Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems



Thus far, this module has focused mainly on agriculture, i.e., on the production of food. Now we’re going to look at a main end use of food: nutrition. Nutrition here refers broadly to all of our bodies’ physiological needs that we must get through food, including water, energy, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Without proper nutrition, we will be frail, sick, or even dead. Nutrition is, thus, a crucial end use of food, though it is not the only end use. Nutrition also has important environmental and social components.

Basic Nutritional Needs

While different people can have somewhat different nutritional needs, there are broad similarities across all humans.

Reading Assignment: The Healthy Eating Pyramid

In the United States, most of us are familiar with the food pyramid published by the United States Department of Agriculture. In 2011, the USDA released MyPlate as a substitute for the outdated MyPyramid but these food icons have been criticized for not using state-of-the-art nutritional information or for being biased by lobbying from agriculture businesses.

Nutritionists at the Harvard University School of Public Health have published the Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating Pyramid as alternative ways of conceptualizing basic nutrition. Please read the brief overview of the Healthy Eating Pyramid.

As you read this, be sure to take a close look at the details of the pyramid, in particular which foods are recommended to be eaten frequently or infrequently.

One important point to see from the Healthy Eating Pyramid is that animal-based foods (meat, dairy, eggs) should, in general, be eaten less frequently than plant-based foods. This is an important insight, especially when considering the other issues associated with animal-based diets. At stake here is the following: Is eating fewer animal foods a collective action problem? As the previous page in the module showed, there are societal problems associated with animal foods. If animal foods are good for us individually, then there could be collective action problem. On the other hand, if animal foods are bad for us individually, then there would be no collective action problem, and eating fewer animal foods would be a win-win situation for individuals and for society. Nutritionally, eating fewer animal foods can be good for us individually. But remember, nutrition is not the only end use of food. We should not forget that many individuals enjoy the taste of animal foods, or have other reasons for consuming them.


A famine is an event in which many people lack adequate food and in turn adequate nutrition, often resulting in significantly higher death rates. Famines – and, more generally, hunger – continue to this day. This can be seen, for example, in the Hunger In The News section of World Food Programme website. The World Food Programme is a division of the United Nations dedicated to providing humanitarian food aid around the world.

Note that a famine specifically involves lack of access to food; it does not necessarily involve lack of food. Indeed, in many cases, famines have occurred despite there being no overall food shortages. The food may be located in the wrong place, or it may simply be too expensive to be purchased by those in need. Such cases were described in the article In Corrupt Global Food System, Farmland is the New Gold earlier in the module. Please revisit this article to identify cases of famine and hunger. If famine can be caused by lack of funds to purchase food, then poverty can cause famine, or at least it can be a major factor in a famine system.

Famines can also be caused intentionally by human activities. For example, during World War II, the German army waged what is known as the Siege of Leningrad. Leningrad, now known as Saint Petersburg, is a large Russian city located on the Baltic Sea between Finland and Estonia. The siege lasted almost 900 days from 1941 to 1944. During this time, the city was cut off from supplies and a famine ensued. About 1.5 million people died, making the siege one of the larger famines in human history, although certainly not the largest.

Finally, famines can be caused by environmental factors. One environmental factor has already been discussed in this module: plant diseases, such as the potato blight that caused the Irish potato famine. Livestock animal diseases can also decrease food supplies, but typically not as much as plant diseases because it’s easier to obtain nutrition without animals than it is without plants. Two other major environmental contributors to famines are droughts and floods. Indeed, droughts and floods are commonly implicated in famines around the world. There have even been famines caused by large volcanic eruptions, because the ash enters the sky, blocking sunlight. 1816 is known as the “year without summer” across the northern hemisphere because of the eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia. We’ll further discuss environmental causes of famines in Module 8 on natural hazards.


Nutrition problems can also occur when there is too much food, as seen in the incidence of obesity. Obesity rates in many parts of the world have become so high that there is talk of an obesity epidemic. It might seem odd or inappropriate for the world to simultaneously have widespread hunger and widespread obesity, but that is the case in today’s world. Out of a total population of about 7 billion today, there are about 1 billion undernourished (hungry) people and about 500 million obese people, though note that there is no one single precise way to determine who is or isn’t undernourished or obese.

The causes of obesity are complex and relate to more than just food and nutrition. For example, exercise is also an important factor as might be the quality of the calories consumed. Genetics may also play a factor as may the chemicals used to treat and package our food known as endocrine disruptors. More research is needed before we have a definitive idea of all the different factors that contribute to obesity, but needless to say, it appears that the causes are multiple.

Relevant to this module, obesity has been connected with industrialized agriculture. Our industrial agriculture system produces large quantities of grains, in particular, maize. These high-calorie crops lead to high-calorie foods, including sugary foods made with high fructose corn syrup. This agriculture system also produces large quantities of animal foods, which can be higher in certain fats, as indicated by the Healthy Eating Pyramid.