Food and Agriculture

Learn more…

You want to learn more about the issues relating to food and agriculture, express your views and discuss with other SW users (community members)? Here are some important sub-topics to enable you to do just that. It all comes down to us deciding what type of agriculture we want in our world and what we ourselves want to eat!

What kind of agriculture do we want? Some ‘experts’ tell us that modern (industrialized) agricultural methods need to be extended in order to ‘feed the world’. Others claim that it can be done – and be done better – using ‘agro-ecological’ or other methods…?
  • What’s the current situation and what are the trends in agricultural production?
  • Modern/industrial agriculture: What are its characteristics and effects? Is it sustainable?
  • ‘Agro-ecological’ methods: What are their characteristics and effects? Can they meet the needs?
  • What is ‘climate-smart’ agriculture? Is it smart enough?
  • What is ‘permaculture’? How is it practised?  ⇒ 
  • What’s ‘urban agriculture’? What’s its potential?  ⇒  
What do we want to eat? Marketing and distribution systems for food have changed radically in recent years. How has that affected what we eat and our nutritional health?
  • How what we eat has changed, and why?  ⇒ 
  • What’s the current situation and what are the trends in food marketing and distribution?
  • What has happened to the nutritional quality and value of the food we eat?
  • What might we be eating in the future?  ⇒ 
What are the sustainability issues and what does “Transforming our World – Agenda 2030” say about food and agriculture?
  • What is ‘sustainable agriculture’? How sustainable are present agricultural methods?  ⇒ 
  • What does “Transforming our World – Agenda 2030” say about food and agriculture?  ⇒ 
  • What is ‘food sovereignty’? Is it desirable? Possible?   ⇒ 
What are the opportunities, obstacles and underlying issues?
  • What are the opportunities for more sustainable food production?  
  • What are the obstacles to more sustainable food production? 
  • How do habits, demography and urbanisation affect prospects for sustainable food and agriculture?
  • How do the interests and practices of agro-industry affect prospects for sustainable food and agriculture?
  • How do politics and regulatory regimes affect prospects for sustainable food and agriculture?
  • How do the financial system and accounting procedures affect prospects for sustainable food and agriculture?
What are the particular issues relating to Meat, Fish, Pesticides, and agriculture-related Pollution?
  • How good is meat for us and the planet?  ⇒ 
  • What’s happening to fish?  ⇒ 
  • What are the pros and cons of a (largely) vegetarian diet?
  • Pesticides: Why do we use them? What are the pros and cons?  ⇒ 
  • What are the main pollution issues relating to food and agriculture?

How what we eat has changed, and why?

For thousands of years our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in small communities in harmony with natural ecosystems.  They ate whatever nature offered locally, varying with the seasons. Then, about 11,000 years ago, agriculture and livestock production developed (initially in the ‘fertile crescent’ in what is now Iran and then all over the world), based on adapting and then dominating nature, including irrigation. Cereals and other cultivated crops became the staple foods of many people complemented by small quantities of animal products and fish.  More …

After the industrial revolution in Europe in the 18th century, agriculture was progressively ’industrialized’ in many countries, further changing the nature of the relationship with the natural ecosystems and reducing the variety of foods available to most people. ‘Traditional’ small-scale farming continued in other areas. More … 

From the 1950s (after World War II), the production and use of artificial chemical fertilizers and pesticides increased rapidly, leading to the so-called ’green revolution’ which began in the 1960s in Latin America and Asia. Large areas were cleared and devoted to single crops (‘mono-cropping’) that depended on large-scale irrigation and widespread use of agro-chemicals, and further reduced the variety of foods produced and, therefore, consumed. More …

Emergence of complex ‘food systems’ with long ‘value chains’ and many stakeholders. More …

Globalisation and increasing dominance of major agro-industry and food distribution actors. More …

What is ‘sustainable agriculture’? How sustainable are present agricultural methods?

Sustainability issues include:


  • Land use and degradation
  • Land-grabbing
  • GM crops
  • Ecological footprints & planetary boundaries
  • Deforestation
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Water use and pollution
  • Climate change (two-way impacts)
  • Nutrition and health concerns
  • Waste
  • Social exclusion
  • Debt
  • Ethical considerations

What does “Transforming our World – Agenda 2030” say about food and agriculture?

All governments committed themselves to a world “where food is sufficient, safe, affordable and nutritious food”; expressed determination to “end hunger and to achieve food security as a matter of priority and to end all forms of malnutrition”; and committed to “devote resources to developing rural areas and sustainable agriculture and fisheries, supporting smallholder farmers, especially women, herders and fishers in developing countries, particular least developed countries [Preamble #7, 24].

The most directly relevant Sustainable Development Goal is SDG#2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.

But all SDGs have implications for agriculture and policies as shown in the table below, and practices in the sector need to take account of all these aspects while meeting the specific ‘agricultural’ objectives if the aims of Agenda 2030 are to be realized.

The Sustainable Development Goals The relevance of each for agriculture
1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere …contribute to ending poverty
2 End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture … sustainably produce sufficient nutritious food that can be accessible to all people
3 Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages …not pose risks to human health and well-being
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all …promote lifelong learning for farmers and agricultural and extension workers
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls …ensure training and access to credit to empower women farmers
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all …use water efficiently – minimise the quantities used – and avoid polluting ground and surface water
Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all …use energy efficiently – minimise the quantity used
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all …provide decent work for large numbers of people (especially where many people are unemployed)
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation …ensure that all food and agriculture supply chain activities are sustainable
10 Reduce inequality within and among countries …ensure that food and agriculture systems reduce rather than increase inequalities
11 Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable …promote sustainable urban agriculture and avoid environmental pollution and health risks from agro-industry activities
12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns …promote and support sustainable food consumption and production
13 Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts … reduce radically agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and adapt practices to changing local circumstances
14 Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development …avoid polluting the marine environment and ensure sustainable fisheries
15 Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss … sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
16 Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels … ensure that food and agriculture systems reduce rather than increase social tensions and risks of conflict
17 Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development …engage in partnerships with other sectors to achieve shared goals

What is ‘food sovereignty’? Is it desirable? Possible?

Food sovereignty is different from – and not to be confused with – ‘food security’ or national ‘food self-sufficiency’. Food sovereignty puts the emphasis on recognizing and protecting the rights of peasants (small-scale farmers) to maintain control over their seeds and farming practices. For details concerning the concept of ‘food sovereignty’ see, for example, the Neyeni six principles and agroecologynow.org.

How good is meat for us and the planet?

Livestock production is a major contributor to climate change and air pollution, to deforestation, soil and water degradation, and biodiversity loss .  The production of beef uses by far the most land and energy, and has the highest global warming potential, followed by pork, chicken, eggs and milk  ? although, globally, pork and chicken are produced in larger quantities.  ? 

At the same time, processed meats and high levels of consumption of red meat  ? may contribute to a number of serious human health problems  ? [6, 55, 3, 24] and it has been estimated that halving meat consumption could save 5.1 million lives annually [65].  Contrary to popular belief (and dairy industry publicity), it appears that cows milk shortens our life and is not good for bones [31]. In addition, the large-scale, prophylactic administration of antibiotics to animals raised in industrial systems is contributing to antibiotic resistance that makes human illnesses harder to treat.  ?  All these problems are set to increase substantially in the coming years as demand for livestock products continues to rise, with incomes, in many countries.  ?  Although demand for meat products is falling in some ‘developed’ countries (see below), it is rising significantly in emerging economies especially in East Asia.

Eighty percent of all agricultural land is dedicated to grazing and feed-crop production which, alone, occupies 33% of all arable land. Expanding livestock production is a key factor in deforestation.  ? About 20% of the world’s pastures and rangelands have been degraded, mostly though over-grazing, compaction and erosion created by livestock action. In dryland areas, where livestock are often the only source of livelihoods, 73% of rangelands are degraded. ?  

The sector accounts for over 8% of global human water use, mostly for the irrigation of feed-crops, and is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution through run-off, which contributes to eutrophication of rivers and lakes, and to ‘dead’ zones in coastal areas.  ?  The livestock sector is responsible for 18% of human-induced GHG emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. Cattle represent 65% of these emissions. Feed production and processing, and enteric fermentation from ruminants are the main sources of emissions, followed by fossil fuel consumption and manure storage and processing.  ?

It has been suggested that the single most important thing most of us consumers can do to combat global warming and climate change is to reduce our consumption of meat! In some countries, people are already doing that. For example:

  • Netherlands – Meat 2x weekly maximum [62, 17]
  • Italy – New food pyramid with less animal products due to health and environment. [7]
  • UK – Reduce meat and eat more beans, legumes and nuts. [64]
  • USA Has reduced 10% per capita, per year since 2007 = 400 million less animals consumed per year by 2014 [52]
  • …references to be inserted…

Almost all these environmental and human costs are ‘externalized’. They are born not by the livestock sector but by communities living near intensive livestock and feed-crop production facilities and by society as a whole. And enormous quantities of nutritional energy and protein are lost in the conversion of feed-crops into meat in all livestock production systems, while hunger and malnutrition persist in many of the producing areas.   Meanwhile, evolutions in the livestock sector result in the sector competing ever-more directly for scarce land, water and other natural resources in concentrated areas, marginalizing smallholders and pastoralists, increasing inputs and wastes, and concentrating the pollution created.  ?    Go further. Make up your own mind!

Pesticides: Why do we use them? What are the pros and cons?

Pesticides are industrially-produced chemical products designed to kill particular insects or other animals that might otherwise eat farmed crops. (Herbicides do the same for other plants that are considered to be ‘weeds’.) The ‘green revolution’ in the 1960-70s introduced specialized, large-scale, mono-­cropping of high-yielding plant varieties requiring systematic use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

It led to considerable increases in yields and total production of staple crops…and the use of ever-increasing quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. However:

  • Evidence is accumulating of negative effects on human health of exposure to pesticides. Impacts may direct (e.g. industrial workers producing plant protection products and operators applying them) or indirect (e.g. via their residues in agricultural produce and drinking water, or by exposure of bystanders or animals to spray drift when they are applied).
  • Massive pesticide use in ‘industrial’ agriculture has resulted in important losses of biodiversity, and the worldwide loss of pollinators (notably bees) now oc­curring is linked, in part, to the use of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids.   ?   
  • There are growing problems of pesticide resistance, with major implications for long-term productivity. Recourse to addition­al chemicals to tackle such resistance risks creating vicious cycles of further adaptation and resistance while also increasing costs.  ? 
  • Research now shows that some agro-chemicals may actually harm the plants themselves and, in some circumstances, increase the impact of the targeted pests through ‘pesticide-induced resurgence’!   

Aerial spraying is a particular problem: it has been estimated that over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species.  ?  See more information on pesticides ↑. 

Livestock have been identified as a contributory factor to biodiversity loss in many terrestrial ecoregions, including most global hotspots.

See the complete Livestock’s Long Shadow, Environmental Issues and Options, or download chapters of the book by Steinfeld et al (FAO, Rome 2006).

Scollan et al, 2010: 4

2b completed !

FAO, 2009: 16

2b completed !

‘Red meat’ refers to all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat. 

See WHO on red meat

The consumption of red meat, especially processed, in quantities substantially greater than needed to meet nutritional needs, is believed to contribute to heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, obesity, certain cancers, and earlier death. (jhbsph ??)


Driven by increased demand, the global production of meat is projected to more than double by 2050. The bulk of this growth is predicted to occur in developing countries, with China, India and Brazil already representing two thirds of current meat production (Scollan et al, 2010: 1)

Globally, livestock feed absorbs 33% of all cereals produced, being consumed in roughly equal quantities in developed and developing countries (Scollan et al, 2010: 13)

(FAO, 2013: xx)

2b completed

Steinfeld et al, 2006: 23

2b completed

The pollution includes animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizer and pesticides used for feed-crops, and sediments from eroded pastures. By compacting soil, livestock also reduce the replenishment groundwater. (Steinfeld et al, 2006: 24)

FAO, 2013: xii, 15

2b completed

Scollan et al, 2010: 13

2b completed


(FAO, 2013: xx-xxi) These evolutions are technical and geographical and they are shifting the balance of environmental problems caused. While extensive grazing still occupies and degrades vast areas, there’s an increasing trend towards intensification and industrialization. Production is moving nearer to urban and peri-urban areas to get closer to consumers and trade hubs where feed is imported. Pig and poultry production is growing more rapidly (mostly in industrial units) than that of cattle, sheep and goats (often raised extensively).

The economic value of pollination has been estimates to be ap­proximately €153 billion or 9.5% of the value of global agricultural production for human food (IPES-Food, 2016: 22)

(IPES-Food, 2016: 16) This IPES-Food report notes that: “This trend has been increasingly document­ed with regard to genetically-modified crops, and particularly the monocultures as­sociated with the ‘Roundup-Ready’ model of herbicide-tolerant crops and accompanying glyphosate treatments. There are current­ly some 210 species of herbicide-resistant weeds, many of which can be linked to genetically-modified crops.”

Wikipedia referring to Miller GT (2004), Sustaining the Earth, 6th edition. Thompson Learning, Inc. Pacific Grove, California. Chapter 9, Pages 211-216.