People have to eat, so it’s everywhere. The massive global food industry, powered and frequently controlled by only five international conglomerates, touches virtually every nation and most markets. It’s so big that even the late Anthony Bourdain noted that he couldn’t get his head around it. And because food and water are the basic elements of all life, we are affected in ways we hardly understand.
And there is a price to pay for that ignorance. We want food everywhere and demand vast varieties and quantities at the same time. It seems to just appear in supermarkets, restaurants, and now increasingly online. It just is– immediate, relatively cheap, and in copious amounts. That familiarity and ease of access comes at a cost – a burden we actually can’t bear. Here are just five ways in which the food industry threatens the same people that it feeds, with stats gleaned from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Department.
In order to have food there has to be water and with the global demand for foodstuffs growing exponentially the risk to our water supplies grows right along with it. It’s not only climate change that threatens the world water ecosystems but the insatiable desire for things to eat, of which we have no understanding how it is produced. Today, unlike 50 years ago, we learn that a fifth of the global population live in regions of water scarcity, with another 500 million people about to be added to that number by the end of this century.
Yet, it’s even more complicated than that, since 1.6 billion people live in areas where there is no water infrastructure – there might be water but no means to get it. And here’s the tough part: the United Nations states that water use has been growing at a rate more than double the rate of global population growth. A little over a decade from now, demand for water to grow food is expected to exceed supply by some 40%. It stands to reason that as demand for food grows at a fantastic rate, such pressure will drastically deplete the world’s water supply, leaving half the world to face water shortages in the next century.
Consumption of meat is threatening the planet in ways we have yet to comprehend. Near the turn of the new Millennium, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization informed us that 30% of the world’s land is used by the livestock industry – a figure that must be higher by now. That was a radical shift from earlier times, when eating meat was a luxury enjoyed mostly in affluent nations. It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that 15% of global carbon emissions originate in the agricultural industries. The demand for meat is expanding and the effort to respond to that pressure is causing the food industry to ramp up its efforts in ways that might bring severe threats to our overall environmental welfare.
What happens when food supply can’t keep up with demand? Food reserves haven’t been this low for decades, which leaves our world in a dangerous situation when famine and environmental crises come along. This especially applies to grains – primarily corn, wheat, and rice. Such harvests make up the bulk of food exports and any shortage could leave the world unprepared, unleashing a series of famines across the world that would have devastating results. And what happens when global food supplies are low? Food prices rise as a result, leaving millions – billions even – in poorer lands unable to afford supplies even if they were available in local markets.
This massive increase in food production is leading to alarming rises in obesity. This is no accident. People want more food for consumption than ever before and are ending up not only eating more than normal but downing non-nutritious products that only exacerbate the problem. Slightly over 25% of the developed world is now obese (the global figure is 15%) and that’s leading to increases in diabetes, heart disease and other life-threatening ailments. In America, 70% of the population is obese or overweight. In Latin America and Europe, we’re talking 60%. Such rates are unsustainable and represent a real danger to people, communities, healthcare systems and the future of the planet.
Food waste has become a huge issue. Worldwide, enough calories are produced that can overfeed the planet’s seven billion people, and yet significant portion of the world remain underfed. One-third of food produced goes to feed animals and another one-third is tossed into the garbage or landfill. Most of us know about this or have heard of it and yet these patterns continue unabated. The global food production system is hugely inefficient but is rarely confronted or revolutionized.
Unless something is done about issues such as these (and there are many more related to food), our planet will be put increasingly on edge. Conflicts over food resources will climb. The environment will continue to take a direct hit until it can no longer cope. Millions more will become obese every year. Methane from rotting food in landfills will grow significantly. These are just some of the tragedies we risk unless we consume less, plan better, grow food more efficiently, and vote for better policies for the sake of ourselves, the hungry around the world, and our planet. Presently, few lawmakers appear to be listening.