Food Production and the Environment



Food security: as defined by the United Nations' Committee on World Food Security, is the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.



Undernutrition: includes being underweight for one's age, too short for one's age (stunted), dangerously thin (wasted), and deficient in vitamins and minerals (micronutrient malnutrition). The term malnutrition refers to both undernutrition and overnutrition.



Malnutrition: results from eating a diet in which nutrients are either not enough or are too much such that the diet causes health problems.It may involve calories, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins or minerals



Overnutrition: is a form of malnutrition in which the intake of nutrients is oversupplied. The amount of nutrients exceeds the amount required for normal growth, development, and metabolism.

  • Obesity, which usually occurs by overeating, as well as:

  • Oversupplying a specific nutrient, such as dietary minerals or vitamin poisoning. This is due to an excessive intake or a nutritional imbalance caused by fad diets.




How Is Food Produced?


Food Production Has Increased Dramatically


Three systems supply most of our food:

  • Croplands: produce mostly grains

  • Rangelands, pastures and feedlots

  • Fisheries and aquaculture





  • Croplands: produce mostly grains

    • provide about 77% of the world's food

    • uses about 11% of the world's land area







  • Rangelands, pastures and feedlots

    • rangelands: are grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, wetlands, and deserts that are grazed by domestic livestock or wild animals.

    • pastures: are enclosed tracts of farmland, grazed by domesticated livestock, such as horses, cattle, sheep or swine.

    • feedlots: is a type of animal feeding operation (AFO) which is used in intensive animal farming for finishing livestock, notably beef cattle, but also swine, horses, sheep, turkeys, chickens or ducks, prior to slaughter.


  • Rangelands, pastures and feedlots:

    • produce meat and meat products

    • supply about 16% of the world's food using about 29% of the world's land area





Fisheries and aquaculture (fish farming): provide fish and shellfish which make up about 7% of world food supply


  • These three systems depend on a small number of plant and animal species

  • Of the estimated 50,000 plant species people can eat, only 14 of them supply an estimated 90% of the world food calories

  • Just three grain crops - rice, wheat and corn - provide about 48% of the calories that people consume directly.

  • Two-thirds of the world's people survive primarily on these three grains

  • A few species of mammals and fish provide most of the world's meat and seafood












Such food specialization puts us in a vulnerable position should the small number of crop strains, livestock breeds and fish and shellfish species we depend on fail as a result of factors such as:

  • disease

  • environmental degradation

  • climate change



This violates the biodiversity Principle of Sustainability which calls for depending on a variety of food sources as an ecological insurance policy for dealing with changes in environmental conditions.




Food Production Increases Since 1960


  • Has almost doubled

  • Occurred because:

    • technological advances:

      • tractors and other farm machinery

      • high-tech fishing equipment

      • irrigation

      • inorganic fertilized manufacture

      • pesticides

      • high-yield grain varieties

      • industrial production of livestock and fish



















Crop Agriculture Types

  • Industrialized

  • Subsistence


Industrialized agriculture uses the following to produce


  • heavy equipment

  • large amounts of financial capital

  • fossil fuels

  • water

  • commercial inorganic fertilizers

  • pesticides


Industrialized agriculture is now practiced on 25% of all cropland.


Produces about 80% of the world's food





Plantation agriculture: Plantation agriculture is a form of commercial farming where crops are grown for profit.

  • Large land areas are needed for this type of agriculture.

  • Countries that have plantation agriculture usually experience high annual temperatures and receive high annual rainfall.

  • Plantation agriculture as mentioned above was introduced by the Europeans in colonies situated in the tropics.

  • Some of the important plantation crops are:

    • tea

    • coffee

    • cocoa

    • rubber

    • cotton

    • oil palm

    • sugarcane

    • bananas

    • pineapples












Greenhouse Farming/Hydroponics: An Iceland Example







Traditional Agriculture


  • Practiced by some 2.7 billion people in less-developed countries

  • Provides about 20% of the world's food on about 75% of it's cultivated land

Two types of Traditional Agriculture:

  • Traditional subsistence agriculture: is a self-sufficiency farming system in which the farmers focus on growing enough food to feed themselves and their entire families.

  • Traditional intensive agriculture: farmers increase their inputs of:

    • human and draft-animal labor

    • animal manure for fertilizer

    • water

    to feed their families and to sell some for income.


Some families grow one crop but many plant several crops on same plot simultaneously.


  • Slash and burn agriculture




In parts of South America and Africa some slash and burn farmers grow as many as 20 different kinds of crops.

  • crops mature at different times

  • provide food throughout the year

  • keep the soil covered to reduce wind and water erosion


 Positive outcomes include:

  • less need for fertilizer and water because root systems at different depths in the soil capture nutrients and moisture efficiently

  • ashes from the burning provide soil nutrients

  • insecticides and herbicides are rarely needed because multiple habitats are created for natural predators of crop-eating insects

  • weeds have trouble competing with the multitude and density of crop plants


Research shows that, on average, such low-input polyculture produces higher yields than does high-input monoculture





The many functions of soil can be grouped into six categories:



Soil Texture



  • feels gritty between the fingers
  • particles generally visible to the naked eye
  • may be rounded or angular depending on degree of weathering and abrasion
  • large particles mean large pores that can't hold water against the pull of gravity and so drain rapidly and promote entry of air



  • in between sized particles
  • similar to sand in shape and mineral composition but microscopic in size
  • feels smooth or silk when rubbed between fingers
  • pores much smaller so retains more water




  • very small particles (less than 4 microns)



Specific Surface Area: surface area for a given mass of particles:













Industrialized Agriculture


Farmers have two ways to produce more food:

  • farming more land

  • getting higher yields from existing cropland


Since 1950, about 88% of increases in global food production has come from using high-input industrialized agriculture to increase crop yields in a process called the green revolution.


A green revolution involves three steps:

  • develop and plant monocultures of selectively bred or genetically engineered high-yield varieties of key crops such as:

    • rice

    • wheat

    • corn

  • produce high yields by using large inputs of:

    • water

    • fertilizers

    • pesticides

  • increase the number of crops grown per year on a plot of land through multiple cropping




Industrialized Food Production in the

United States


Has evolved into a huge agribusiness of a few giant multinational corporations increasing control these food related markets:

  • growing

  • processing

  • distribution

  • sales


In total annual sales, agriculture is bigger than that the following US companies COMBINED:

  • automotive

  • steel

  • housing


US farms use industrialized agriculture to produce about 17% of the world's grain


Since 1950 US industrialized agriculture has more than doubled the yield of the following key crops without cultivating more land:

  • wheat

  • corn

  • soybeans


Such yield increases have kept large areas of US forests, grasslands and wetlands from being converted to farmland.


As a result, the average US farmer now feeds 129 people compared to 19 in the 1940s.


People in less-developed countries typically spend up to 40% of their income on food


The world's 1.4 billion poorest people typically spend about 70% of their income on food


Because of the efficiency of US agriculture, Americans spend an average of 9% of their household income on food, down from 18% in 1966.


However, because of a number of hidden costs related to their food consumption, most American consumers are not aware that their total food costs are much higher than the market prices they pay.


Such hidden costs include:

  • taxes to pay for farm subsidies, mostly to producers of:

    • corn

    • wheat

    • soybeans

    • rice

  • the costs of pollution and environmental degradation caused by industrialized agriculture














Crossbreading & Genetic Engineering

Can Produce New Varieties

of Crops and Livestock


For centuries, farmers and scientists have used crossbreeding through artificial selection to develop genetically improved varieties of crops and livestock


Farmers and breeders allowed only the plants and animals with desirable characteristics to reproduce, causing the evolution of farm stock. This process is called artificial selection because people (instead of nature) select which organisms get to reproduce. ... This is evolution through artificial selection.



These common vegetables were cultivated from forms of

wild cabbage. This is evolution through artificial selection.





Examples of some of the 59 native Mexican maize cultivars.

Photo courtesy of CIMMYT Maize Germplasm Bank







Iowa cornfield











Domesticated vs. Wild Tomato








Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)


Any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques


A more specifically defined type of GMO is a "transgenic organism." This is an organism whose genetic makeup has been altered by the addition of genetic material from an unrelated organism. This should not be confused with the more general way in which "GMO" is used to classify genetically altered organisms, as typically GMOs are organisms whose genetic makeup has been altered without the addition of genetic material from an unrelated organism.


Compared to traditional crossbreeding genetic engineering:

  • takes about half as long to develop a new crop variety

  • usually costs less

  • allows for the insertion of genes from almost any other organism into crop cells


In the US:

  • 94% of all soybean crops are genetically engineered

  • 88% of all corn crops are genetically engineered

  • according to the USDA, 80% of food products on US supermarket shelves contain some form of genetically engineered food or ingredient.


Bioengineers plan to develop GMO crops that are resistant to:

  • heat

  • cold

  • drought

  • herbicides

  • insect pests

  • parasites

  • viral diseases

  • salty or acidic soil


Bioengineers also hope to develop crop plants that can:

  • grow faster

  • survive with little or no irrigation

  • survive with less fertilizer

  • survive with fewer pesticides


For example, bioengineers have altered citrus trees, which normally take 6 years to produce fruit, to yield fruit in only one year.


Many scientists think that such innovations hold great promise for helping to improve global food security


Others warn that genetic engineering is not free of drawbacks.


Genetic Engineering Could Solve Some Problems but Create Others





Soils & Vegetation GMO assignment with questions and links:






Industrialized Food Production Requires Huge Inputs of Energy

  • uses relatively cheap energy from oil and natural gas

  • agriculture consumes about 20% of all commercial energy in the US

  • see below for breakdown:




This energy is used to run:

  • farm machinery

  • irrigate crops

  • produce pesticides and fertilizers

  • transport farm products


Fossil fuels are also used to:

  • process food

  • transport food long distances within and between countries


In the US, food travels an average of 1300 miles from farm to plate


Burning these fossil fuels adds to global climate change


The input of energy needed to produce a unit of food has fallen dramatically so most plat crops in the US provide more food energy than the energy to grow them


However, when we consider the energy used related to plant and animal food to:

  • grow

  • store

  • process

  • package

  • transport

  • refrigerate

  • cook


It takes about 10 units of nonrenewable

fossil fuel energy to put 1 unit of food

energy on the table



This huge expenditure of energy to produce

food contributes to several environmental










Environmental Problems Related to Food Production


According to many analysts, agriculture has greater harmful environmental impacts than any other human activity, and these environmental effects may limit future food production


According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), agriculture accounts for:

  • 70% of freshwater use from aquifers and surface water bodies

  • uses 38% of the world's ice-free land

  • is responsible for 25% of the world's greenhouse emissions

  • produces 60% of all water pollution





Soil Erosion

Caused by wind and water

  • some is natural, some caused by people

  • roots anchor soil

  • soil stores water and nutrients

  • soils are eroded through the following activities:

    • farming

    • deforestation

    • overgrazing of livestock

    • off-road vehicle use


Erosion of soil has two major harmful effects:

  • loss of fertility

  • water pollution of nearby surface waters where eroded soil ends up as sediment



UNEP estimates that soil is eroding faster than it forms on about 38% of the world's cropland




Citrus grove











Both Drought & Excessive Irrigation

Degrade Cropland


Desertification: a process in which the productive potential of soil is degraded by 10% or more caused by drought or human activities that degrade the soil


It is estimated that 70% of the world's drylands used for agriculture are degraded. Most of these lands are in Africa and Asia.


Excessive irrigation can also degrade the soil.

45% of the world's food is produced on 20% of of world's cropland that is irrigated.


Irrigation in dry climates produces soil salinization.















Food Production Systems Have Caused

Major Losses of Biodiversity


When forests are cleared and natural grasslands are plowed under for crops, biodiversity declines.


An example is the clearing of tropical rainforests for planting crops






A related problem is a reduction agro-biodiversity:

  • scientists estimate that since 1900, we have lost 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops

  • for example, India once placed 30,000 different varieties of rice

  • now, more than 75% of its rice production comes from only 10 varieties

  • soon, almost all of its production may come from one or two varieties

  • In the US, about 97% of the food plant varieties available to farmers in the 1940s no longer exist

  • we are rapidly shrinking the "library" which is critical for increasing food yields




Seed Banks


Seed Banks: stores seeds to preserve genetic diversity; hence it is a type of gene bank.


There are many reasons to store seeds:

  • One reason is to have on-hand the genes that plant breeders need to increase these characteristics of plants used in agriculture:

    • yield,

    • disease resistance,

    • drought tolerance,

    • nutritional quality,

    • taste


    Another reason is to forestall loss of genetic diversity in rare or imperiled plant species in an effort to conserve biodiversity ex situ (outside their natural habitats).


     Many plants that were used centuries ago by humans are used less frequently now and seed banks offer a way to preserve that historical and cultural value.


    Collections of seeds stored at constant low temperature and moisture guard against loss of genetic resources that are otherwise maintained in situ or in field collections.


    These alternative 'living' collections can be damaged by natural disasters, outbreaks of disease or war.


    Seed banks are considered seed libraries and contain valuable information about evolved strategies to combat plant stress or can be used to create genetically modified versions of existing seeds.


    The work of seed banks spans decades and even centuries.


    Most seed banks are publicly funded and seeds are usually available for research that benefits the public.






Svalbard Global Seed Vault







Established in 1984 as Nordic Gene Bank to house Nordic plant seeds


Svalbard Global Seed Vault established in 2008.


Over 20,000,000 seeds stored from around the world. Among the seeds are:

  • 32 varieties of potatoes from Ireland's national gene banks

  • 20,000 samples from the U.S. Agricultural Research Service

  • the vault contained samples from approximately one-third of the world's most important food crop varieties


Svalbard Global Seed Vault

  • the seedbank is 120 meters (390 ft) inside a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen Island

  • employs robust security systems

  • Seeds are packaged in special three-ply foil packets and heat sealed to exclude moisture.

  • The facility is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, though there are no permanent staff on-site.








There Are Limits to Expansion

of the Green Revolution


Several factors have limited the success of the green revolution to date and may limit them in the future:

  • genetically engineered crops need large inputs of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and water or else their yields are no higher (and sometimes lower) compared to traditional varieties

  • these large inputs cost too much for most subsistence farmers in less-developed countries


Can we expand the green revolution by expanding irrigated cropland?

  • between 1950 and 2012, the area of the world's irrigated cropland tripled with most of the growth occurring from 1950 to 1970

  • since 1978, the amount of irrigated land per person has been declining, and it is projected to fall much more by 2050


Reasons for decreases in irrigated land:

  • one reason for this is population growth:

    • projected to add 2.6 billion more people by 2050

  • depletion of both groundwater and surface water supplies

  • wasteful use of irrigation water

  • soil salinization

  • most of the world's farmers don't have enough money to irrigate




Can we increase the food supply by cultivating more land?


By clearing tropical forests and irrigating arid land, we could more than double the area of the world's cropland


But..... much of this land:

  • has poor soil fertility

  • steep slopes

  • or both


Cultivating such land usually is expensive and unlikely to be sustainable



These potential increases in cropland would not offset the projected loss of almost one-third of today's cultivated cropland due to:

  • erosion

  • overgrazing

  • other forms of soil degradation and urbanization


Such cropland expansion would seriously reduce:

  • wildlife habitats

  • biodiversity


In addition, during this century, fertile croplands in coastal areas are likely to be flooded by rising sea levels resulting from projected climate change







How Can We Protect Crops

From Pests More Sustainably?


Nature controls the populations of most pests


A pest is any species that interferes with human welfare by competing with us:

  • for food

  • invading lawns and gardens

  • destroying building materials

  • spreading disease

  • invading ecosystems

  • simply being a nuisance


Worldwide, only 100 species of  cause most of the damage to the crops we grow:

  • plants ("weeds"),

  • animals (mostly insects),

  • fungi, and

  • microbes


In natural ecosystems and on farms using polyculture, natural enemies:

  • predators

  • parasites

  • disease organisms

control the populations of most potential pest species



For example, the world's 30,000 known species of spiders kill far more insects every year than humans do by using chemicals



When we clear forests and grasslands, plant monoculture crops and douse fields with chemicals that kill pests, we upset many of these natural population checks and balances



Consequently, we must devise and pay for ways to protect our:

  • monoculture crops

  • tree plantations

  • lawns and gold courses

from insects and other pests that nature once largely controlled at no charge.




We Use Pesticides to Help

Control Pest Populations


Pesticide types:

  • insecticides

  • herbicides

  • fungicides

  • rodenticides


Plants naturally produce chemicals called biopesticides to ward off, deceive or poison the insects or herbivores that feed on them


Insects and herbivores overcome various plant defenses through natural selection


Then new plant defenses are favored by natural selection and this coevolutionary process is repeated in an ongoing process



**** Show What Plants Talk About ****



Since 1950, synthetic pesticide use has increased more than 50x, and most of today's pesticides are 10 to 100 times more than toxic than those used in the 1950s.


About 75% of these chemicals are used on more-developed countries, but their use in less-developed countries is soaring