Our current food system is unsustainable.
The modern food system, that took shape post World War II has significant environmental, economic and social implications.
Modern agriculture contributes significantly to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; this includes energy-intensive animal and crop production, and the creation of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It has been estimated that between 17 to 32% of all global human-induced GHG emissions are the result of intensive agriculture production (Bellarby, Foereid, Hastings & Smith, 2008). This is exacerbated by a globalized food system. Food travels long distances to reach our local grocery stores. Food items sold in Southern Ontario have travelled, on average, about 4,500 kilometers from the place they were grown or raised (Xuereb, 2005). GHG emissions from transportation and intensive agriculture are major contributors to climate change.
The negative effects of agricultural chemicals, and the long-term use of monocultures are additional environmental factors of concern. The use of pesticides and fertilizers depletes productive soil, and can leach into groundwater. The pollution harms other animals and organisms that contribute to the health and vitality of the ecosystem. Monocultures – uniform production of one crop – are vulnerable to diseases or other causes of crop failure. Further, the use of monocultures has overshadowed “heritage” or “heirloom” varieties of produce, which diminishes overall crop/plant diversity. The domination of a few breeds also exists in livestock production, where breeds that are adapted to factory farming methods are typically chosen. This loss of biodiversity, of both crops and animals increases the fragility of the food supply.
The reliance on imported foods has increased as a consequence of the growing globalized food system. Ontario imports $4 billion more in food than it exports (Metcalf Foundation, 2008). This has many implications. Firstly, it impacts local farmers, as they are forced to compete with cheap imported foods. Secondly, it leaves Ontario vulnerable to disruptions in the food distribution chain.
Finally, it encourages a food supply supported by fossil fuels. Peak oil has implications on the cost of food. As fuel prices increase the cost of long-distance transportation of food may become prohibitive (Metcalf Foundation, 2008). Food prices will reflect these costs, which will be unaffordable to the already vulnerable portions of the population.
The rise in food-related illnesses is a growing concern. Rising obesity and diabetes rates plus hypertension levels have been attributed to cheap and processed fast food, urban sprawl, insufficient food access, and the overproduction in North American agribusiness (Metcalf Foundation, 2008). Not only is this affecting the health of our population, it is also placing a large burden on the Canadian health care system (CBC, 2007).
These issues, along with several others (i.e. inhumane treatment of animals, food safety concerns) have forced us to rethink the production, distribution and consumption of food. These factors are creating the impetus to explore other options to the existing, unsustainable food system.