Food is usually defined as edible or potable substance (usually plant, bacteria or animal based), consisting of nourishing and nutritive components that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.
It is composed of elements such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, essential minerals, and vitamins, which (when ingested and assimilated through digestion) sustains life, generates energy, and provides growth, maintenance, and health to the body.
In the case of humans, whatever your country & culture, we can distinguish 3 main different kinds of food :
Processed & ultra-processed: it usually contains products from the 2 previous categories, but it is transformed by human intervention, from homemade cooking to highly industrialized processes and with more or less added products.
Note: there are many different classifications of food, if you want to know more you can check the classification created by Dr. Bomi Joseph based on processes or another one based on nutrient groups.
Humans & the Food Chain
The food chain is composed of two subsystems: food production & food consumption.
They are not linear systems, they are intimately linked and they influence and are influenced by the global ecosystem in which they evolve.
All living beings are part of this cycle, they are all eating and getting eaten. The Earth living ecosystem is not made exclusively for humans, but made by and for all the living beings that compose it.
Humans, like every other being, are at the end and beginning of the cycle. By dying, we decompose thanks to bacteria and fungi, then feed plants, insects and animals that will themselves feed other beings.
About 10.000 years ago, humans started to shift from their nomad condition, to build settlements. One of the main reasons for this big shift was the emergence of agriculture due to the domestication of plants and animals.
Since then to nowadays, most of the food consumed has been obtained through agriculture.
Even though agriculture has evolved through history and many different kinds of agricultural systems exist around the world, nowadays we can distinguish 2 main “schools” that are currently feeding the world:
The sustainable agriculture & agroecosystem: that results in working in collaboration with the existing biodiversity, using organic farming methods to improve the number of useful connections between the species that compose it and ensure a local resilience.
The modern conventional & industrial agriculture: that results in using agricultural machinery, species selection & GMOs, industrial fertilizers & pesticides, to maximize the production of food in the short term, usually with the perspective of a financial gain & worldwide exportation.
According to the International Water Management Institute and UNEP, well-managed agroecosystems not only provide food, fiber and animal products, they also provide services such as flood mitigation, groundwater recharge, erosion control, and habitats for plants, birds, fish and other animals.
As seen before, food is a vital & common need for all of humanity.
That’s why it also plays an important role in the world citizens’ relationships (social, economic, and geopolitical) but also has a very strong impact on our environment.
To understand in a nutshell the 21st-century global challenges linked to food that we are facing, we have summarized the main issues, by gathering a few strong facts.
Fact 1: Food & agriculture are the largest consumers of water, requiring 100 times more than we use for our personal domestic needs.
Up to 10 % of the water we take from rivers and groundwater goes into irrigation, about 10% is used in domestic applications, and 20% in industry.
Fact 2: We use roughly 1/2 of global habitable land for agriculture. At the upper end of the spectrum, we find meat products, with the land required for beef or mutton up to 100 times larger than cereals.
Fact 3: The food sector (including input manufacturing, production, processing, transportation, marketing consumption) accounts for around 95 exa-Joules, so approximately 30% of global energy consumption.
>> Pollution & Loss of Biodiversity
Fact 4: About 33% of the total global warming effect can be attributed to the food system (only for farming and land-use like deforestation) and about 80% of the deforestation of the Amazonian forests to meat production.
Fact 5: In 2004 in the US, 44% of stream, 64% of lake, and 30% of bays and estuarine assessed were classified as polluted. This is mainly due to the massive use of pesticides & fertilizers that add toxins linked with the excess nitrogen & phosphor concentration and erosion.
Fact 6: Today our food energy and proteins come mainly from 15 plants and 8 animal species, with disturbing consequences for nutrition, food security, and a major driver of biodiversity loss.
75% of the genetic diversity found in agricultural crop has been lost over the last century and this genetic erosion continues.
>> Farmers Labour & Dependence
Fact 7: In 2017, 4 corporations are sharing more than 60% of the seeds & agrochemical world’s market: Monsanto-Bayer, Dupond-Dow, Syngenta-ChemChina and BASF.
Fact 8: Farmers have little control over the prices of their products sold to main food corporations, and they continue to receive a smaller and smaller portion of consumers’ spending to the benefit of intermediaries like processors, exporters, and groceries.
Fact 9: In Southeast Asia, most farmers heavily depend on synthetic pesticides as their main method of pest control.
They are aware of the adverse health effects associated with pesticide use like cancers, skin, and respiratory diseases, but also consider pesticides to be highly effective and indispensable farms’ inputs due to soil fertility loss.
II – Food Access & Waste
>> Hunger & Undernourishment
In 2019 :
– 11% of the world’s population – 820 million people – are undernourished. This means they have a caloric intake below the minimum energy requirements.
– 22% of children younger than five are ‘stunted’ – they are significantly shorter than the average for their age, as a consequence of poor nutrition or repeated infection.
– 9% of the world population – around 697 million people – are severely food insecure, and 1 in 4 people globally – 1.9 billion – are moderately or severely food insecure. (Source Our World In Data)
>> Food Deserts & Importation Dependency
In 2015, 1 in 6 people in the world rely on imports to feed them.
There are at least 34 countries who are unable to produce their own food due to water and land limitations, which represents a large portion of the global population who must rely on imported food in order to avoid starvation.
By the year 2050, more than half of the world’s population is expected to rely on food sourced from other countries, this is partly due to climate change effect, loss of land fertility, reduction of freshwater reserves, and growing population.(Source World Atlas)
>> Food waste
About a third of all the food produced worldwide is wasted before reaching their selling place, more explanations about the food wastage footprint by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) :
III – Food Quality & Health Issues
>> Food Nutritive Quality Loss
A growing body of research shows that rising carbon dioxide levels and soil erosion are making our food less nutritious, robbing key crops of vitamins essential to human development. According to the Global Hunger Index, 2 billion people worldwide already suffer from “hidden hunger,” in which people starve as a consequence of malnutrition even though they are consuming enough calories. (Source Scientific American Network)
Many pesticides are potentially toxic to humans and can have both acute and chronic health effects, depending on the quantity and ways in which a person is exposed. (Source WHO)
>> Food Frauds
In the last decades, we can observe an increasing number of food frauds, the 5 most common frauds are :
Adulteration: An extraneous substance is added to a food product, reducing its quality
Substitution: Replacing part or all the product with a similar substance
Dilution: A cheaper liquid substance is added to a high-value product
Misrepresentation or mislabelling: a product is labeled or marked to portray its quality, origin, freshness or safety incorrectly
Counterfeiting: Products or ingredients are illicitly produced as replicas of a real product
The main edible products concerned by frauds are oils, milk, coffee, spices, teas, fishes, fruit juices, and honey. (Source Hub)
>> Junk Food
Eating a poor quality diet, high in junk food – high in calories and low in nutrients -, fast food, and highly processed food is linked to a higher risk of obesity, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and early death. As you might expect, frequency matters when it comes to the impact of junk food on your health.
Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese. 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese.(Source Washington Post)
So now that we know that our current food production and consumption systems are responsible for:
the loss of biodiversity and food quality;
pollution, erosion, and exhaustion of the soil;
the waste of important resources like land, fuel, water, or even food itself;
unfair access to food provoking malnourishment on one side and obesity on the other;
You need to know that hundreds of solutions exist around the world: ancient wisdom, sustainable practices, new innovations, collective initiatives & knowledge, …
With the spread of these solutionq, we can reverse the food footprint, ensure food security & quality, regenerate the soil, and drawdown the greenhouse gas concentration present in the atmosphere.
Main Sustainable Principles:
Extend regenerative farming and practices that take into account the interactions that the soil’s life (plants, micro-organisms, insects, and animals) naturally have, and help optimize them to suppress the need for industrial pesticides and fertilizers.
Diversify farm activities as much as possible by taking into account the land’s physical limit.
Change food diet to a plant-rich diet or by diversifying the sources of essential nutrients (like insects, algae) and privilege products produced locally, seasonally, organic, and from small scale farms.
Relocalize food production as close as possible from the consumption place to reduce transportation and intermediaries
Improve the irrigation system and water retention to reduce water waste and improve plant absorption.
Upcycle non-sold veggies and fruits in other products.
Compost the food waste to create free rich fertile soil.
Improve the traceability of food, to ensure where and how it was produced, and help the consumer to really know what they buy and its consequences on the environment and health.
Some of those alternatives can be implemented on a small scale by a community to a much larger scale by a city or a country, and many are cheap, easy to reappropriate or in open source licenses!
You could become the next changemaker that will help to make a positive change in your community, your city or in the world!
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