The Intersection of Human Health, the Environment and Our Food

The Intersection of Human Health, the Environment and Our Food

When considering how each of us as individuals can make a positive impact on our environment it is important to keep a keyword in mind.

Magnitude.

It can feel overwhelming knowing the countless actions we could take to better our world. That’s why in these decisions we must consider the relative impact that each of these actions has. Our global food system causes significant environmental degradation in its current framework and is a relationship we can utilize to better the environment instead of harm it. “Agriculture and food production are responsible for more than 25% of total global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions to the atmosphere.” When comparing that to the impact of the transportation sector, which contributes 14% of total ghg emissions, we can see that what we choose to eat can have a significant impact on the environment. Food is something that will always be a necessary part of our human experience. As our population grows, the impact that agriculture has on our Earth will only become more significant. Additionally, research shows that not only does our current food system harm the environment, but the methods of growing the foods and the foods themselves are causing both acute and chronic disease in humans. 

The Link Between Environmental & Human Health

Not only will the rise in the human population increase the impact of agriculture, but a shift in dietary habits that occurs as a result of urbanization and rising incomes will further the demand for food coming from industrialized agriculture. A study was published that demonstrates a dietary transition that occurs when a country shifts from undeveloped to developed. As countries make this shift, they are able to acquire the technology and means to adopt industrial agricultural practices that most developed countries practice today. The study found that “traditional diets are replaced by diets high in refined sugars, refined fats, oils, and meats.” These highly processed diets are linked to increased rates of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Also, with an increase in income comes a tendency for people to consume more “empty” calories as well as produce more food waste. These food demands are supported by industrialized agriculture and if unchecked, would increase the global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and land clearing by about 80%. This study illustrates a trajectory of human development where not only population growth will be a stressor, but additionally a shift in global dietary habits will be a great strain on our environment and human health. 

This income-dependent disparity in caloric demand and consumption is problematic. While developed countries face the financial and health costs associated with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease; “an overwhelming 800 million people do not have access to food and experience malnutrition”. This dichotomy illuminates the underlying issues with our global food system rooted in food access, distribution, and how linked to income our consumption habits are. As undeveloped nations transition their dietary patterns, there is an opportunity to do so in a way that doesn't repeat some of the shortcomings of industrialized agriculture we experience in developed countries today. 

Another study found that “foods associated with the largest negative environmental impactsunprocessed and processed red meats—are consistently associated with the largest increases in disease risk.” This means that in most cases, foods that are good for human health are good for the environment and vice versa. The processes of taking care of our planet and our own health are intrinsically linked to one another. This also holds weight for policymakers to see an opportunity to lower healthcare costs and increase quality of life, all while reinventing a food system that promotes long term sustainability. Food sits at a powerful intersection of many pressing issues and can have either positive or negative outcomes depending on how we curate the system. 

Looking up the supply chain

With the knowledge of the human and environmental consequences of our foods, it is important to know where our foods come from and the impacts they have. When looking at the life cycle of food, one of the most significant components of that cycle is how the food is grown.

This graphic illustrates the array of environmental problems agriculture takes a part in. We can see it impacts climate change, safe drinking water, ecosystem services, and pollution.

Certifications & Transparency

One method created to increase supply chain transparency and consumer knowledge about how food is grown was the certification process. A plethora of certifications has been created in an attempt to signal to consumers what that certified product contains and a set of values that it follows. In theory, this can push us as a society to a more sustainable food system. However, oftentimes the numerous certifications can be overwhelming and in some cases misleading. How do we know which ones to trust? Additionally, there are many small family-owned farms and organizations that do not hold any certifications but can still be a reliable source of just and healthy food. 

There is a privilege associated with many of these certifications. In many cases acquiring them requires an upfront payment which is not always feasible, especially for these small, local establishments. A good place to start is with these certifications that have been thoughtfully created to help bring awareness to the food system. However, in many cases, foods that are certified are more expensive and it is not feasible or practical for many people to prioritize purchasing organic or regenerative food. The barriers to healthy, sustainable foods like accessibility and cost, are a large part of why our current food system is problematic. We will highlight food justice and the intolerable barriers that prevent all people from having access to healthy food in our Food Justice blog next week. Always do your own research and know that a farm could be practicing sustainable and regenerative farming without having these certifications.

The following is a guide to foster the educational process of what kinds of practices are good to look for when we make our food decisions. This list is not comprehensive, as there are many certifications, but includes some important ones at the intersection of labor standards, environmental health, and human health.

Organic
                  

Organic products restrict the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering and radiation. An official certifier has to inspect the farm and there are also standards for the handling and processing of products. This certification is a good place to start, but does not incentivize farmers to innovate and continue to push the boundaries. 

Local

Local foods are consumed in close proximity to where they were grown or produced. They sustain the communities they inhabit because of their shorter supply chain. Due to the shorter travel time, local foods maintain more nutrients and require fewer preservatives to keep the food fresh. Additionally, local food can be more reliable than global food systems.

Fairtrade

Fairtrade products have rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. This certification works under the tenant that products bought and sold every day are connected to the livelihoods of others. It ensures transactions between companies and their supplier sustain safe working conditions, protect the environment, and empower their communities. 

Regenerative Organic Agriculture 

“Regenerative” is defined by Kevin Boyer, the project director of the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, as “any system of agriculture that continuously improves the cycles on which it relies, including the human community, the biological community, and the economic community. This certification takes a systems approach to encourage a growth mindset where there are continually new ways to regenerate and improve the land used to grow food. This certification’s three main goals are to protect soil health and store carbon, promote animal welfare, and provide economic stability and fair labor conditions for farmers, ranchers, and workers. 

Start with our food

Taking actions to help ourselves and the environment is so important. However, many people forget that we can actually have a tremendous impact with our everyday food choices. What we put in our bodies every day governs the health, and wellbeing of our own bodies, but it also determines the state of our environment. This is a powerful realization and will naturally foster a curiosity to learn more about our food.

Data
Hannah Ritchie (2020) - "Environmental impacts of food production". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food' [Online Resource]
Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R. S., & Walker, P. (2002). How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110(5), 445–456. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.02110445
PNAS November 12, 2019 116 (46) 23357-23362; first published October 28, 2019 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906908116
Tilman, D., & Clark, M. (2015). Food, agriculture & the environment: can we feed the world & save the earth?. Daedalus, 144(4), 8-23.
 Tilman, D., & Clark, M. (2014). Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature, 515(7528), 518-22 doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.library.ucsb.edu:2048/10.1038/nature13959
Willett W., Rockström, J., Loken B et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019; (published online Jan 16.) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4