They say to think globally and act locally, but when it comes to agriculture, we’ve seemed to have adopted an opposite stance.
Though farming still starts on a localized plot, its yields are increasingly sent to farther-flung corners of the globe, with technology jumps in everything from transportation to the finer points of botany helping build the foundation for a truly globalized agricultural system.
And the system certainly has its perks – for the lucky societies on its receiving end.
But for every creature comfort the practice has the potential to add for some of us, it takes something away from the planet at large, throwing off the natural systems that provide such bountiful harvests to begin with, in ways that seem to be increasingly out of our control.
Some of the biggest concerns borne of our current global agricultural system include:
Climate change is intimately interwoven into everything we do. It’s intrinsically linked to everything on this planet, and an entire volume of scientific literature could – and has been, and continues to be – written to address the sprawling topic.
But creating, and maintaining, the infrastructure of a globalized agricultural system has a few more-specific impacts in this arena – especially when it comes to the role the practice plays in greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), up to 24% of total global greenhouse emissions could be traced back to the agriculture sector in 2010 – the latest year for which data has been made available.
The devastating number takes into account factors such as the methane gas released by livestock and the impact of deforestation to create larger plots of land for farming. But it doesn’t touch on the amount of greenhouse gases released by the various forms of transportation it requires to send this food around the world – which can be a damning number in and of itself.
Indeed, the same 2010 study found transportation of all forms to contribute 14% to global greenhouse emissions. And a 2018 report on emissions within the U.S. alone found that number to be 28%.
Movement of any sort requires the burning of energy, and while that’s a great philosophy for the human body – which, itself, requires food in the first place to create such energy – it’s not exactly beneficial when it comes to moving that food so far across the planet.
It’s not just how the crops are moved that has a negative impact on the planet, but the types of crops being chosen to move in the first place.
Aside from being essential to life, food is a commodity as much as anything else. And, especially as the global agriculture network has expanded over the years – and brought the widespread availability of some particularly prized crops with it – the tastes of the global market have increasingly dictated which types of foods get prioritized.
This human override of what naturally grows has led to many issues, including the lack of biodiversity (or, in other words, the literal variety of life). And some scientists – including those at the National Science Foundation – have found this problem to be just as damaging as climate change itself.
The trickiest thing about an ecosystem is that every single little thing counts. From the smallest bug to the largest predator, everything plays its part in maintaining the exquisite balance, and throwing any one piece of that biodiversity off can have detrimental snowball effects.
In fact, one 2012 study – conducted internationally – found the loss of biodiversity to be tantamount to global warming in its potential impact on the future. It concluded that the increasing instability in these natural environments could lead to major plant, animal and insect extinctions, which – aside from being tragic in their own right – would prohibit our ability to produce many different crops moving forward.
Tied tightly to the issue of biodiversity loss is the increasing reliance on unnatural – and unsustainable – agriculture practices.
The planet simply wasn’t built to produce the amount of specific crops we demand on such a consistent basis – and especially-so in an environment where these types of crops are isolated from other plants, trees, insects and animals. And so, in order to keep delivering, farmers have found themselves relying on increasingly less-natural means to keep production levels up.
This encapsulates everything from the deforestation of large swaths of land to make more room for farm fields to the heavy reliance on unnatural fertilizers and pesticides. And like the loss of biodiversity, the effects don’t just stop on the farm.
Deforestation and the production of synthetic fertilizers are both big contributors to climate change in and of themselves. When combined, the pair of practices could lead to the creation of so-called “dead zones,” thanks to a literal downstream effect that carries the sometimes-toxic chemicals to other areas, poisoning water and any chance of natural growth there.
And, unfortunately, in many cases, farmers don’t have much of a choice when it comes to participating in these practices. That is, if they want to make enough money to continue farming, or even survive.
Smallholder farms – that is, those that make up less than 2 hectares of land – constitute a majority of the world’s agriculture producers, while also making up more than half of the world’s poor and hungry population, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Food Policy Report.
That’s in large part due to the globalization of agriculture, which favors big “agribusiness” type farms, with the resources to stockpile things like expensive equipment and fertilizers. Larger operations also typically have a more direct line to the kinds of transportation options that send their food across the globe. And because of these advantages, these large-scale farms are also typically able to produce large food surpluses, which may squeeze out any openings for smaller-scale businesses to enter the market.
Even within these large-scale set-ups, it’s hard for farmers to eke out a living, as workers are routinely underpaid, and often operating without a slate of basic worker’s rights.
But small-scale farmers have found ways to fight back, pooling their resources to create collectives that can carry their products further, or give them other edges in the market.
These types of collectives represent positive momentum in the industry, not only helping raise all boats in the farming arena but pushing more sustainably-grown products at the same time.
Though the global agricultural industry is strong – and almost certainly not going anywhere any time soon – it is still possible to find these small pockets of resistance within the market, powered by people trying to make a positive difference.