facts that the world’s population set to grow by 25% to 10 billion over the next 30 years and that huge increases in demand for animal protein in the developing world are expected in the same time period[7], it’s clear than not only is our current path unsustainable, but it is also a road to utter destruction both for our environment and for us.

Then, of course, there are the ethics of our food production.   Since the 19th century, our view of non-human animals has developed from seeing them as mindless automata through to recognizing them as sophisticated sentient creatures, capable of a wide range of cognitive capabilities once considered the sole preserve of humans.   We now know, beyond doubt, that all vertebrates can experience a wide range of emotions and, most importantly, suffer pain and emotional distress in ways that are physiologically identical to us[8].  Yet, despite this, as a society we tolerate the treatment of domesticated agricultural species in ways that, were they applied to pets or humans, would generate outrage, horror, and revulsion. 

So it is clear that our current system is unsustainable and unethical and in need of urgent change – but where do we start to look for solutions?


[1] https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/chapter/chapter-5/

[2] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/

[3] https://www.oecd.org/agriculture/topics/water-and-agriculture/

[4] https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plastic-and-Health-The-Hidden-Costs-of-a-Plastic-Planet-February-2019.pdf (page 31)

[5] http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/flw-data)

[6] http://www.fao.org/3/ca9692en/online/ca9692en.html#chapter-executive_summary

[7] http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf

[8] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/