13.10.2015 : Jessie Bird

The real cost of food

In order to sustain our level of reliance on the environment it is critical to create a food production system that maintains and enhances the environmental services upon which society depends.

Food is a necessity; our pure existence depends on its availability. But in our modern world, what price do we pay to make sure we have what we need?

Throughout history the production of food has underpinned the development of societies. The growth and complexity of civilisations was made possible by the shift from hunter-gather traditions to agriculture and farming and since then, farming has supported population growth, created stability for industrialisation and provided a foundation for economic prosperity in today’s world. In order for society to continue to prosper, a collaborative approach to food production techniques is required between various stakeholders (e.g. scientists, environmental managers, society, regulators, technologists and innovators) to manage the world’s resources.

Although the production and supply of food has evolved since humans first formed settlements, its importance remains unchanged. The hunter-gather society relied on a healthy and prosperous environment (among other variables) and therefore the success (or demise) of these societies can be attributed to the way in which people interact with our world.

Food security was fundamentally changed through the green revolution following World War 2. This revolution was born through technological and scientific advancements that allowed farmers to produce more food at a lower cost by changing what nature gave us. This included new farming irrigation methods, stronger and more resistant pesticides, more efficient fertilizers, and development of high yielding varieties of maize, wheat and rice which dramatically increased crop production.

Whilst I can’t argue that this hasn’t been a good thing for our population as it enabled population growth and secured access to food for many people, I question whether the impact on the environment has come as a cost to us and future generations.

The way we produce food is vastly different from the era prior to the green revolution, where crops naturally grew in specific areas. Advancements in food production as a result of strengthened resistance to parasites and production on previously unproductive land; food distribution as a result of globalisation and transport efficiencies; and food longevity; means food production is far removed from what nature originally intended. Technological advancement has been a driving mechanism for social and economic prosperity; but the trade-off for producing economically viable food using technological advancements has meant that the food production system now controls the environment in which food is grown.

The pressure on resources and technology to deliver consistent food supplies is growing. The environmental pressures associated with producing food today include soil degradation, water scarcity, waste, and habitat destruction. If we continue to use the environment to produce food in such a way that causes environmental degradation, the level of reliance we can place on the environment to provide what we need it to diminishes. We only have one planet earth, and everything we do as a population impacts on the future health of it.

NZ is in a unique position when it comes to food production as we remain a gross food exporter which is becoming less common. The New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research Ltd indicates that as at the end of 2012 NZ produced 0.1% of total global produce (fruit and vegetables), and produced 0.4% of global meat. To put into perspective the magnitude of this, NZ makes up only approximately 0.06% of the world’s population. Approximately half of New Zealand’s land area is dedicated to cropping and horticulture, high producing grassland and low producing grassland, which shows how important food production is to our economy. We are the third largest producer of kiwifruit, the 26th largest producer of apples and are a global leader in lamb and deer meat exports. With this in perspective, NZ plays a crucial role in providing food for the worlds’ population.

Our society is increasingly conscious of living a more sustainable lifestyle and wants to make a difference. Since a lot of the food NZ produces is exported, the importance of maintaining and enhancing our practices to deliver on what we promise (our ‘clean / green’ image) is critical and should drive production techniques.  Being mindful of the benchmark NZ wishes to set in regards to its image means that opportunities exist for community education and innovation to lead the way and steer the path for our future.

Food production and supply provides an excellent example of how society and the environment are interconnected. Safeguarding environmental services is critical to the security of food production, and ultimately human survival.  The use of resources to provide a human necessity is bound up within the principals of sustainability, and pressures to ‘get it right’ should motivate and inspire us to preserve the natural capital we have.  A challenge to be addressed is to create a food production and supply system that safeguards ecosystem services such as soil fertility, pollination, clean air, and freshwater whilst ensuring the needs of the human population are met. This is the idea of agroecology, permaculture, and restorative agriculture (agricultural practices which are designed to imitate natural ecosystems).

There is an assumption that insecurities in food supply and production will be addressed by advancements in technology. However, increasing evidence suggests that the food supply chain will come under a number of different pressures. Pressures such as increasing resistance amongst pests to pesticides and the unsustainable use of water resources to grow crops will be intensified by climate change. It would be naïve to suggest that this is exclusively a technological issue, and therefore communities and scientists will need to work together to provide for the future.

As our society becomes increasingly interested in understanding supply chains, a movement towards organic, ethical and sustainable food products is becoming apparent. Concerns over the disconnect between the farm and the table has seen increased awareness of how food is produced and the costs of this production to the environment. This concern over how food is currently produced and the vulnerabilities of the current food supply chain provide an exciting opportunity for innovation both at a food manufacturer’s level and at the local community level. Ultimately, without a thriving environment, the limits of economic and social prosperity are constrained.

I hope you’re thinking ‘what can I do?’ so to help you get started here are some ideas:

  • Prioritise locally grown food and support your local farmers. Not only do you know where your food comes from, you can connect with the producer and support the local community
  • Grown your own food. This will reduce ‘food miles’ dramatically and you know exactly how your food and the environment which it is grown from has been cared for
  • Community gardens are another way to engage your local community and learn how to produce food whilst doing something good for the earth
  • Partition local supermarkets to stock supplies from trusted producers, as well as from fair trade initiatives and certified products. Consumer demand will be the driving force behind getting supermarkets to implement changes, so the more people who ask for different products, the high the chance of them becoming available in the future.

By implementing innovative techniques to produce food whilst maintaining and enhancing the environment will ultimately develop our relationship with the environment and grow our economy and by changing the way we approach food production and supply, we can provide more certainty around food availability. Providing opportunities for education and empowerment is fundamental to ensuring environmental health and food production is connected.

We are in a position to drive change and transform established practices into those that fulfil our desires for a better tomorrow. Opportunities to think innovatively on how we can make a difference are endless. Bringing technology and the principles of sustainability together will be necessary to create a food production and supply chain that maintains and enhances the environmental services upon which society depends. This shift will need people from all backgrounds to work together to drive change.

A world of opportunity exists. What role will you play?

About the Author

Jessie Bird

Environmental Scientist

Jessie is an Environmental Scientist with a wide range of experience in environmental management. She is part of our internal sustainability team and is responsible for the company’s greenhouse gas inventory reports, as well as developing and implementing sustainability initiatives across the offices. She is also a qualified assessor for the ISCA Infrastructure Sustainability Rating Tool.

Ignite Your Thinking

What Do You Think?

Frank Young · 23/10/2015 3:18:45 p.m.
In my view the biggest issue facing the future of food production is the future of energy supplies. A large portion of the food produced globally, and arguably all the increased output of food that sustains the increasing human population relies on substantial energy inputs for every stage of its production. Fertilizer, irrigation, cultivation, pesticides, harvesting, animal feeds and care, transportation, storage, and processing, the entire food chain in fact. All rely on available, cheap energy everywhere except in third world subsistence food production. It is easily demonstrated that global food prices and availability closely track energy costs and availability in the age of oil. This will be even more apparent in future and I believe will become a crisis eventually. It is not a question of if, only when. The greatest challenge then becomes how to effectively decouple the supply of food from the oil economy to avoid massive cost increases and shortages in future, given that the current low price and abundance of oil is undoubdtedly a temporary phenomenon.

May Ho · 23/10/2015 3:03:23 p.m.
Auckland Council's recent ban on berm planting has been quite disappointing for avid home gardeners.

Leon Keefer · 23/10/2015 1:31:27 p.m.
Thanks for igniting this discussion, Jessie!

I think that one way to see the value of locally/home grown food is to change our perspectives on how we use the land we've already got in 'wasted' production. Growing your own produce is a lot easier than many people realise, and it's so much more rewarding to walk out the back door to 'pick' your dinner ingredients. The time and effort that go into a manicured green lawn is rewarded less than the same work that could have gone into tilling your yard into a productive patch.

Colin Pearson · 14/10/2015 3:37:17 p.m.
I absolutely agree with your sentiments. Technology will not save us. It's simply not possible to stop a spiral by merely developing some technology or technique that allows it to be a bigger spiral. That just delays it and everyone still ends up in the same place, or a worse place sometime later. Finite resources will always end up only being able to support a finite maximum. Endless growth is not possible. The solution needs to be a combination of areas of change and followed by most, not a few, as a few changing won't slow the downward spiral much.