An Introduction to the US Food System, Week 1: Introduction to Food Systems, Equity and the Environment

“If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture.” – Wendell Berry

Here are my notes from week 1 of the free course I’m taking from Johns Hopkins on the US food system. So far I’m really enjoying it! These notes aren’t proofed or reorganized, just dumped here from Evernote for your educational pleasure. I hope you learn something; I know I did, and will be expanding upon some of these points in later posts.

The Vicious Spiral

Poverty – Population growth – Environmental degradation (PPE spiral)
  • Extreme poverty in the world is decreasing
  • Projected population growth mostly in developing nations
    • high: sub-saharan africa, bolivia, afghanistan, pakistan
    • Low: canada, brazil, most of europe, russia
  • Hunger declining but still too high
    • Most in Asia/Pacific,then sub-Saharan Africa
    • 1 billion of 7 billion total people are undernourished
    • Food prices spikes due to fuel prices going up, more crops used for ethanol

Equity and Global Ecological Footprints

Global pop: 7bil as of 10/11
  • 2bil overweight or obese
  • 1bil undernourished

Resource extraction increasing in emerging economies; 75% of pop live in countries where resource extraction > resource capital

Water quality/quantity:

  • Extreme scarcity in sub-Saharan, India, Nepal, SE Asia, Lat Am highlands
  • Chemical pollution bad in US, China
  • Dead zones from excess fertilizer: poultry production belt (NC, deep south), Europe’s concentrated livestock farming
Degradation of soil:
  • US farm belt (MS valley) very degraded
  • Iowa, for ex, loses soil at unsustainable rate–some areas >100T of soil per acre. Rich, fertile topsoil being lost to industrial farming techniques/overcultivation
    • Soil carried down MS river and lost at sea

Biodiversity:

  • Same area of soil degradation in N Amer shows high loss of biodiversity
    • Focus on corn, soybeans
  • Sub saharan, latin america bad
  • Industrialized countries w/ 15% pop used 50% fossil fuel, mineral resources; developing countries increased fossil fuel use by 40% in last 10 years
Biocapacity: capacity of ecosystems to produce useful biological materials and absorb human-generated CO2

Biologically productive land: cropland, grazing land, forest, fishing ground. Declining

Most of world at margins of using more biocapacity than is being replenished. In 2007: 151% Earth’s biocapacity used. Some countries ok: Lat Am, Canada, Russia

Diet, Food Production, and Global Health

Double burden of disease: healthcare systems of low/middle income countries overwhelmed by same old communicable diseases plus new chronic diseases from diet/less activity. Obesity has doubled globally since 1980. Diabetes type 2, cancers, heart disease, stroke. 80% of type 2 diabetes is in developing countries.

Undernourished mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, India, Mongolia, even China.

Food distribution:

  • US produces and uses vast majority of corn
  • Europe most wheat
  • US/Europe most meat, dairy, way more than India/China
  • US consumes 800kg grain per capita per year. Compare to 400 Italy, 200 China. Most of our grain goes to feeding livestock.
    • 700kg grain = 100kg beef
    • 650kg grain = 100kg pork
    • 260kg grain = 100kg poultry
    • 1000kg water = 1kg grain! So 700,000 kg water = 100kg beef; 7000kg water = 1kg beef

Federal subsidies: meat and dairy 73.8% of all subsidies. Fruit and veg .37% 

US meat consumption since 1961 increased 70%. 223lbs per person per year. Global demand for meat should double from 1990-2020. Global consumption since 1961: 82% increase. FDA says we don’t need all that protein and meat. US men consuming 170% of recommended protein; women 127%. Lot of room to reduce consumption.

Intergenerational equity and Food production impacts

  • Rapid land and soil degradation
  • Water table lowering
  • Antibiotic overuse – drug resistant bacteria
  • Fish stock depletion and more factory farmed fish
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Climate disruption
Industrialized agriculture: started in 19th C for efficiency, speed. Monocropping, pesticides, fertilizer, water.
  • Fertilizer overuse = nitrogen/phosphorus pollution
  • High use of non-renewable resources and reliance on fossil fuels
  • Agricultural subsidies
  • Artificially inexpensive fuel and water
  • Hidden costs of food = externalities
Production needs quality soil and good rainfall but that’s unevenly distributed.
  • 2/3 water use worldwide is for irrigation
  • Irrigated land produces most crops, and amount of irrigated land growing

Chemicals

  • 220million metric tons of fertilizer used per year globally in 2020
    • Most chemicals not tested
    • Crops only absorb 1/3 to 1/2 of applied nitrogen
  • 6mil metric tons of pesticides used per year globally
    • chemicals enter food, air, water stream and could give us cancer
    • 1 billion lbs pesticide per year in US
      • that’s 20% global production for 4% global population
    • Roundup resistance (glycophosphate). At least 10 species of weeds now.
      • Monsanto controls 96% soybean market w/ Roundup resistant soybean seeds

Energy use

  • 1kcal output requires 3kcal input on avg farm
  • Feedlot cattle: 1kcal output requires 35kcal input!
  • Over 80% US energy consumption for food production (2002)
  • Most greenhouse gases from meat (30%); processed foods/snacks (25%); dairy (18%); cereals & fruit/veg 11%; chicken/eggs/fish 10%

Industrial agriculture and biodiversity

  • Current rate of loss 1000 species a year!
  • vs Paleolithic rate of 1-2 per year
  • Amazon, 2000-2005, deforestation: 60% for cattle farming, 33% small-scale agriculture, 1% large-scale agriculture
    • 1% has ballooned in recent years due to soy production
    • Also sugar cane, maize production
    • Soybeans here predominantly shipped to China to feed hogs, essentially shipping water to china in the form of soybeans
  • Threat to food supply: monocropping = more susceptible to disease, drought, pests
    • Industrial animal farming = loss of genetic biodiversity in livestock
    • Species go extinct
    • Spread of pathogens (west nile, dengue)
    • New pathogens emerge
    • Balance of species controls pests (why crop rotation is used)

The role of food animal production

1/32 of the Earth’s surface suitable for raising food. Must raise food for 7bil people.

Meat production inefficient use of grain, water, land, but accounts for 70% farmland, 30% Earth’s surface, 40% grain grown globally

  • 7% global water for grain for livestock
  • 70% herbicide and 37% pesticide in agriculture used for livestock feed
  • half corn grown in US used for animal feed (1% for human feed as actual corn)
  • Grain use ahead of production; global stocks decline (China became a grain importer) (450mil hogs grown and consumed each year in china)
  • Africa and Middle East require more grain
  • Ethanol production the major threat to availability of grains for human consumption since late 2005 (largely driven by subsidies)

Industrial food animal production:

  • one corp controls everything from hatching to slaughter.
  • animals raised in CAFOs
  • feed controlled by corp, not contract grower
  • grower is left with waste and carcasses, paid at end of cycle by weight of animals
  • livestock outnumber humans 5:1 in US
    • 2002 10bil animals slaughtered for food in US
    • 93% chickens worldwide
    • 20% of worlds animals consumed in US
    • 5 tons waste per capita
  • CAFO vs public health
    • antibiotics = resistant bacteria
    • emergence of new foodborne pathogens
    • chemicals enter foodchain through diets of animals
    • CAFO ruins communities
    • health threats apparent in CAFO neighbors, workers (asthma, injuries)
    • climate change
      • 18% greenhouse gas production worldwide, more than anything incl transportation
      • 37% methane emissions (20x worse than CO2)
      • 65% NO2 emissions (286x worse than CO2, and lasts 114yrs in atm). FERTILIZERS.
  • Precautionary principle: if something is suspected of endangering humans, the proponent of the activity, not the public, should bear burden of proof
  • How to feed everyone sustainably?
    • small farms currently support 2bil people globally; improve biodiversity and soil quality; decrease poverty
    • need to advance technologies and make them free
    • govt investment
    • invest in women farmers
    • infrastructure improvements: roads, storage facilities, refrigeration, surplus mgmt
    • diet: can’t sustain meat consumption increase, but need access to iron- and protein-rich meat sources
    • resilient food system: elasticity, recoverability, buoyancy

 Reading: Food: The growing problem

http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100728/full/466546a.html

  • At least 30% of global food is wasted; people are too poor to buy it. Highest rates of hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa; most undernourished in Asia
  • Percent hungry dropped for decades, but 2008 food price crisis reversed trend
  • Available calories per person has increased (family size decreasing, pop growth should plateau in 2050), so we will be able to support higher pop, but water is limiting resource
  • Some studies say we’ll have enough land by converting land farmland in Lat Am and Afr without hurting forests, protected areas, urbanization. But others say we should intensify existing farms
  • Sustainable intensification: doing more with less, improving techniques, less water, less chemicals. Need more public investment in farming practices.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *