Threats in focus:
As human populations have grown, so has our need for food and food production. With the technological and manufacturing breakthroughs of the last century, it is now easier than ever to mass produce and transport goods to consumers. This helps us meet the demand, but can come at a cost to the natural world.
It is estimated that more than 1.6 billion acres of land are currently used for farming and agriculture world wide, approximately 12% of all habitable land on earth. This makes the methods and practices used in this industry, disproportionately impactful on our world and its environment. An impact that will only increase as our global population nears 8 billion people.
Habitat destruction, environmental pollution and species declines are all outcomes linked to agricultural expansion. However, the same technological advancements and improved understanding can help limit the damage. But to make changes to these practices, we must first understand the issues and identify where and how things can change.
Habitat Loss for agriculture expansion
The loss of natural habitat is the largest driving force of extinction. Around 85% of endangered species are directly threatened by it, with many more added each year as land is cleared for agriculture. By 2050 more than 1.4 million square miles of additional land will be needed to meet the demands of a growing human population. That equates to more land and habitat loss than Spain, Italy and Germany’s land mass put together. With one study suggesting that up to 1,300 species will be threatened with extinction specifically because of the expansion of agricultural land.
It is important to recognise that this loss of habitat is not shared equally around the world. Western Africa, Brazil and Southeast Asia are thought to be the most vulnerable to this demand. This is a problem because these countries are also vital biodiversity hotspots. However, this is not a coincidence.
There is a strong correlation between developing countries and agricultural expansion, particularly for products that are in high demand in developed countries. Coffee, Chocolate, Bananas and vegetable oils are some of the most destructive products on the market. Their high demand but low retail value creates conditions where larger farms are needed to meet demand and produce enough to be economically viable for the farmers. As such, a large portion of the responsibility falls on us as end consumers from developed countries, to change the way we shop and the products we buy. While it always feels good to get a bargin, low prices are often an indicator of poor pay for farmers in the developing world and possibly destructive farming practices.
Meat production is the single largest contributor of modern habitat destruction, including in developed countries. In the United States of America, more than 800 million acres or 41% of the country’s footprint is used just for livestock farming, triple the amount of protected land and national parks. 52% of Canada is used for livestock and agriculture, while in the UK this number is higher at 65% of the countries land mass. This represents a massive portion of a country that has been adapted to a single purpose.
While this propensity for farming and agriculture may seem like a big problem, it can also create opportunities. With such a vast amount of land used in a single industry, it offers a perfect way of enhancing our natural habitats and adapting to a system that could benefit our native wildlife.
Water useage and exploitation
As the climate shifts droughts are becoming more common, but human actions are worsening their impact on water availability. 70% of the fresh water available to humans is used for agriculture, in many cases being removed from its natural water shed and placed onto man made fields and structures. This interrupts the natural processes which have been going on for thousands of years, and places artificial barriers that slow or completely change the water cycle of an area. When its ground water being removed, the impacts are even worse. Ground water is largely irreplaceable in the short term, meaning that farms and environments that rely on it may disappear completely when it runs out.
As of 2021 more than two billion people (23% of the worlds population) live in water-stressed countries and suffer from a lack of access to safe drinking water. This is due to a loss of terrestrial water storage (TWS) in almost all regions of the globe. This is a measurement of water available as ground water, surface water and moisture in soil. The global average has been dropping by around 1cm per year for the last 2 decades, due to climate change. However, some regions and countries like India and Pakistan are seeing drops as high as 4cm per year. This is likely due to a growing agricultural industry which needs to increase soil moisture for crops, even as the climate becomes warmer and drier. This is a growing problem that is creating difficult choices for water usage, with food production putting the availability of drinking water at risk, but also being necessary for one of the most populated countries on earth.
While this is an issue in Africa and Asia, one of the worst hit areas by the impact of agriculture is the United States of America. Entire states face water shortages by 2050 because of the demand from farms. Current water usage statistics show that 37% of US drinking water is used for crop irrigation, even as 60 million Americans struggle for clean drinking water. A lack of drinking water is currently ranked fifth on top global threats to humanity, just below weapons of mass destruction and infectious diseases.
It is not just humans that are suffering because of poor water management, so are ecosystems all over the world. The diversion of water to farms depletes ground water and dries up rivers that thousands of species rely on. Estimates suggest that 6 out of 10 rivers around the world are drying up at a rate that stops them flowing at least one day a year. In some cases, this can drastically impact wildlife by changing an ecosystem irreparably. Salmon migration happens every year and follows the same path each time as well. This can mean that if a river is too low or dry, it can be impossible for the species to reach their spawning grounds. This is bad for the Salmon, but can also lead to shortages of food for species that rely on their presence upstream, such as brown bears.
Fertilisers are a key part of modern farming and have helped increase productivity several hundred percent in the last century. However, most man-made fertilisers contain nitrogen and phosphorus, two chemical compounds that can cause serious issues if they enter rivers and fresh water sources. Eutrophication is the name given to when a water system contains an abundance of nutrients like nitrogen, often causing sudden algal blooms. This is a particular issue in many developing or heavily populated countries like China, where food demand often outweighs environmental wellbeing. As such, many areas like Yunnan China have become infamous for their bright green lake’s whose surface become covered by bright green algae each summer. While not particularly dangerous to humans, the algae blocks light from reaching plants at the bottom of the lake and can kill off much of the aquatic plant life, destabilising the ecosystem. Additionally, while the algae is not necessarily dangerous, it is a sign that the water is contaminated by off run from farming. A major survey in China found that 80% of ground water within 50 miles of farms was unsafe for human consumption because of contamination from agriculture. If it is unsafe for humans, its also unsafe for wildlife that drink from those sources.
While less common, Eutrophication was a serious issue here in the UK until recently. Between 1975 and 1995 many areas of the UK including Somerset and Devon, experienced large outbreaks of algae from polluted water. This caused a drop in water quality, destabilising the ecosystem and leading to large biodiversity losses. One of the most evident measures of this was the severe decline in otters across the UK over this period. Thankfully, due to environmental protections we are seeing our waterways recover and otters have returned to every county in England and Wales.
An EU report in 2006 listed the main causes of waterway pollution as poor land management practices for the farming industry, such as extensive field drainage and inappropriate slurry disposal causing substantial elevations in organic contaminants such as ammonia. But its not just fertiliser, but other chemicals like pesticides that need to be carefully regulated. While most are designed to kill insects and protect crops, bio-accumulation of these chemicals in other species has been well demonstrated. Species at the top of the food chain like birds of prey can be severely impacted by a gradual build up in their bodies as seen with DDT.
But what can we do?
It can seem like an impossible and complex issue to tackle, but there are relatively simple things we can do as consumers that will not only have short term benefits, but possibly change industries and production techniques around the world. We can do this by changing market demand to favour the products doing the least damage.
Buying Organic is one change that is easy to make, but that can have a big impact on the environment. While they typically do cost more to purchase, that is because organic farming costs more to produce the same products. We all love a bargain, but when it comes to fresh produce spending a little extra can have major benefits for the environment. For a product to be certified as organic it must not use man made fertilisers pesticides or other chemicals, and is produced in a way that is environmentally sustainable. Typically meaning the crops are grown in sustainable rotations to ensure soil fertility, and that farms use natural manures and biological pest controls rather than chemical ones. Putting all this together it removes the chances of chemical pollution into the environment and safeguards nearby ecosystems, which in the UK is most of the country.
Buying local is another option, even if it just means choosing Spanish peppers instead of Peruvian. Buying closer to home limits Co2 production, ensures higher food and farming standards and reduces the need for natural habitat to be cut down in biodiverse developing countries. All products in the UK and EU have a country of origin written on the products, it just takes a little time to read and choose the most sustainable option.
Eating a plant-based diet can have a massive impact, especially on limiting habitat destruction. In the UK 60% of all grain and crops grown, are used in livestock feed. By removing the end product of meat, you can take out the subsequent supply chain. However, for many this is not possible due to dietary, medical, or financial concerns, while others simply prefer a meat-based diet. Despite this, it may still be able to make small or subtle changes. Having meat free days can help alleviate some of the demands of this industry. With one study identifying that if everyone went meat free one day a week, 310 million hectares less land would be needed to meet the demand for meat products. This is a substantial land saving and is more than the predicted expansion of farming for the next 30 years. As such, if we swap out meat for plants for just one day, we can effectively halt the need for more land to be converted to agriculture around the world.
Finally, the biggest thing we can do is know what we are buying and choosing the most environmentally friendly options. Farming can and is done in many areas with the environment in mind. It just takes a little time, effort and sometimes money to show our support for farms doing it.
To help guide us through the sometimes confusing landscape of products, there are apps for it.
Giki (Get informed, know your impact) is a free barcode scanner that will provide you with all the information you could want on over a quarter of a million products. This includes things from official certifications to carbon footprint calculations. Useful information if you are trying to shop sustainably.