Because farming has been a key part of human society for millennia, we take it for granted that the agricultural landscape is de facto a natural one. The pastoral settings of lush fields are, however, very much the result of human manipulation that has transformed food production from benign utilization to aggressive exploitation of natural resources.

Food production is ranked at the top in terms of environmental impact as a result of human activity, following are three of the most important factors in this regard:


The production of food, from farm to table, consumes by far the greatest amount of fresh water of any human activity - in fact, more than all others combined. Food production is steadily emptying the underground reservoirs of water, on which irrigation and processing activities are dependant, at a rate beyond which precipitation can replenish them. ‘Peak water’ is about to become the next critical sustainability issue in many parts of the world.


The presence of organic matter – the 6-8 inches of earth that we commonly refer to as “top soil” – is essential for productive agriculture. This thin layer acts as a medium to allow plants to become rooted and extract water and micro nutrients to complement carbon in the photosynthetic process - the building block of the food chain. Soil rich in organic matter produces abundant harvests but takes decades to form. Around the world, poor cultivation practices and urban development are depleting this layer of topsoil.  As a result, many agricultural areas are increasingly lacking the ability to support healthy plants and are becoming susceptible to erosion.

Synthetic Inputs

The Green Revolution – using fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides – has been the basis of substantial gains in crop productivity over the last 60 years. These benefits have been offset by widespread pollution from run-off of excess nutrients and residues of pesticides.

With another 3 billion mouths to feed in the next 40 years, new approaches to ensure that food production (agriculture production and food processing) is sustainable – economically viable, socially beneficial and environmentally benign – are required. Some key points to consider are:


Crop and livestock yields around the world vary by an order of ten - we know enough science to help the lowest producing regions increase their yields five-fold - but need to make significant investments in education and training to make it achievable.


Far too much of the crops harvested and livestock raised never make it to the kitchen table. Improved management practices at all levels of the food chain will not only yield more food but will also reduce the amount of water and inputs required to produce food.


As too many in the world still go to sleep at night hungry, an equal number also consumes too much as evidenced by the epidemic of obesity overtaking the developed regions of the world. A reduction in caloric intake by one billion people will mitigate the demands on the food production system and reduce the accompanying environmental stresses.


Biotech crops have taken a bad rap (sometimes deserved) due to the scientific and commercial linkage with other inputs. A re-emphasis on public investment for the common good could produce crops that require less water and fertilizer while bearing higher yields. With no additional arable land available, bio-engineered crops that produce more without causing environmental degradation cannot be ignored.


Aquaculture now produces as much seafood for the human diet as that captured from the wild. As with land-based agriculture, aquaculture can be very productive yet susceptible to practices that are harmful to the environment. Given the continued over-exploitation of the world’s wild fish stocks, further development of this type of food production could make a significant contribution to world food supplies if managed in a sustainable manner.

While the majority of agriculture is rain fed, irrigated agriculture provides 40% of the world’s food and consumes 75% of world’s freshwater resources. (Project Blue)

Arable land covers only 11% of the world's land area, and if current rates of disappearance due to urban sprawl and erosion don’t change, it will all vanish within 300 years. (

Half the food grown is either lost, converted or wasted “from field to fork.” (Stockholm International Water Institute)

Stats + Figures


Translator:  Hugh Maynard (Ormstown, Canada), Consulting Specialist & Owner, Qu’anglo Communications & Consulting

Food + The Environment

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