21st Century Food Industry: Environmental Impact

21st Century food industry: the impact of animal and intensive agriculture on the environment

It is a fact that population is rapidly growing. We are currently 7 billion people habiting the earth and this figure will have increased by over 2 billion by 2050. This increase will most likely be accompanied by higher incomes and greater demand for not only more food, but more livestock-based foods such as beef, pork, poultry and dairy, which means farming and especially agriculture will need to significantly intensify in the next decades to continue providing essential nutritive food to a growing global population. 

Although this may mean happy days for these industries, it certainly does not mean happy days for the planet. Industrial agriculture and farming are already using vast amounts of natural resources, with significant environmental impacts across the globe and many of us are not even aware of this.

To start with, all living creatures produce greenhouse gases (GHG). Although the Greenhouse effect it’s a natural phenomenon, industrialization and human activity has led to an increase of the gases that cause it, which in turn has caused the Earth to warm up, a phenomenon that we know as ‘global warming’. The most released GHG’s into the atmosphere are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and Nitrous oxide (N2O).

Intensive agriculture and farming industries significantly contribute to the releases of GHG’s into the atmosphere. The use of equipment and machinery for animals and crops leads to the release of CO2. In addition, large amounts of natural green lands are being cut down in order to create more space for farming. This deforestation means a reduction in the amount of trees which help to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere by breathing it in and so more CO2 remains in the atmosphere. Livestock is also the larger methane emitter as animals manure releases copious amounts of methane into the atmosphere. What is especially significant about Methane is that it is a more potent pollutant meaning that less is needed to cause a considerable amount of damage to the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide currently accounts for 8% of the warming impact and the key emitter of this gas is once again the agricultural industry. N2O is produced through the use of nitrogen-fertilised soils and animal manure.

We can see that it isn’t just cars, factories and heavy machinery that affects global warming. Some of the most negative impacts come from the food industry which we as consumers have control over. Surely there must be a way for us to reduce this consumption and in turn enhance a better environment.

 Atmospheric pollution and global warming are not the only environmental issues caused by intensive agriculture - it also has a significant impact on water supply and quality. Globally, the agricultural sector consumes about 70% of the planet' accessible water- this is more than industrial and municipal water use combined. Many countries are now nearing their renewable water resource limit. In farming the main causes of wasteful and unsustainable water use are inefficient irrigation systems, waste water distribution methods and cultivating crops that are not suited for the environment they have grown in. Unsustainable water use harms the environment by changing the water table and/or depleting ground water supplies. Not only is water use an issue but so is its quality. Industrial farms have contributed considerably to the polluting of fresh water sources as a result of their careless farming practices.

A key enabler of this issue is the misdirected subsidies that are continuously pumped into the farming industry.  The Environment Agency in England found that in the period spanning from 2010 and 2016 there were more than 5,300 cases of agricultural pollution across Britain; all of which from livestock farms. It has also been uncovered that even the most severe cases of pollution incidents may go unprosecuted and will continue to receive subsidies from the government despite their destructive activities.

Knowing this about the farming industry would make anyone want to try and stop this destructive activity. You may feel powerless. But, alas, you are not. You as a consumer have power, you vote with your pounds. It only takes a little dedication and research to find out the source of the products you buy. Try sourcing locally and from farms using sustainable methods as well as reducing the amount of less sustainable products in your diet. It may not be your choice how much the government allocates in subsidies to the farming industry but it is your choice to make informed and smart decisions when doing your weekly shop.