Feeding over eight billion people is no mean feat. Worse, it has hidden costs. Food production creates billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases each year, accounting for around a third of the world’s emissions. It is also responsible for 90% of the deforestation worldwide. The State of Food and Agriculture report released by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization quantified the flip side of food production — greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions, excessive water use, land-use change, undernourishment, poverty, among other impacts — to be 12.7 trillion dollars. Significantly, at the ongoing CoP-28, more than 130 world leaders have agreed that global and national food systems need to be reassessed to address climate change. This could not have come at a better time as the world population is predicted to touch 10 billion by 2050. Strangely, India decided to abstain from this declaration. Recalibrating food production would be impossible unless populous nations are brought on board and the rising population brought under control. This underscores the fact that environmental challenges need to be examined along with attendant demographic intersections.
The first step in this direction would be to shed the colonial hangover of monocultural farming where land is thought of as an infinite resource and trees are cut down to get more land. Degraded land must be restored to its former ecological integrity and productivity. However, aggressive land use is not the only danger: food security programmes have environmental consequences as well. A case in point is India’s much-feted Green Revolution, which, while making India food secure, led to serious environmental crises such as desertification, depletion of water resources, excessive use of pesticides and ruptures in localised ecological balances. Transportation of food must also be looked into: packaging and transportation of food are responsible for 11% of all food industry greenhouse gas emissions. Consuming locally grown food and cutting down on imports may be instrumental in mitigating the environmental stresses of global food production. Consumer choices also play a role. For instance, a shift from dairy to almond milk can cause more harm than good given the huge carbon footprint of almonds. Food waste — an estimated one-third of all produced food — must be reined in as well. The resultant lessening of pressure on agriculture could lower the environmental hazards of growing food.