Sustainable Food: The Impact of Food on the Environment
12 minute read
Updated on Sun Aug 08 2021
Where do these emissions come from?
Agriculture requires a lot of energy: for operating machinery, storing crops, housing livestock, and making the chemicals that are used to help plants grow (such as fertilisers). Most of this energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the atmosphere.
Along with CO₂, agriculture also produces nitrous oxide (N₂O) and methane (CH₄), greenhouse gases with an even stronger warming effect than CO₂. Where do these non-CO₂ emissions come from? Let's have a look at the picture below:
On top of these emissions, agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater use and takes up 50% of Earth’s habitable land. It is responsible for 80% of global deforestation, and the chemicals used in agriculture pollute ecosystems and kill local wildlife (more details in the Advanced course).
By 2050 our global population is set to reach 9.7 billion and food production will have to increase by between 50-100%. But how can we achieve this when agriculture is already putting such a strain on our resources and planet?
Can we make enough food sustainably?
Today, crop yields are usually only 20-80% as high as they could be. Why?
Farmers apply large amounts of fertilisers, pesticides, and water to minimize these problems. But can we solve them without using up resources?
How can we make farming more sustainable?
Soil quality can vary considerably within a single field, both spatially and in different seasons. Precision agriculture involves using technologies to measure this variability and adjust to it. By using site-specific sensing and sampling, the application of water, fertilizers, and pesticides can be optimised to maximise crop yields, while minimizing waste and environmental damage.
Examples of these exciting technologies are given in the “Advanced” version of this course - check it out!
Instead of using expensive technologies, can we make nature do the work for us?
Clearly, changes need to be made to traditional farming methods. Both natural and technological solutions will be needed to increase crop yields while reducing waste and resource use. But what if we could improve the crops themselves?Next Chapter