No matter where we are from or what language we speak, every single person on this planet eats food every day. It’s what keeps us alive, nourished and energised. Yet, in recent years, our society has become so disconnected from what we eat that we don’t ever stop to think about the implications of our consumption choices.
Most of us are unaware of the impacts of the centralised, industrialised food system through which we consume our food. This system is one in which profit and efficiency trumps all else, at the expense of our health and the future of our planet. This approach to producing, harvesting, distributing, and purchasing food is unsustainable and must change now. The impacts of the current food system will only continue to grow in the coming years unless we act and create a better solution.
What is the centralised, industrialised food system?
The centralised, industrialised food system is the food system of today. It is the system of dominant supermarkets selling cheap, processed foods. It is the system of factory farms where animals barely have enough room to stand. It is the system of flying food across the world to satisfy our cravings for fresh berries in Winter. It is the system of plastic packaging to stop food from rotting days after harvest on supermarket shelves.
The food system of today focuses on farming against nature, rather than with it. Nature is viewed as a force to be controlled and disruptive to efficient farming. Chemicals and machinery are used to overcome nature. The soil is dug up and sprayed with chemicals to create a ‘fresh’ bed for seeds to be planted. Fertilisers are added to provide the nutrients needed for food to grow. The system is focused on getting as much out of the land as possible; with food viewed as a commodity, to be grown and harvested as cheaply as possible. Power within this system is centralised, with a handful of big companies rising to dominance – providing the inputs, growing the food, processing and packing the food, distributing it, and finally selling it to us. This comes from a focus on efficiency and economies of scale and our reliance on supermarkets to act as aggregators of food from across the world.
Much of the impact from the current food system, and beyond, comes as a result of corporate agriculture and supermarket dominance. After World War II, governments began putting into place policies that prioritise agricultural output over all else. An essential way to get economies back on their feet after the war and feed a growing population, these policies seemed like a good idea at the time. However, these policies did not take into account to true cost of food. While there is cheap food on the supermarket shelves, the prices paid by our health, our environment, our farms and our animals are high.
Impact on the environment
One of the major flaws with our centralised, industrial food system is that it grossly fails to acknowledge the importance of managing our environment in order to continue producing food for the future.
The global use of chemicals in agriculture (an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of pesticides and 200 million tonnes of fertiliser in 2018 [i],[ii]) is wreaking havoc on our environment. Fertilising our crops has significant downstream consequences such as eutrophication and water pollution, affecting marine organisms as well as humans. Pesticides also degrade the natural ecosystem, as they indiscriminately kill many species of pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, that pollinate up to three-quarters of the plant foods we eat [iii]. On top of all this, producing these chemicals requires huge amounts of energy and fossil fuels, further polluting the atmosphere. The Haber-Bosch process used to produce nitrogen fertiliser is one of the most energy-intensive processes in the world, consuming 1-2% of the world’s energy [iv]. It is also one of the largest contributors to nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, a set of potent greenhouse gas.
Farm practices also have an impact on the environment. Growing crops in large monocultures in pursuit of efficiency leads to reduction in biodiversity and impacts soil health. The common practice of tilling soil (the process of ploughing or otherwise disturbing and turning over the soil) to remove weeds and prepare the soil for planting releases CO2 into the atmosphere as well as damages the biodiversity and integrity of topsoil – a finite resource which is crucial to grow healthy nutritious food. Tilling disturbs the natural ecosystem that is present in the soil and, by disturbing the roots and leftover stems that hold topsoil together, increases soil erosion. The UN estimates that if we continue current practices, all of our topsoil will be depleted in the next 60 years [v]. No topsoil means no food. We must make a transition towards farming methods that improve soil quality for long-term sustainability of our food system.
Finally, our demand for meat has led to the establishment of large-scale livestock production processes that damage our planet in multiple ways. There is a huge amount of methane released from factory farming, as well as waste in all forms that must be treated and managed. Deforestation is also becoming increasingly common around the world as more space is needed to raise cattle. However, all meat is not equal and incorporating livestock into farming in a sustainable way can have multiple benefits, including helping to sequester carbon.
In the current food system, common practice does not equate to best practice. To save our planet for future generations, changing the way we grow our food is vital.
Impact on our health
Our diets of the past and present are vastly different. As the rapid homogenisation of global diets took place in the last few decades, the so-called standard western diet has become the norm in many countries. The global diet, high in meat, refined grains, sugar and processed foods, has led to an increase in chronic lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Even 100 years ago, we would have seen much greater diversity in our diets. While foods from around the world may now be available thanks to shipping, the variety of food in our diet has plummeted. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) [vi], 95% of the world’s calories now come from just 30 species. We cultivate around 150 of the 30,000 edible plant species available to us. Of the more than 30 birds and mammals we’ve domesticated for food, only 14 animals provide 90% of our meat. 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. This lack of diversity not only impacts the health of our gut microbiome [vii] and the variety of nutrients we get, but influences the functioning of our farmlands, the quality of crops produced, and the resilience of our food system to pests and disease.
Many farmers around the world have moved to large monocultures in order to efficiently and profitably grow these crops. However, planting a variety of crops is essential to retaining the biodiversity of microorganisms in the soil, as well as around the farm. A healthy farmland full of worms, bacteria, fungi and micronutrients will facilitate the production of high-quality nutritious food that benefit our health.
Another way the modern food system impacts the nutrient density of our food is through the retail and distribution process. Since crops must be transported to supermarkets and usually end up sitting on shelves for days, they tend to be picked earlier than at their peak nutrient density (not to mention peak taste!). Additionally, the long time between harvest and consumption means many of the nutrients present in the food begin to breakdown. In just the last 50 years, the nutrient density of our food is said to have decreased from anywhere between 15-65% [viii]. We’ve also become accustomed to seeing all fruits and vegetables year-round, which means that oftentimes, those that are out of season are probably not as nutritious.
We must go back to basics and understand that the purpose of food is to nourish our body and empower our health. This means consuming and producing a wholesome, seasonal varieties of food that are as fresh as possible.
Impact on our animals
In the search for efficiency and demand for cheap meat and animal products, factory farming has become the norm for livestock production. Animals are raised in tiny, crowded spaces where disease is rife. They are pumped with antibiotics (leading to the prevalence of antibiotic resistance) as part of an unvaried and unnatural diet. Their natural behaviours are unable to be expressed and new-borns are torn away from their mothers after birth. The centralisation of abattoirs means the final life of these animals is to be driven hundreds of miles in a lorry to slaughter.
It is important to note that not all livestock is raised this way, and many farmers care deeply for their animals, enabling them to live a happy life roaming far and wide, eating a natural diet and staying with their families. Small farmers like to use local abattoirs that are only a short, comfortable drive away where possible (the decline of local abattoirs is itself a problem). Livestock are an important part of our diet and a sustainable agricultural system when reared humanely.
Impact on our farmers
The current food system’s focus on efficiency and profit maximisation has led to cheap food price but this comes at a cost. The market power of supermarkets, along with the long-running supermarket price wars, means many farmers are forced to accept low prices for their produce, sometimes even less than the cost of producing them. Many start each season without knowing what price they’ll get for the food they grow. This system unfortunately leaves many farmers no choice but to depend on subsidies or diversification into other land uses, rather than agriculture, in order to make ends meet [ix].
Combined with the fact many undiversified, monocultured farms (itself a consequence of our food system) are subject to the whims of nature, as changing weather conditions or disease can wipe out an entire year of crop, the current system has detrimental impacts on the mental health of farmers. Levels of depression in the industry are believed to be increasing and suicide rates in farmers are among the highest in any occupational group according to the ONS and farming charities.
The price pressures applied by supermarkets to farms mean many small farmers struggle. These are the very farms that are farming most sustainably and provide a backbone to rural economies. The push for economies of scale and efficiency means many have closed their doors, to be subsumed into larger, corporate farms.
Unfortunately, farms have become reliant on this system and it can be difficult to find alternatives solutions as demand for supermarket centralisation increases and the price wars continue.
We need a better way
We need to create a better food system. We need to revolutionise how we grow and consume our food. We need to create a system that prioritises the needs of all stakeholders and produces healthy food in an environmentally friendly and ethical manner.
The good news is that we’re beginning to see change…
It starts with the soil
Farms can play an important role in improving the modern food system and many smaller farms are already making commendable changes to improve their farming practices. By adopting regenerative practices that are focused on rebuilding soil, farms can remove their reliance on damaging inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides, and farm in harmony with nature [x]. Practices such as agro-forestry, incorporating livestock into sustainable systems using mob grazing, or no-till and no-dig farming improve soil health, sequestering carbons and increasing the nutrient density of our food.
How can we help?
The rise of supermarkets has disconnected us from the source of our food. They make us unaware of the life cycle of the food we eat and we don’t stop to think about the implications of our consumption choices.
As consumers, we have immense power to influence demand for food and by extension the methods used in farming. We can start by becoming more discerning and curious about how our food has been grown. Then, we can shift our consumption choices so that we focus on purchasing fresh, seasonal produce and supporting small farms that are implementing sustainable farming methods.
The Tend Revolution
At Tend, we are on a mission to create a better food system, one that tends to the needs of everyone and everything involved. We believe that by reconnecting with the farmers that grow our food we can drive change. We have collaborated with passionate farmers who are growing food in better ways, so you can be assured that anything you purchase through our market supports a movement towards a healthy, sustainable and ethical food system. We are no longer reliant of supermarkets as opaque aggregators of our food. With Tend, you can now see food from a range of farms on a single website, understand how it’s been grown and make an informed choice about what you buy. We then deliver your food within 40 hours of harvest so it’s in its freshest, tastiest and most nutritious state.
We need to create a better food system. We need to reconnect with the farmers that grow our food. We need to regenerate the environment through better farming practices. We need to revolutionise how we grow and consume our food. Join the Tend revolution.