V.I.S. (Very Important Soil)

In post 2, we saw that to produce food we need energy, soil, water and biodiversity. So now, let’s talk about soil!

Soil is a very complex natural resource. It contains all naturally occurring chemical elements and simultaneously combines solid, liquid and gaseous states. Soil is also one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth.1

The Segantini Park in Milan-Italy, is a park designed and created by citizens together with the municipal administration. Inside the park, citizens take care of 3000 square meters vegetables garden and 3000 square meters of a reforested area.

But, what is soil made of?

Around the world, soils are very diverse. They differentiate according to their physical, chemical and biological properties.1 There is a whole science behind soil and it is super interesting, especially if you are thinking about making your own garden.

Here some basics:

Soil is made of mineral particles (originated from the degradation of rocks), organic particles (originated from the degradation of organic matter (plants and animals)) and biota (living organisms).2

Soil particles leave tiny spaces between them (pores) that can be filled with air and/or water. The amount of water (and as a consequence the quantity of air) retained by the soil (infiltration) is important for plant growth.2

Living organisms moving in the soil help to aerate the soil favoring plant growing conditions.2 Soil is the home of an enormous biodiversity (plants, macrofauna (e.g. ants, termites, earthworms), mesofauna (mites, collembola), microfauna (protozoa, nematodes) and microflora (bacteria, fungi), from which little is known (with the exception of plants where ca. 90% species are known).3

Soil biodiversity plays a critical role in sustaining long term soil health and providing soil-based ecosystem services (see below).3

The soil and agriculture

Physical and chemical properties of the soil (see figure above) together with factors influencing soil formation (CLORPT: climate, organisms, relief, parent material and time) are largely responsible for soil fertility and consequently agricultural productivity.3

To improve soil fertility, external agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, are used. However, crop yields declined after several years of intense soil use, despite the continuous use and increasing application of these agricultural inputs.3

The strategy of improving soil fertility by adding exhausted minerals and controlling pests is obviously not the best solution!

In Santo Domingo de los Colorados, Ecuador, medium and large companies produce tropical fruits such as papaya for local and international markets. Most of them are grown as monocultures. They represent a source of income and food for families in the area. Photo by Karla Gachet.

It became necessary to think about the quality of the soil.

Soil quality considers the importance of the soil as a living system, with a wider role including not only biological productivity but also environmental quality (impacts on air and water) and the effects on plant and animal health.3

In recent years, the discussion of sustainable development has increased and the paradigms of “soil health” and “soil security” have emerged.3

According to FAO, a healthy soil has the continuous capacity to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use boundaries, to sustain biological productivity and to promote the quality of air and water environments, and maintain plant, animal, and human health.1

For a sustainable and resilient production system, maintaining soil stock nutrients is essential. However, soil stocks are linked to ecosystem functions via the soil biota (i.e. living organisms). Living organisms adapt to environmental change through natural selection (while the physical and chemical components do not) hence they play a central role in sustainable productivity and the provision of other ecosystem services (see below)3.

It is difficult to think that the conventional practice of adding missing nutrients (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) can be applied to living organisms. There are so many living organisms in a healthy soil and probably many of them are endemic of a specific ecosystem. It will be very hard to achieve!

Ok, so what do we do?

It is more efficient to let the ecosystem take care of life within the soil and we take care of conserving the ecosystem.

Two men from the community of Boanamo, Yasuní, Ecuador, go out hunting for wild pig and monkeys near their home. They still use blow guns with darts poisoned with Curare, all of which they make themselves. Unfortunately, with the introduction of rifles, they over hunt and sell animal meat in the black market. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

A healthier soil

Soil security is a broader, multidimensional and integrative concept. Soil security is concerned with global environmental sustainability issues such as the maintenance and improvement of the global soil resource to produce food, fiber and fresh water, contribute to energy and climate sustainability and to maintain biodiversity and the overall protection of the ecosystem.3

To clarify the interactions between agroecology and a healthy soil, let’s use the example of agroforestry.

Agroforestry is an agricultural system in which trees and shrubs grow around or among crops or pasturelands.

Studies performed mostly in Africa (in tropical maize-based agroforestry systems) have shown that soil biota abundance (the number of living organisms) is higher in cultivations with trees than in the ones without them. Additionally, the biological activity (e.g. earthworm’s activity) is increased near trees producing larger quantities of fast decomposing biomass that is rich in nutrients (e.g. nitrogen).3

The benefits of agro-ecosystem synergies, such as those generated by tree-crop-soil-livestock interaction, are the reduction of external trade-offs (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides). Additional alternatives to reduce trade-offs favoring ecological synergies include crop rotation, intercropping and the pruning of trees to reduce competition for sunlight that at the same time generate biomass for mulching (or the coverage of the soil surface) helping to conserve soil, water, to improve fertility and to control erosion.3

Blanca Ashanga harvests corn in a field in the Quichua community of San Pedro Sumino, Napo, Ecuador. All the community works in what they call a ‘Minga’ where everyone contributes and harvests for the community. The proceeds of selling the corn will be used for services in the community. Photo by Karla Gachet.

Living in symbiosis with nature is challenging but possible! Small innovative farmers around the world are already doing it!3

Now, it becomes clear that a healthy soil does not only take care of food production, and is the home of an exuberant biodiversity but also, it also provides ecosystem services. But, what exactly are they?  

Soil-based ecosystem services

Soil-based ecosystem services are processes delivered by the soil (e.g. nutrient capture and cycling) that supply a service to the ecosystem (e.g. food production).

There are two types of services: agricultural and non-agricultural. The following text box explains them: 

A healthy soil sustains life, protects the soil, cleans the air, conserves biodiversity and keeps, stores and supplies water. But not only this, as we also saw on the previous post, soil has the potential to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change by conserving the forest while producing our food through agroecology.

In post 4, we also talked about nitrous oxide (N2O), an important greenhouse gas (GHG), remember? Well, N2O production is connected to agriculture and soil as well! Let’s see how.

Nitrogen and the soil

Nitrogen (N) is critical for plant growth.4 But even if there is a lot of N in the air, it cannot be directly taken in by plants. It needs to be transformed by the biological processes (e.g. bacterial) of mineralization, nitrification, immobilization and denitrification.2 At the end of the cycle, N goes back into the atmosphere.4 Importantly, there are certain bacteria capable of fixing N directly from the atmosphere forming the N-containing organic substance that plants can use.1 The following figure shows the nitrogen cycle:

Importantly, only a certain amount of nitrogen can be stored in the soil. The surplus (caused by the addition of nitrogen containing fertilizers), is lost in the atmosphere, in runoff and leaked resulting in contamination of the air, surface and groundwaters.4 This is how agriculture, due to an excess quantity of nitrogen containing fertilizers, produces N2O, a powerful GHG!

This is ecologically and economically unsustainable! However, if we understand the needs and the dynamics of a healthy soil, we can make these processes more efficient, avoid soil degradation (i.e. removal of nutrients and erosion) and reduce GHG emissions. 

The challenge of climate change, soil security and food security, requires a more productive and resilient agriculture with a better management of natural resources. It requires agroecology!

The international initiative 4 per 1000 aims to demonstrate that agriculture and specifically agricultural soils play a crucial role in achieving food security and reversing climate change (see post 4). Really worth checking it out!   

Agroecology

Agroecology, “the ecology of the food system”, is a science, a global movement for food security and sovereignty and also an agricultural practice. It is an evolving concept that can also be referred as permaculture, organic agriculture, eco-agriculture, conservation agriculture and minimum or no-tillage. Its main goal is to transform the food systems towards sustainability, supporting the balance between ecological soundness, economic viability and social justice.3

But, what is wrong with the conventional agriculture besides its unsustainable relationship to a healthy soil from which we just talked about?

Well, conventional agriculture over-emphasizes high yields (monoculture production) and short-term profit, that results in remarkable economic profits for some, at the cost of ecological degradation (e.g. soil erosion, loss of agrodiversity, pest outbreak) and social side effects (e.g. poverty, malnutrition, dependency, loss of livelihood diversity).3

Fortunately, these problems can be tackled with agroecology. Agroecology is a holistic strategy to produce food approaching ecological, economic and social sustainability!

Even though there are some general guidelines associated with target systems, regions and major soil groups, agroecology requires fine tunings to meet farmers’ needs and adapt to climate, edaphic (soil) and biological parameters of a specific local context.3

So, the soil is central to agriculture and therefore sustainable agriculture is essentially dependent on soil health.3

But farming is not a natural process. Humans domesticate nature and disturb the natural soil processes to produce food. How can it be sustainable?

Well, the key to use the ecosystem in favor of agriculture and that agriculture respects and protects the ecosystem. The following examples show four important aspects of agroecology and the agroecological practices:3

Source: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4729e.pdf
Illustration: @salvaranic

The cases above are just a few examples of the outreach of agroecology and demonstrate that it is possible to feed the world population with food that is good, healthy and fair.

This can be done with smart innovative practices coming from small farmers that have adapted farming to the ecosystem.

Let’s support farmers practicing sustainable agriculture!!

In this regard, there is a very nice organization, A growing culture, that advocates for agroecological innovations coming from farmers. It is really worth checking it out!

Are you still not convinced as why it is so important to support farmers?

Please have a look to the following figure that shows the world urbanization patterns of the population:

It is evident that more and more people move from the countryside to the cities. Nothing wrong with that, right? But if the main reason is to escape from poverty and to have a “better life,” then, something is really wrong with our society…

Did you know that of the ca. 770 million people living in extreme poverty (or 11% of the words population living with less than 1.90 US dollar a day) 80% live in rural areas and are mostly farmers (two thirds)?5

Food is mandatory for living! Which make it incomprehensive that the people producing this essential good are among the poorest! And no wonder only few young people are interested in becoming farmers.

How can farmers be motivated to produce good quality food if we do not pay a fair price?

Importantly, prices not only include the cost of food production, but also a range of other factors not captured in the price of conventional food (e.g. environmental enhancement protection, higher standards for animal wellbeing, avoidance of health risks to farmers, rural development).

We need to support farmers, especially agroecologial producers, so that they keep feeding the world with good, delicious, healthy, fair food – with true food!

But, who are these farmers?

Worldwide, there are more than 570 million farms, from which more than 475 million farms are smaller than 2 hectares (ca. 84% operating in 12% of the worlds agricultural land), and more than 500 million are family farms (about 90% operating in ca. 75% of the farm land). Family farms are constantly distributed in almost all countries in the world and, therefore, are likely to be responsible for most of the world’s food and agricultural production.6

Also, in low income countries, small farms operate more farmland that do small farms in higher income countries.6  

So, we know now more about who is producing our food but how do we support them?

Probably, the only way of really doing it, is to find out who is our farmer. Shops are in the obligation of informing us and, if they cannot do so or we do not trust the information obtained, it may be a good time to change provider.

Cocoa producers in Africa. Cocoa is the main ingredient in chocolate. The market price of cocoa is not determined by the countries that produce it. The market price of cocoa does not always value the costs of economic, social and environmental production.

But, you might think that the so-called biological shops selling organic food are just too expensive and products are unaffordable…and you are probably right. A new economic system is now using the word organic frequently and labels food with lots of certificates.

And yes, we agree that organic products are limited, typically they have greater production and logistics costs due to the smaller quantities of produce (e.g. transportation, marketing, distribution) and farmers need to pay to be “certified organic”.7

When did it become normal that the food needed to be certified to be organic? Isn’t food organic by definition? Shouldn’t the food that uses chemical inputs be labeled chemically produce? Our food system is upside down!

Actually, there are a lot of agricultural systems that fully meet the requirements for organic agriculture that are not-certified organic. Especially in developing countries, these products are sold locally (e.g. village markets) directly to the consumer who benefit from knowing the origin of the food at normal market price.7 Let’s support their work!

But what does the “organic label” mean? Foods labeled as organic certify that the product does not contain synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, right? However, should we not care about what is inside our food and where it comes from instead? It might be the only way to start living in a sustainable way!

To achieve a transformation in the food system, changes are needed. From the production to the table. From those who grow food, to those who eat it, and all those who move the food in between.3

Some really outstanding projects that are making the difference by using agroecological principles are:

Nagenahiru, in Siri Lanka, is a foundation that focuses on the capacity of building disadvantaged rural communities addressing local needs through economically viable, culturally feasible, socially just and ecologically sustainable activities. They are achieving amazing things!

Eca-Amarakaeri, in Peru, is a Communal and Natural Reserve co-managed by 10 indigenous communities and representatives of the Peruvian State, covering an area of more than 400,000 hectares of forest. The financing comes from the sustainable harvesting of Brazilian nut which generates a stable income avoiding illegal logging, mining and other activities that threaten the Amazon rainforest.

Veta la Palma, in southern Spain, is a farm within the National Park de Doñana that has managed an integrated intervention of artificial wetland habitat for fish farming (29% of the land), the ecoagricultural practices of rice cultivation and foraging crops for cattle and horses growing (29% of the land) with the preservation of the ecosystem (42% of the land), generating  new economic activities based on principals of sustainability.

Las Cañadas, located in one of the last islands of the Veracruz Cloud Forest in Mexico, is a sustainable agroecologiacal farm as well as a green enterprise sharing knowledge through courses, seeds, plants and books helping others to implement practical and integrated solutions to live in a more sustainable way.

But probably one of the best ways to start is simple and can be started at home, in our community: let’s start a sustainable garden! There are a lot of benefits in creating gardens in cities (urban gardening):8

  • Economically, it helps low-income households to grow food for consumption and the surpluses for selling (income generation). Additionally, it provides employment opportunities.
  • Socially, it can provide a sense of community, promote rural-urban connections. It offers recreational opportunities improving life quality for urban residents (particularly young and elderly people). The production and consumption of fresh and nutritious vegetables improves child nutrition.
  • Ecologically, it reuses wastewater and organic soil waste, reduces the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and helps cites to become more resilient to climate change by reducing vulnerability of urban residents (particularly poor), diversifying urban food sources and income opportunities, keeping green open spaces and enhancing vegetative cover reducing urban heat-island effect.
Marigold flower on my balcony. Marigold is an easy going plant, a good friends of vegetables. Pollinators love them. In addition, the petals can give flavor and color to salads, rice, purees, etc.

Cities have a vital role to play in shaping the food system of the future, they can offer valuable contributions for regenerative practices with the potential of creating a new sustainable economy.9

Let’s be an active part of the solution; buy local, sustainable, seasonal, Fairtrade items, support agroecological farmers and make your own garden.

Stay tuned – we are starting our own urban garden! You can be part of it here by sharing your thoughts, ideas and suggestions.

By M. S. Gachet et N. Zanuto
Full story of the cover photo can be found here.

REFERENCES:
1 FAO. FAO Soils Portal.
2 FAO: 1985. Irrigation Water Management: Chapter 2 – Soil and Water
3 FAO: 2015. Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition. Proceedings of the FAO International Symposium.
4 Chapter 6: Nitrogen in the Soil-Crop System. In: Soil and Water Quality – An Agenda for Agriculture. NATIONAL ACADEMY PRESS, Washington, D.C. (1993).
5 World Bank Group: 2016. Who are the Poor in the Developing World?
6 Lowder, S. et al., FAO, 2016. The Number, Size and Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms and Family Farms Worldwide.
7 FAO: Organic agriculture.
8 The World Bank, 2013. Urban development series.
9 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2019. Cities and Circular Economy for Food.

Agriculture and climate change

As you saw on the previous posts (put link to post2 and 3), all agricultural activities need air, water, soil and biodiversity, and therefore have an impact on the planet. This impact can be positive if agriculture respects the ecosystem or negative if natural resources are exploited excessively. Agriculture, climate change and food security are interconnected.1 Let’s see how!

The temperature increases

The Earth’s climate changes constantly due to small variations in the planet’s orbit. However, since the end of the 19th century the surface temperature has increased by 0.85 °C (0.65 to 1.06 °C) and the sea level has risen, as shown in the figures below (figure taken from the IPCC 2014 report):2

Human activity and the impact on climate change

This increase is driven in large part by human activities. Humans have altered the delicate balance of the planet by polluting air, water, soil and destroying biodiversity. The figure below (figure taken from the IPCC 2014 report)2 helps us to understand the human impact (anthropogenic) on the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG):

Note: Quantitative information of CH4 and N2O emission time series from 1850 to 1970 is limited.
GtCO2 (Gigatonne)= 1 000 000 000 tonnes CO2= 1000 000 000 000 Kg CO2
Source: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf

In fact, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased by more than 1/3 since the beginning of the 19th century.2

As we mentioned in  post 3: Carbon footprint of food = Greenhouse gases (GHG) expressed in Kg of CO2 that a product emits throughout its lifetime.

In fact, GHG capture the heat radiated by the sun and heat the earth.3 Just to mention, water vapor (H2O) is an abundant GHG as well.3 However, due to its impact on the climate (through the formation of clouds and precipitation), and its low human impact, we are not going into details about this one.

The following figure shows the sources and concentration of GHG in the atmosphere.

Believe me, this is really interesting:

GWP (Global warming potential) is a relative measure of how much heat a GHG traps in the atmosphere (radiative properties) within a time period (e.g. 100 years).
Source: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases; https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/
a https://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg1/016.htm
b https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch2s2-10-2.html

Global warming is happening due to an increased emission of GHG, especially caused by human activity (fossil fuels, industrial processes, increased use of natural resources, intensive agriculture, livestock farming and deforestation).

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) estimates that between the years of 2003 and 2013, natural disasters triggered by natural hazards caused economic losses valued in 1.5 trillion US dollars. In developing countries, during the same time period, these disasters cost about 550 billion US dollars, affecting 2 billion people. About 22% of these damages belong to agriculture and its subsectors (crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry).4

The climate change and the agriculture

Climate change not only causes economic losses, but also has direct and indirect effects on agricultural productivity, such as variations in rainfall regimes, droughts, floods, geographic redistribution of biodiversity (including pests)5 and diseases.1 The large amounts of CO2 absorbed by the oceans also cause acidification which results in deteriorating marine ecosystems.6

One of the biggest consequences of climate change are the natural disasters that are responsible for agricultural losses which have alarming effects on food security.1

So what happens to the earth?

Our planet, the Earth, is overweight (403 ppm CO2 eq. (average value of year 2016)) and increasing.7 Depending on the actions we take, scientists predict that the temperature will rise up to 4 °C by the year 2100 (450 ppm CO2 eq. will increase the planet’s temperature 2 °C and 1000 ppm CO2 eq. 4 °C).2 This means not only an increase in the number of natural disasters but, as the planet gets hotter, it will be very difficult to produce food in the tropics, which will cause biodiversity to migrate (including people) to more peripheral regions in the planet, and as a consequence will result in a tremendous impact on human well-being.5

It is evident that the impact of climate change on food and agriculture is interconnected with environmental, social and economic fields (i.e. food security, nutrition, health, and human migration).1

This is a very serious problem! So, what can we do, and how does it relate to food? To answer these questions, let’s have a close look at the human contribution (our contribution) to the GHG emissions.

Human sources of GHG

The following figure shows the anthropogenic sources of GHG:

We can see that “Energy Production” is by far the biggest source of GHG, but let’s have a look at the second one, “Agricultural Processes” which accounts for 21% of the GHG emitted.1

GHG coming from Agriculture

The following figure shows the share of agricultural emissions in CO2 eq. in year 2014 by source and at a global level:1

The main cause of agricultural GHG emissions is by far enteric fermentation (the digestion processes of ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo, deer, giraffes and camels).

Enteric fermentation is the main source in Latin America and the Caribbean with 58% (followed by manure left on pasture with 23% and synthetic fertilizers with 6%), in Southern Asia with 46%, in Sub-Saharan Africa with 40%, in Northern Africa and Western Asia with 39% and in developed countries with 37%. Only in Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand) and in Eastern and Southeastern Asia is the main source of agricultural GHG derived from the cultivation of organic soils with 59% (followed by enteric fermentation with 14% and manure management with 14%) and rice cultivation with 26% (followed by enteric fermentation with 24% and synthetic fertilizer with 17%), respectively.1    

But let’s not mistake the problem. Because cows alone are not. They actually contribute to soil fertility inside an healthy ecosystem. The problem is the number cows being raised to meet human demand.

A recent scientific study has quantified the mass of life on earth (biomass) and has shown that within the animal kingdom (2% of the entire biomass), there are more than 10x more humans than wild animals and that there are about 40% more livestock than humans.8 This is crazy!

To keep producing meat and to satisfy the world’s food and energy demand of the growing population, the most important forests and savannas will need to be destroyed!1 And if deforestation takes place, what will happen? What is already happening?

Deforestation, Climate Change and the Carbon Cycle

To understand the important role of forests in the weather, we need to talk about the carbon cycle. But let’s start by linking some concepts. Remember CO2 and CH4, our very important GHG, both contain one atom of carbon (C).

However, C is not only found in the atmosphere. Actually, there are five global C pools (as shown in the following figure too):9

  1. the oceanic pool;
  2. the geological pool (which includes the fossil fuels);
  3. the soil pool (comprising the soil organic C and the soil inorganic C);
  4. the atmospheric pool and;
  5. the biotic pool (comprising live biomass and detritus material)

There is a strong interaction between the terrestrial and atmospheric C pools through photosynthesis, respiration and soil metabolism. The potential of a healthy soil becomes evident in sequestering atmospheric CO2 in both the biotic and pedologic C pools (620 and 2500 Pg, respectively). Additionally, deforestation impoverishes the soil releasing ca. 1.6 Pg C/Year.9

So, YES, forests are very important, not only because they produce oxygen, but especially because of their capacity to keep a healthy soil which allows the capture of atmospheric CO2.

The ecofriendly agriculture

But we need food, right? Luckily, we can also have a healthy soil through ecofriendly agriculture. Many scientists, farmers and international organizations believe that the understanding of the soil’s role in climate stability and agricultural productivity will trigger the abandonment of conventional practices (i.e. tillage, crop residue removal, mono-cropping, excessive grazing and excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides) and adoption of organic agriculture.

Huerta Luna is a small farm and a learning school for sustainable agriculture in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador. Galapagos imports most of its food and less than 1% of food grown is organic.

The Potential of Carbon Sequestration through Organic Agriculture

According to FAO: “Organic Agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.”10

Also referred as Agroecology, it is based on applying ecological concepts and principles to optimize interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.11

This sustainable form of agriculture takes care of the whole ecosystem! Isn’t it great?

Some sustainable agricultural practices (management practices) that contribute to CO2 sequestration are:9

  • reduction/elimination of mechanical tillage;
  • application of cover crops into the rotation cycle;
  • increasing soil fertility through biological means (i.e. compost, animal manures and nitrogen fixation plants that also contribute to mitigate N2O);
  • adoption of conservation-effective measures to minimize soil and water losses (e.g. soil water storage, drip irrigation);
  • a better use of the complex farming systems including complex rotations, mixed farming (i.e. crop-livestock) and agroforestry techniques that efficiently use resources, enhance biodiversity and mimic natural ecosystems.

So much information… What can we do now??

Climate change is a big problem which concerns all of us. Choose walking, riding a bike or public transportation instead of driving; heat and cool only the necessary; reevaluate, reconceptualize, restructure, redistribute, relocate, reduce, reuse and recycle.

Regarding food, let’s start by making connections. Food is directly linked with the farmers, the land, the watersheds and the climate. And our health is a reflection of the quality and quantity of the food we consume. At the end, it is all interconnected!

If we reduce waste, change our diet to eat less meat and dairy, support agroecology, local markets and sustainable intensification to increase yields on underperforming crops, and protect the forest, we may be able stop global warming and feed more than nine billion people a healthy diet.

Two men from the community of Bameno on the Cononaco River, Yasuní, Ecuador. People here still use traditional ways of fishing such as using a root called Barbasco, which poisons fish which then come up to the surface. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

Let’s save the forest, promote and support Organic Agriculture and local markets!   

Some great initiatives out there are making a huge difference to help spread good agricultural practices. Organizations like A Growing Culture are promoting and facilitating collective learning between farmers, empowering smaller farmers, supporting agroecological innovations and a sustainable food system.

Another great one is the Godan that shares agricultural and nutritional data globally encouraging collaboration and cooperation that will bring together stakeholders to solve long-standing global problems.

The Equator Initiative on the other hand, recognizes outstanding local sustainable development solutions supporting the formation of resilient communities. The projects being awarded are doing amazing things, it is really worth getting to know them!

An interesting website with more information about food and climate change is the  Food Climate Research Network who is raising awareness and connecting stakeholders with the common interest of understanding and building sustainable food systems.

In Drawdown and ZERI, you can find sustainable practices that are already being implemented and; the Ellen Macarthur Report circular solutions that can change the food system within cities. Worth knowing them!

Importantly, children are also actively involved. Fridays for future, the movement started by  Greta Thunberg, a Swedish high school student who in August 2018, started school strikes on Fridays asking her government (and later the world), to take political actions to reduce emissions caused by climate change in accordance with the Paris Agreement. The movement has expand and is now present in 101 countries around the world.

Juliana versus USA, is a lawsuit filed in 2015 by 21 young plaintiffs asserting that the federal government violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and prosperity (only possible inside a clean environment) by causing dangerous carbon dioxide concentrations. Let’s stay tuned and see how this demand develops.

Another very interesting case is the lawsuit known as “The Huaraz Case”. In 2015, Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a mountain guide living in Huaraz, Peru, filed a lawsuit against the German energy company RWE to be responsible for its carbon emissions. The global increase in carbon in the atmosphere is causing the melting of the Peruvian glacial risking to destroy the home of his community. He asks for the construction of a dam to protect his home for the future effects of climate change.  

A proposal worth mentioning is the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in which the government of Ecuador proposed to the world in 2010, to maintain the oil reserves that are located below one of the regions with the greatest biodiversity in the world, Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon, in exchange for the potential oil revenues (3.6 billion US dollars). The objective of the initiative was to conserve biodiversity, protect indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation and avoid CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, fundraising was insufficient and oil has been extracted since 2016.   

Ecuador has also been a pioneer in the protection of nature at the political level, being the first country in the world where “Nature is a subject of law”, meaning that the Ecuadorian Constitution (or Montecristi Constitution) recognizes since 2008 the right to life of species beyond utility or affectation for humans. It protects life reproduction, both in the ecological and evolutionary sense claiming the right to integral restoration. It also recognizes that the rights of people and nature complement and enhance each other, and that in nature there are no geographical barriers. The constitutions, however, does not oblige to have an untouched nature or animal welfare, allowing large-scale mining even in fragile areas among other economic activities that destroy nature. Undoubtedly, a lot of work still needs to be done…

Recently, an important philosophical claim to respect nature has also come from the Vatican with the encyclical Laudato si’ written by Pope Francis. The document emphasizes the fact that the human being is not the owner of nature, but only a part of it, which depends on it to exist and exalts the human duty to preserve it. It is worth reading!

Supporting existing and outstanding initiatives that are working to solve the problem is of course important. However, each one of us can be part of the solution by properly choosing our food, what and where we are buying, from whom we are buying and at what price. These little gestures can really start changing the world!

By M. S. Gachet et N. Zanuto

REFERENCES:
1 FAO, 2016: The State of Food and Agriculture. Climate change, Agriculture and Food Security.
2 IPCC, 2014. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.
3 NASA. The Causes of Climate Change.
4 FAO, 2015: The impact of disasters on agriculture and food security.
5 Pecl, G.T, et al. Biodiversity redistribution under climate change: Impacts on ecosystems and human well-being. Science (2017) 355(6332).
6 FAO, 2010: Environmental consequences of oceans acidification: a threat to food security.
7 Dlugokencky, E. Annual Mean Carbon Dioxide Data. Earth System Research Laboratory. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
8 Nar-On, Y.M., et al. The biomass distribution on Earth.
9 Solaw-FAO. Report 4B – Soil carbon sequestration. Lal R. 
10 FAO. Organic Agriculture.
11 FAO. Agroecology Knowledge Hub.

Food for all: mission impossible?

One of the greatest feats of our time is to guarantee the food security on the planet. According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations):

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.1

The growing population

Human population continues to grow, especially in developing countries, and in 2050 9 billion people will populate the earth. How to feed 9 billion people is generating commotion not only regarding the need of producing more and “better” but also when addressing awareness about food waste and unequal food distribution.2

The figure below shows how the population increased during the past 65 years and the projections for 2050.3

a Estimates, 1950-2015. b Medium fertility variant, 2015-2100.
Source: http://www.un.org/popin/data.html

As you can see in the figure, in proportion, the European population seems to decrease (but in truth it remains steady from 2000 to 2050) while the population in Africa is increasing more than 10x when comparing 1950 to 2050.

The rest of the continents do not show drastic variations in proportion. However, the population in Latin America and Oceania will increase more than 4x, Asia almost 4x and North America more than 2x (global increase almost 4x) by 2050.3

Indeed, China and India have grown from 554 and 376 million in 1950 to 1.4 and 1.3 billion in 2015, respectively.3

Yes, huge numbers! So, how are we going to feed all those people? And what does it really mean?

The following videos (available in English with  subtitles in many languages) by Denis van Waerebeke  and the organization Feeding9billion clearly show the difficulties of feeding the growing population and how we can be part of the solution. Really worth watching!

But how do people eat?

Human diet is as diverse as are people and cultures around the world. There is no “ideal diet”, but there are ideal diets depending on the geographical location and the conditions of each region that provide the energy required to enjoy a healthy life.

This is a dish of “Mayón”, a worm that grows inside the trees in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Its flavor is similar to shrimp. It is accompanied by a piece of cassava and “encebollado”, an onion-tomato salad. The Kichwa population of the Amazon in the province of Orellana, goes out to sell the product in the city of El Coca in Ecuador. Photo by Karla Gachet.

There is an overall knowledge that a regular person should consume 2000 dietary calories or kilocalories per day (energy requirement). However, we did not find scientific proof explaining the calculation. If you find any, please let us know on the comments.

An accurate value for daily energy requirements should consider gender, age, body size, body composition and lifestyle and therefore, cannot be standardized to accommodate every person`s needs.4

Food provides us the right mixture of nutrients (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals). Most foods are a mixture of nutrients; cereals for example are an important source of energy (carbohydrates and fats) but are also a source of vitamins and minerals.5

Photographer Gregg Segal shows nicely in his project Daily Bread, what kids around the world are eating allowing us to see not only how diverse food culture around the world is, but also the health value of home cooked meals in contrast to junk/processed food. Great pictures indeed!

It is very important to maintain cultural diversity (and diversity in general)! Imagine if we all eat the same things. It would be disturbing and also unsustainable! On this regard, the organization Slow Food, promotes the preservation of culinary traditions and the farming of local plants, seeds and animals. They are a global movement which acts locally. This is a great one to support!

How does human diet influence food security?

National Geographic6, using FAO information7, shows in simple illustrative graphics the consumption patterns of 22 countries around the world and how these have changed over a span of 50 years. On a global scale, between 1961 and 2011, the consumption of produce (roots with high starch content, vegetable and fruits), meat products and sugars/fats have increased. The figure below shows the world`s average daily consumption in both calories (cal) and grams (g).6

It is evident that a small portion of grain (e.g. 351 g) generates a lot of energy (1085 cal) and that a large amount of produce (488 g) generates little energy (270 cal).6 Please keep in mind that energy, in this case referred to as calories, does not mean “weight gain”. Energy is vital! You should be more concerned about the quality of the calories and to have a balanced diet rather than worrying about the number of calories itself. In the figure, we show the relation between calories and grams consumed daily per person6 in order to associate them later on with the food itself.

Just so you know: energy is measured in units of kilocalories (kcal) or kilojoules (kJ). A kilocalorie (1 kcal) equals 4.18 kilojoules (4.18 kJ). The numbers shown here in calories (cal) actually refer to kilocalories (kcal).

The figure bellow presents a better view of the impact of food consumption in China, India, USA, Brazil, Japan and Somalia in years 1961 and 2011.6

Interestingly, China not only increased almost 4x the amount of food consumption between 1961 and 2011, but also increased more than 10x the amount of meat consumption.6 If we think about this and the increase in population, we can imagine the impact on food security (China is just one example).

It is evident that the complexity of food security increases with increasing prosperity in the world. China and India, which are driving an increased demand for food, especially meat, eggs and dairy products,6 subsequently increasing the pressure to produce more maize and soybeans to feed cattle, pigs and poultry.

This change in habits (specially the increased demand for animal derived products) is also evident in emerging economies all around the world. If we think about it, Brazil, for example, has more than tripled (3x) this meat production in 50 years. Other examples can be found in the National Geographic study.6

If these trends continue, the impact of population growth and diets with a greater animal component will require doubling agricultural production by 2050.

Worth reading on this regard is the Five-step plan to Feed the World proposed by National Geographic.

It is also alarming to think about the excessive and indiscriminate exploitation of the oceans to meet the needs of emerging economies. China, for example, has recently been involved in massive, non-selective and illegal fishing events in Senegal8, Ecuador9 and other Pacific countries10.

A recent study in West Africa shows that illegal fishing accounts for 65% of reported catches which puts food security and the region’s economy at risk.11

Kids help their parents fish off the island of Limones, province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Photo by Karla Gachet.

But what exactly does this mean for the local people?

Have a look at the short film Nonoy and the Sea Monster to understand the magnitude of the impact…

An interesting approach to fight against intensive fishing is the European project Fish Forward. The project aims to raise awareness about the social and environmental impact of fish consumption. It targets consumers and their willingness to contribute in changing this situation by choosing to buy sustainable fish. 

The way we consume food is endangering biodiversity and human health. A new regenerative food system model it is required, a circular one.12

Conclusion

The problem of the food in the world is complex, it affects all the inhabitants of the earth. It does not require a single hero or a magic formula, it requires the work and creativity of each one of us. Together we can solve it and build a healthy and fair world with food for all.

If you want to be part of this movement, stay tuned! We are going to talk a lot about the food problems in the world, how we can be part of the solution and the initiatives that are contributing to a better world.

By M. S. Gachet et N. Zanuto
Link to initiative here.

REFERENCES:
1 FAO, 2011: La seguridad alimentaria: información para la toma de decisiones. Guía práctica.
2 FAO. How to Feed the World in 2050
3 UN: United Nations. United Nations Population Information Network.
4 FAO, 2001: Human Energy Requirements.
5 FAO. Chapter 7: Food, nutrients and diet.
6 National Geographic. What the World Eats.
7 FAO. Food and agriculture data.
8 China Wants Fish, So Africa Goes Hungry. New York Times. Mayo 3, 2017.
9 WWF se pronuncia sobre la captura del buque chino en Galápagos. Diario EL COMERCIO.
10 China’s Appetite Pushes Fisheries to the Brink. New York Times. April 30, 2017.
11 Doumbouya, A. et al., 2017. Assessing the Effectiveness of Monitoring Control and Surveillance of Illegal Fishing: The Case of West Africa. Frontiers in Marine Science 4:50.
12 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2019: Cities and Circular Economy for Food.

Food Wastage and Its Impact on the Health of the Planet

One third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted every year (FAOs estimation (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)). This is approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, an average of 265 Kg/person/year and 750 billion US dollars per year (equivalent to the GDP of Switzerland).1,2

With the food produced and not consumed (wastage) today, we could eradicate hunger!3

How does this happen?

To understand how and why food is wasted and what we can do to help change this situation what, let’s first understand how our food is produced.

As mentioned in post 2, to produce food we need: essential elements that form all living organisms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen), water, soil and biodiversity.

If we think about it, the food production itself is consuming a lot of natural resources, right? 

Food production not only requires natural resources, but also energy for postharvest handling and storage, processing and distribution up to consumption. Now imagine if we do not consume this food, how big would the wastage be? How can this impact, this footprint, be measured?

The Environmental Footprint of Wastage

Just to make it clear, the famous “environmental food footprint” is the energy and resources required to produce food and is evaluated using four indicators: the carbon footprint, the blue water footprint, land occupation and the impact on biodiversity.1,2

Now, in the picture below, you can see some really impactful numbers which demonstrate how large the food footprint of wastage is. To highlight some of these numbers, imagine a person riding in a car for 2.300 Km every year (almost the distance between New York and Las Vegas). This is the approximate carbon footprint of one person; or 3x the volume of water of Lake Geneva. This is the water consumed to produce food wastage in the world (the blue water footprint) per year; or in terms of land use, we can attribute it an area that corresponds to the size between Russia and Canada, approximately 28% of the total world area!1,2 

The equivalent of 6 garbage trucks of edible food is lost or wasted every second!4

1 Ha (hectare)= 0.01 Km2

Food with the Highest Environmental Impact on Food Wastage

To identify the impacts of food wastage on natural resources and where and why these impacts occur, FAO has grouped food in eight food commodities:

1. Cereals (excluding beer),
2. Starchy Roots,
3. Oilcrops and Pulses,
4. Fruits (excluding wine),
5. Meat,
6. Fish & Seafood,
7. Milk (excluding butter) & Eggs and
8. Vegetables. 

The study shows that cereals and vegetables have the greatest environmental impact for the carbon footprint, the blue water indicator and the land occupation accounting for around 50% in all cases.1,2 

Regions with the Highest Environmental Impact on Food Wastage

As already mentioned in post 2, farming (conversion of wild lands and intensification) is the major threat to biodiversity globally. It is important to note that this occurs mostly in developing regions (72% and 34% of species are threatened by crops and livestock production, respectively, versus 44% and 21% occurring in developed countries). Deforestation due to agricultural expansion occurs mainly in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa (62%), Latin America (25%) and Asia (13%)1,2 and has destroyed 5.2 million Ha/year between 2000 and 2010 (the net annual loss of forest equivalent to an area about the size of Costa Rica)5.     

In financial terms, the food wastage with greater economic impact are vegetables and meat accounting for around 170 and 160 billion US dollars per year, respectively. 1,2 

In order to compare the impact by region, FAO has also divided the world into seven regions with similar food cultural behavior, economic and social backgrounds, which are shown in the figure bellow1,2:

Remarkably, the regions of North America & Oceania, Industrialized Asia and Europe have the highest per capita carbon footprint of food wastage (903, 741 and 686 Kg of CO2 eq./person/year, respectively).1,2

The wastage of cereals in Asia (especially rice and wheat) emerges as a significant environmental hotspot showing high impacts on the carbon footprint (Industrialized Asia with 14% and South & Southeast Asia with 11%), blue water footprint (13% and 24%) and arable land occupation (5% and 9%). Fruits wastage emerges as a blue water hotspot in Asia (Industrialized Asia with 3% and South & Southeast Asia 4%), Latin America (3%) and Europe (3%). While the carbon footprint of vegetables emerges as a hotspot in Asia (Industrialized Asia 10% and South & Southeast Asia (3%) and Europe (4%).1,2

As you can see, wastage of cereals and vegetables have the most significant environmental impact resulting in the highest global footprint of carbon, water and land occupation. 

The Food Life Cycle

So, why do we let all of these important natural resources get lost? To answer this question, let’s have a look the following graphic that explains the life cycle of food and the sources of food wastage. 

As you can see, food is lost along the entire food supply (agricultural production + postharvest handling and storage = 54% and processing + distribution + consumption = 46%). The later the phase of the life cycle, the greater the impact due to its unnecessary production and transformation.1,2

If we throw away an apple pie, its environmental footprint will be higher than to waste the apples collected at the field, right?

How and Why Food is Being Lost

The food losses are mainly caused by inefficiencies in the food supply chains (such as poor infrastructure and logistics, absence of technology, insufficient skills, knowledge and management capacity and lack of access to markets) and natural disasters. 1,2

Within the food life cycle, food losses refer to agricultural production (stage 1 of the food life cycle) and postharvest handling and storage (stage 2 of the food life cycle). 1,2 Individuals alone hardly have the power to contribute to improve food losses, but together, we can have an impact!

On the other hand, food waste is caused by spoilage of food (food kept beyond its expiry date or left to spoil) and oversupply due to markets, or individual consumer shopping or eating habits. The food waste is the food appropriate for human consumption that is being discarded. Within the food life cycle, food waste refers to processing (stage 3), distribution (stage 4) and consumption (stage 5).1,2 Each one of us can do something to improve food waste.

Note: in English there is a word to define total food waste (food wastage) which refers to food losses in the stages 1 and 2 and food waste in the stages 3, 4 and 5 of the food life cycle.

Now, we should know that the food wastage is different depending on the region. Developing countries suffer more food losses during agricultural production. However, food losses during agricultural production (stage 1) and postharvest handling and storage (stage 2) are similar in all regions in the world accounting for approximately one third of the food wastage of each region. Meanwhile, in mid- and high-income regions, the food wasted tends to be greater at consumption level. In fact, food wasted during processing (stage 3), distribution (stage 4) and consumption (stage 5) represents 31-39% in mid- and high-income regions while in low-income regions accounts only 4-16%.1,2

The entrails of a llama are found in a bucket at the Oruro Carnival. During the party, many people sacrifice llamas and make offerings to show their dedication to the Devil, the Virgin, Pachamama or Mother Earth. Photo by Karla Gachet.

Another important point to consider when talking about food wastage is the so-called “ugly food” mostly referring to fruits and vegetables, but also animal parts. Only for aesthetic reason, markets and people prefer consuming “beautiful and impeccable” produce and as a consequence, huge amounts of “perfect food” is being thrown away!

Food Wastage Volume per Region

Each region of the world has its own profile in terms of food wastage (quantities and type of product). In the figure below we can see some numbers:1,2

The world region with the biggest impact regarding wastage volumes is Asia with the highest wastage of vegetables (Industrialized Asia with 11% and South & Southeast Asia with 4%) and cereals (16% in total). Sub-Saharan Africa, Industrialized Asia and Europe wastage volume is high regarding starchy roots (5%, 4.5% and 4%, respectively) and South & Southeast Asia and Latin America regarding fruits (4% and 3%, respectively).

Interestingly, Industrialized Asia food wastage is lower in percentage than other high-income regions. The high wastage volume is because this region dominates the world vegetables production and consumption, with more than 50% of both.

Also keep in mind that in Asia today is where 60% of the population lives!

In Sub-Saharan Africa region, the high wastage of starchy roots at a global level is because of high volumes of losses in the agricultural and post-harvest phases (stages 1 and 2).1,2

In terms of food wastage per person, in the top 5, we find Industrialized Asia for vegetables (~115 Kg/person/year), Sub-Saharan Africa for starchy roots (~110 Kg/person/year) North Africa, Western Asia & Central Asia for vegetables (~95 Kg/person/year), Latin America for fruits (~90 Kg/person/year) and Europe for starchy roots (~85 Kg/person/year). Interestingly, when comparing with total food wastage volumes, South & Southeast Asia region is no longer on the top of the list. In fact, it has the lowest food wastage volumes per capita.1,2 

La Vega Central market in Santiago de Chile also known as “Feria Mapocho”. From the colonial time, farmers gathered in the area of “​​La Chimba” to sell their products. Today hundreds of thousands of people pass through La Vega Central daily. Many of the stalls have been inherited from parents to children. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

These big numbers in South & Southeast Asia and Africa, also represent the food that is being wasted due to the lack of proper storage possibilities. To address this needs, Evaptainers and Wakati are building innovative cooling systems. It’s worth checking them out! 

As we can see, in each region of the world the problem of wastage considers many factors and is different for each region!

Conclusion

Food wastage is a serious problem for which we are all responsible. Our consumer footprint has an impact. Our food is connected with the earth, the watersheds, the climate and the people who produce the food we eat. Only by becoming aware of our contribution will we have the right tools to make decisions that will allow us to build a sustainable world. 

Around the world there are local movements using different strategies to fight food waste. Here there are several examples:

Food for Soul, born in Italy, is one we love. Their approach involves chefs and their knowledge to transform ordinary ingredients (surpluses of food that otherwise will be wasted) into extraordinary dishes that will be served to the poorest, fighting like this against food waste while promoting social inclusion. You will probably think that this kind of strategy would only work in developed countries however, one of these centers Gastromotiva, is running in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Stop Wasting Food is a Danish movement, that started by raising consumer awareness and in 5 years it has become the largest non-profit consumer movement against food waste in the world. They teamed up with the country’s biggest low-cost supermarket chain to replace all quantity discounts with single item discounts to minimize food waste, promote the opening of food surplus supermarkets, outreach programs to the homeless, and with a greater focus is involving the industry, retailers, canteens, restaurants and foodservices in the fight against food waste. Many practical tips to reduce food waste can be found on their website. It is really worth checking them out!

France is taking action at a political level and has passed a law forbidding supermarkets’ food waste. Food needs to be redistributed/donated before it goes bad, otherwise supermarkets will get fines.

Costa Rica is also taking action at a political level with a well-structured plan of action; have a look here.

Involving the community, the movement Re-food in Portugal, is collecting the surpluses from restaurants and with the help of volunteers, taking them to people in need.

Involved supermarket Chowberry in Nigeria has created a new sustainable food chain out of products approaching end of shelf-life allowing consumers to see their availability and discounted prices in real-time. This discounted food is obtained by charities and NGOs helping tackle food poverty.

In most countries of Latin America, non-profit organizations known as Banco de Alimentos are collecting food that, for various reasons, would be discarded. Just type on google: banco de alimentos + “country name” to find them. 

If we think about it, in Latin America and the Caribbean for example, with the food that is being lost only in terms of retailing (supermarkets, street markets, shops and small retail) more than 30 million people, that represents 64% of people suffering from hunger in the region, could be fed.6

Let’s stop food waste!     

We do have the power as consumers!

We can buy only what we can eat, store and eat our leftovers, think that more is not always better by preferring quality over quantity, share surplus food and at restaurants, order only what you can eat and if you can’t finish your meal, take the leftovers home.

We can also choose to buy that apple that does not have the nicest color, that broccoli that has a weird shape, and by doing this you will be, nice and slowly, pressuring the system to change this rule that tells what kind of vegetables and fruits can be sold at the market, otherwise it goes to the trash (wastage). Also keep in mind also that the fruit with the little holes from the worms might be the most delicious. Nature recognizes food quality much better than we do. And that the perfect shape pear might have been treated so that it remains as perfect as you want it… 

To help decrease the numbers from food wastage relating to non-consumption, you can use all of the parts of the produce you buy, the leaves of the carrots and the stem of the broccoli can help to make a rich vegetable broth for example. By doing so, you can always eat everything you buy! It is that simple.

And remember that “nature does not waste anything”. Let’s start thinking about waste as resources and build a new economy, a circular one. Take a look at Ellen Macarthur Report, Drawdown and ZERI and get inspired.

By M. S. Gachet et N. Zanuto
Full story of the cover photo can be found
here.

REFERENCES:
1 FAO, 2013: Food Wastage Footprint. Impact on Natural Resources.
2 FAO, 2013: Huella del desperdicio alimentario – Impacto en los Recursos Naturales. Presentación del estudio de la FAO FWF.
4 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2019: Cities and Circular Economy for Food.
5 FAO. World deforestation decreases, but remains alarming in many countries.
6 FAO. Losses and food waste in Latin America and the Caribbean.

V.I.F. (Very Important Food)

Food is what we put on our plates to eat, to maintain life and much more! Food is love, passion, cultural and personal identity, natural resources, nutrients, work, sweat, trade, economy, transformation and experimentation; but with the world’s environmental, social and economic differences in addition to the continuous increase of the population, good, clean, fair and healthy food for all at all times is the greatest challenge of humanity.

Sustainable development goals

The United Nations countries (193 in total), together with 150 leaders around the world, have adopted a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be met by year 2030 that aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. Not surprisingly, most of the goals are related with food or could be achieved with a fare and sustainable food system, the goals aim for:1

1. No poverty;
2. Zero hunger (achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture);
3. Good health and well-being for all at all ages;
4. Ensuring inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning;
5. Achieving gender equality;
6. Access to clean water and sanitation for all;
7. Access to affordable and clean energy for all;
8. Promoting decent work and economic growth;
9. Promoting sustainable industry, innovation and infrastructure;
10. Reducing inequalities within and among countries;
11. Making cities and communities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable;
12. Ensuring responsible consumption and production;
13. Taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts;
14. Conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources;
15. Promoting sustainable management of forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss;
16. Promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies; and
17. Revitalizing and creating global partnerships to achieve the goals.

The dictionary defines food as any substance (usually of plant or animal origin) consumed to provide nutritional support (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals) by an organism. In fact, carbohydrates, fats and proteins, are building blocks of all living organisms on earth. Nutrients are assimilated by the organism to provide energy and maintain life. 

Food commodities

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) estimates that the total agricultural production worldwide is about 6 billion tonnes per year.2 So in order to better understand food production and its footprint on natural resources (environmental footprint), food has been grouped into eight commodites2:

1. Cereals (excluding beer);
2. Starchy Roots;
3. Oilcrops and Pulses;
4. Fruits (excluding wine);
5. Meat;
6. Fish & Seafood;
7. Milk (excluding butter) & Eggs and;
8. Vegetables

Interestingly, cereals represent the biggest agricultural commodity (34% of the world’s production) followed by animal products (20% (meat, milk & eggs and fish & seafood))2 as shown in the figure below:

But let’s go back to the beginning…

Food production requires essential elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (which form all living organisms)), water, soil and biodiversity. 

To produce food we need a lot of natural resources as well as energy for postharvest handling and storage, processing, distribution and consumption2… and therefore, food has an impact on the planet.

The Environmental Footprint of Food

The “environmental food footprint” refers to the energy and resources required for its production and is measured through four indicators: the carbon footprint, the blue water footprint, land occupation and the impact on biodiversity.2

In regard to the carbon footprint, the foods with the highest impact are cereals and animal products, accounting for 34% and 33%, respectively. For the blue water footprint, the foods with the greatest impact are cereals, fruits and animal products, accounting for 52%, 18% and 16%, respectively. However, animal products have a larger water footprint per tonne of product than any crop. As for land occupation, animal products represent by far the biggest impact occupying 85% (78% meat alone) of the total surface area of the soil used to produce food.2

Concerning biodiversity, farming (conversion of wild lands and intensification) is the major global threat. This occurs especially in developing regions where 72% and 34% of species are threatened by crops and livestock production, respectively, versus 44% and 21% in developed countries. Also noteworthy, deforestation due to agricultural expansion occurs mainly in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa (62%), Latin America (25%) and Asia (13%)2 and has destroyed 5.2 million Ha/year between 2000 and 2010 (the net annual loss of forest equivalent to an area about the size of Costa Rica)3.  

Meat and dairy products have the highest global food print of carbon, raw materials and water per kilogram of any food, not to mention its impact on land occupation and biodiversity.2

Mennonite sisters from the Santa Rita community in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, get up early every day to milk the family’s cows. This milk is used for consumption in the form of milk, cheese or butter. The family also has a cheese factory. The members of the community sell them their milk and they make the cheese that is later distributed in the city of Santa Cruz. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

On this regard, the global movements Reducetarian and Meatless Monday are generating awareness on the health and environmental benefits of reducing the portions of meat derived products on our diets. Take the challenge and try it out!

If you are interested on the environmental footprint, check out the Global Footprint Network website which shows in detail the information about the environmental footprint of more than 180 countries and also based on your energy consumption calculates your personal environmental footprint. We will talk about the topic soon. Keep tuned!  

But, why should we think about this? Why is this so important?

Humanity is facing an important problem: How will we feed the growing world population in a fair way, without overexploiting nature, without excluding people and without tormenting animals?

Agriculture is not a natural process. Humans have domesticated nature to produce food. However, before the Industrial Revolution, people respected the environment and natural cycles more than they do today maybe because of the lack of technology and/or they were less concerned with the financial system.

Paradoxically, with the development of technologies and the understanding of processes, the overexploitation of natural resources started: monocultures (and to allow them the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) and intensive animal farming consequently vitiated societies with an excess of food at consistent low prices which makes it possible to waste. In truth, the low cost of food is paid at a high price by the environment, animals, farmers, and the society.

In Santo Domingo de los Colorados, Ecuador, medium and large companies produce tropical fruits such as pineapples for local and international markets. Most of them are grown as monocultures. Representan una fuente de ingresos y alimentos para las familias de la zona. Photo by Karla Gachet.

Additionally, from the 250-300 thousand known edible plant species existing in the planet only 4% (150-200 species) are used by humans. And from these, 3 (rice, maize and wheat) contribute to 60% of calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants. In the world, 75% of the food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animals.4

We are losing local knowledge and agrodiversity is disappearing (ca. 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900).4   

In addition to being environmentally unsustainable, our food system is economically inefficient. For every dollar spent on food, the society pays two in health, environmental, social and economic costs.5

Half of these costs are related to consumption (obesity, malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency) and the other half is associated with the way food is produced (waste, pollution (intensive production uses large quantities of pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics) and depletion of natural capital (water pollution, soil degradation).5

Conclusion

Things need to change urgently!! We are destroying our planet and losing food diversity due to our obsession for uniformity food (size, color, shape, taste) and high yield… We need to start valorizing diversity and living in a sustainable way!

Sustainability means ensuring human rights and well-being without depleting or diminishing the capacity of the earth’s ecosystems to support life, or at the expense of others’ well-being. It is a multi-dimensional concept encompassing environmental integrity (nature), social well-being (people), economic resilience and good governance (FAO).6

It all seems very complicated… so what can we do? A lot!!!

We can choose to eat differently, to select better, to buy at a fair price, locally, seasonally and only that which we are going to eat all the while supporting good agricultural practices. There are great initiatives around the world. Join us in this journey to discover them and start supporting them!!

Lexicon of Food has created a dictionary of themes and terms explaining the current food system that will change the way you look at food. Great graphic art and videos that are really worth checking.!  

Food Tank focuses on spreading the knowledge about environmental, social and economically sustainable initiatives to eradicate hunger, obesity and poverty.

Believe Earth is another one where inspiring people tell what they are doing to make the world a better place. 

A great example regarding the power of consumers to improve the food system is the French company C’est qui le Patron (Who is the boss). Consumers were asked the characteristics of the milk they wanted to consume (remuneration for farmers, origin, grazing time, no genetic modified organisms) and the price they were willing to pay for it (0.99 euro instead of 0.69 euro). The milk was very successful and the company is now also selling other food products.  

There are also many local movements such as the Ecuadorian citizen initiative Que rico es where smart consumers organize local markets and get involved with local problems regarding their food system (labels, nutrition, seeds, etc.).

With respect to the new sustainable business models that exist today, take a look at the solutions shown in Drawdown and ZERI. It’s really worth seeing!

The Ellen Macarthur Report proposes innovations that can be implemented in cities using the circular economy model with the potential to regenerate the food system. Get inspired and participate in the change!

We also recommend you check out Slow Food, a movement born in Italy and spread all over the world. The movement focuses on the protection of biodiversity and the importance of building a sustainable food system. Together we share the idea that diversity (biological, cultural, linguistic, generational, sexual and religious) is the greatest treasure that we have as individuals and as society and that the importance of good, clean, fair and healthy food for all is a priority.

Let’s become critical consumers!!

La Vega Central market in Santiago de Chile also known as “Feria Mapocho”. From the colonial time, farmers gathered in the area of “​​La Chimba” to sell their products. Today hundreds of thousands of people pass through La Vega Central daily. Many of the stalls have been inherited from parents to children. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

Only by becoming aware of our contribution can we take decisions that will allow us to build a sustainable world. Our consumer footprint has an impact… Let’s start making some changes!!

By M. S. Gachet et N. Zanuto

REFERENCES:
1 UN. Sustainable Development Goals.
2 FAO, 2013: Food Wastage Footprint. Impact on Natural Resources.
3 FAO. World deforestation decreases, but remains alarming in many countries.
4 FAO. What is Happening to Agrobiodiversity?
5 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2019: Cities and Circular Economy for Food.
6 FAO. Sustainability Pathways.