Written By: Derek Martin

Published: October 25, 2020

How food can heal the world

As human beings, there is no larger system that we interact with more often than the food system. Whether that be through buying groceries, seeing food marketing, daydreaming about our next meal, or, of course, eating, the food system plays a significant role in our daily lives. It’s something that can evoke the most emotional response from every person. Ask someone what their least favorite food is, and you’ll most likely provoke a vehement rant (anyone who has ever mentioned tomato soup in my presence has seen that response). We use food to celebrate holidays, religious ceremonies, graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries. We use food to show others we care; bringing food to a funeral, making chicken noodle soup when someone is sick, or giving our significant other a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day. We build relationships by gathering around the dinner table or grabbing a bite to eat on a first date.

In addition to building relationships, our food system built the modern world. Once it was no longer the responsibility of each person to hunt, forage, and/or farm, people could pursue other interests. It should be no surprise that our modern world is facing major challenges. Climate change, resource depletion, overconsumption, ocean acidification, inequalities, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, among many others threaten to destroy the world the food system helped to build. In order to fix it, we first have to understand it.

To begin, let’s take a look at a few statistics about our food system. Agriculture contributes about 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US [1]. The US food system produces 4,000 calories for every American daily, while the average American eats 2,500 calories [2]. About a third of all food is wasted in the US [3]. In 2012, 899 million pounds of pesticides were used in agriculture in the US [4]. In 2017, nutrient runoff created an 8,776 square mile hypoxic (dead) zone in the Gulf of Mexico [5].

In addition to building relationships, our food system built the modern world. Once it was no longer the responsibility of each person to hunt, forage, and/or farm, people could pursue other interests. It should be no surprise that our modern world is facing major challenges. Climate change, resource depletion, overconsumption, ocean acidification, inequalities, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, among many others threaten to destroy the world the food system helped to build. In order to fix it, we first have to understand it.

Overview of Greenhouse Gases and Sources of Emissions [1]

Although much of this information is somewhat grim, here’s the good news: the food system can play a pivotal role in addressing the aforementioned challenges and once again build a better future. So, what kinds of changes do we need? In short, we need changes throughout the entire food system from how we grow food, to the way it’s processed and packaged, to how it’s transported, and what we’re eating. Thankfully, over the past few decades, farmers, researchers, scientists, doctors, and intrepid food system entrepreneurs have developed and fine-tuned incredible food system solutions.

One of the most impactful and simple ways that anyone can reduce their environmental impact is by eating less meat and dairy. For example, a quarter pound hamburger patty takes 450 gallons of water to produce [6] and a pound of cheese emits 10-14 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere [7]. There has never been a better time to go vegan. Tofu is no longer the only option, the foodscape for vegans has exploded and is more accessible than ever before. Faux meats have come a long way in taste, texture, and appearance. The Impossible Burger (which uses only 58 gallons of water by the way) and Beyond Burger are two good alternatives to burgers. Most restaurants offer vegetarian and vegan options and new restaurants are opening all the time that offer purely vegan fare. For example, check out the PB & J Bar in Danville! The Natural Food Store in Lewisburg came to our Sustainable Food Fair last year and provided samples of some of the best vegan cheeses I’ve ever eaten. By eating less meat and dairy, we can significantly cut down on the pressures we’re exerting on the environment. Not to mention reducing health issues. If you want to learn more about how health and food intersect, I suggest reading The China Study. The China Study is a book written by a doctor from the Cleveland Clinic who examines how meat and dairy products impact human health.

How we’re growing food can also help heal out planet. If farmers adopt drip irrigation water systems and select native and less water-intensive crops, we can reduce the amount of water needed in irrigation. We have limited fresh water resources and a 2014 Government Accountability Office report indicated that 40 of 50 state water managers have stated that a part of their state will be experience a water shortage within the next decade [8]. By eliminating monocultured fields full of only one crop, we can increase crop’s resiliency to pests and diseases and decrease the need to use pesticides and herbicides. Also, adding nitrogen fixers into the planting rotation can increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil and the need for reduce fertilizer use. By reducing pesticides and fertilizers, we can reduce excessive nutrient loading, nutrient runoff and then subsequent creation of hypoxic (dead) zones further down in the watershed.

In this modern age, we also have new and innovative technology at our disposal that could potentially revolutionize the agriculture industry. Drones can be used to identify problems with plants and livestock, identify weeds and pests, and spot treat the issues the drones find. Vertical farming, aquaponics, and hydroponics all are using technology or alternative farming methods to grow food indoors using less inputs to create food. Vertical farming is basically farming in large warehouses using LED lights and grow plants in a vertical fashion, think bookshelves for plants. Hydroponics and aquaponics recirculate water and nutrients through

closed loop systems that use less inputs than traditional agriculture. Smart devices, sensors, and tracking software continue to innovate agriculture and are driving a younger generation into farming (which is good because the average age of a farmer is 58)!

We can work with government to create a food system that protects farmers and farm workers while reducing incentives for commodity crops (corn and soybeans) and incentivize organic farming practices. The US Farm Bill is the main policy tool used by the USDA to regulate and subsidize the US food system. It is renewed about every 5 years and the current version expires in 2023. Corn and soybeans are the largest crops grown in the US but hold very little nutritional value when consumed and much is used to feed livestock (see above about eating less meat and dairy). By examining the nutritional guidelines set forth by the USDA, we should be eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead of the processed and nutrient lacking foods coming from corn and soybeans, like high fructose corn syrup. The health benefits of organic food are controversial but what is known is that concentrated exposure to pesticides are linked to chronic disease and excess of these chemicals and fertilizers are finding their way into our water system, causing the hypoxic zones, mentioned earlier.

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Speaking of people, the food system has huge opportunities to heal many of the social ills of society. Food is unique in that in brings people together and is one of only a handful of shared experiences between all humans. By using food as a starting point for conversations, we can forge new connections with people who we ordinarily wouldn’t have much in common. Talking with others is the first step in gaining new perspectives and new relationships, but it’s not just individual connections. Food is a central part of culture, and so by experiencing another cuisine, you can have a glimpse into another culture. Building new relationships and cultural diversity strengthens the fabric of society, and these steps will be incredibly important if we want to heal from the current polarization in our society.

By building relationships around food, growing food in more environmentally friendly ways, and by eating less meat and dairy, food can heal our planet. We can reduce animosity, exploitation, resource depletion, chronic health concerns, and environmental degradation. So, let’s pick up our forks and dig into a better future!

Citations:

 

 

1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2020) Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990 - 2018.

2. USDA, ERS (2015) “Data Sets: Nutrient Availability.”

3. Natural Resource Defense Council (2017) “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.”

4. USDA, ERS (2019) Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019.

5. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (2017) “Gulf of Mexico ‘Dead Zone’ is the Largest ever Measured.” 6. https://www.watercalculator.org/news/articles/beef-king-big-water-footprints/?bid=1143/beef-the-king-of-the-big-water-footprints

7. Hamerschlag and Venkat (2011). “Environmental Working Group: Meat Eaters Guide To Climate Change and Health”

8. https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-430

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