Given all that we have learned about food and agriculture, what should we do about it? Which foods should we as individuals choose? Which policies should societies implement? These questions represent individual and collective action on food and agriculture.
Many factors are relevant to which foods we should choose for ourselves. We may want proper nutrition, tasty meals, convenience, and low cost. We might want the cultural meaning associated with certain foods, such as foods from certain parts of the world or certain religious traditions. We might also care about the impacts our foods have on other people, on the environment, and on livestock animals. There may be other relevant factors as well.
One way or another, which foods we should choose is an ethical question. The more altruistic we are, the more likely we are to care about the impacts of our foods on others, and vice versa if we are selfish. If we are speciesist, then we are unlikely to care about impacts on livestock animals. If we are anthropocentric, then we are unlikely to care about impacts on the environment, except to the extent that the environmental impacts affect people. If we care about distributive justice, then we may choose foods that leave more food available for others.
Sustainable Food Consumption
Like the term sustainability, sustainable food consumption has been defined in various ways. In general, we define sustainable food consumption as a choice for food which is good for health and environment. For food consumption to be sustainable it has to do “more and better with less”: we obtain more nutrition from food while minimizing the use of natural resources and environmental impacts. Sustainable food consumption is often exemplified by a locavore who eats locally grown or produced food. But a word of caution: food grown or produced locally, or bought from farmer’s markets, is just as likely to be grown using unsustainable and environmentally harmful inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers as food at the grocery store. And while local food may travel fewer food miles (i.e., the distance food takes on its way to consumers from producers) its production may generate just as much greenhouse gas as food produced further away. BUT. There is one sustainability advantage that eating locally grown produce from a farmer's market does offer: you can meet the farmer and ask them how they run their farm. This allows you to be an informed and (more) sustainable consumer. Who would ask at the grocery store?
Recall the concept of commodity chains from Module 1. Now, think about where you can place yourself on the food supply chain and why concerns about where food comes from and how it gets to your plate matter. To fully embrace the idea of sustainable food consumption, changing what we eat is just as important as changing where it is from. In the Livestock's Long Shadow section of this module, we looked into the environmental impacts of consuming meat and dairy products and explained why a plant-based diet leads to a more sustainable environment.
The following video highlights the hidden environmental and social costs of hamburgers. Here are some questions to consider as you watch the video:
- Are contemporary food production and consumption sustainable?
- Does geography matter to food availability and food choice?
- Are there other steps or efforts toward sustainable food consumption?
- Can sustainable food consumption be promoted through creating social norms?
Food choice, climate change, and sustainability are closely related. Fundamental changes in food consumption and diet are essential for achieving sustainablity. Just as you must develop your own intuition about ethics, you must decide for yourself which foods you think you should choose. This module aims to help inform your choices, not to make them for you.
Which food (and agriculture) policies society should choose also is an ethical question, one that members of society must come together to decide. Here are some major issues in food policy.
Many countries, in particular the wealthier ones, heavily subsidize agriculture. In the United States, agricultural subsidies are about $15 billion per year, or roughly 0.5% of the total federal budget. Corn receives the largest subsidy, about $4 billion. These subsidies help keep agriculture yields high and food prices low. The subsidies significantly decrease the risk of famine and keep countries more self-sufficient in food, which can be important if any geopolitical instabilities occur. On the other hand, the subsidies can cause excessive amounts of food production, leading to increased environmental damage and obesity. The low prices can also hurt farmers in countries that don’t have subsidies. Poor, small-scale farmers in poor countries are put at a great competitive disadvantage by the subsidies of rich countries, despite the fact that labor costs are much lower for the poor. Finally, the money used for subsidies could go to other public or private purposes if the subsidies weren’t there. While lobbyists from the agriculture industry fight hard to keep subsidies, there is much controversy and debate about whether the subsidies should be maintained.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
If you live in the United States, you have probably eaten GMOs on a fairly regular basis. Humans have been modifying the genetic makeup of organisms since the early days of agriculture, simply by selectively breeding plants and animals with desirable traits. Over time, this shifts the genetic makeup of the plants and animals. However, in recent years humans have learned how to manipulate genetics more aggressively, including by inserting genes from one organism into that of another. For example, plants have been genetically designed to be resistant to certain pesticides. The design work is often performed by the same company that sells the pesticides. GMOs are controversial for several reasons and recent years have seen a growing debate over labeling for genetically modified products. Their long-term health and ecological effects are poorly known with no adequate testing, though short-term health effects are generally negligible. Once the new genes are released into fields, they can spread widely and are almost impossible to contain. Finally, the genes are often patented by the companies that design them, giving the companies extensive legal power over certain types of life. World regions are divided on the merits of GMOs. In particular, Europe has been much more hostile to them than the United States, leading to major international trade disputes.
Food vs. Fuel
As concerns mount about the sustainability of energy resources, there are more and more efforts to produce fuels from farmed plants, known as biofuels. Brazil has been particularly active in producing biofuels, in part because its land is well-suited to growing sugarcane. Brazil and the United States produce about 90% of the world’s biofuels. But biofuels are controversial because they result in reductions in the amounts of food available. This controversy is especially large because, in general, it is the rich who can afford the fuel and the poor who need the food. The thought of some people going hungry so that other people can have biofuels for their cars is a difficult thought for many people involved in the issue.
The overall sustainability of human society is a major policy issue, and the sustainability of agriculture is too. Some key aspects of sustainable agriculture have already been discussed. The use of fossil fuels and fossil water cannot be sustained as these resources are depleted. Agriculture systems with low yield stability are vulnerable to disturbances in which yields are not sustained. Other important aspects of sustainable agriculture include agriculture's connections to climate change and biodiversity, which will be discussed later in the course. A lot is at stake with sustainable agriculture: if our agriculture system cannot be sustained in some form, then we will end up without food to eat, and we will face catastrophic declines in the human population and civilization.