For such complex organisms, there are very few things humans actually need to survive:
For many of us, who are privileged enough, these everyday needs seem to be provided without much consequence. However, once we begin to look beneath the surface, we can see how these needs are being met by a system that is harming both people and planet. How much longer can so many of us continue to rely on such a broken system?
Clean Air to Breathe
Reducing carbon footprints and air pollution are some of the much-talked points in protecting our environment, but to make a meaningful difference, systems need to change and new laws brought in place to prevent unnecessary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A large amount of GHG emissions and pollution are directly caused by agriculture. Intensive agriculture releases high quantities of methane and carbon dioxide. This is both through the well-known, methane-spewing cows from large-scale farming, but also, and perhaps more important to highlight, is the role that our soil practices play in GHG emissions. By planting vast swathes of land with one single kind of crop, also known as monocultures, we are destroying the health of our soil. This is because the lack of crop diversity results in lower soil quality and lower nutritional value[i]. Additionally, heavy machinery is responsible for compacting soil, literally squashing all life from it. The thing is, soil is one of the main ways in which carbon can be stored. As its health is therefore destroyed, the carbon that had been safely stored there is released. A recent report by WWF Scotland showed that improved soil management techniques in Scotland can reduce emissions from agriculture. For example, reducing tillage can result in a 20% reduction in nitrate leaching as a result of reduced organic matter disturbance[ii]. If we don’t begin changing our farming practices to take care of our soil, carbon will keep seeping into our atmosphere. Additionally, we continue to rely on long-supply chains, and while the concept of food miles is questionable, the fact that Scotland imports 85 % of sheep from New Zealand and Australia but then exports over 90 % to the rest of Europe, hints at the possibility that these kind of supply chains will not be sustainable over the long-run[iii].
Agroecological practices centre the needs of the environment to ensure that our food production can support life above and beneath our feet. These also tend to be more localised, helping improve the quality of life for animals who are no longer shipped huge distances. Thus, changing towards practices that centre our environment at heart can lead to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and ensure we can all continue to have clean air to breathe.
Clean Water to Drink
Clean water is needed everywhere for life to flourish. The lack of clean water can often lead to disease, famine and early death. Through the erratic use of manures, slurries and inorganic fertilizers, as well as misusing pesticides and other chemicals, intensive agriculture puts the quality of our water at risk. Out of the 80-90% of freshwater water that is used for consumptive purposes, 70% is destined towards agriculture[iv]. Rain-fed agriculture is the world’s largest user of water which is then polluted by intensive agricultural practices. In the past fifty years we are using five times more fertilizer and eight times more nitrogen, both of which seep through the soil, carried within the water used for irrigation, and make their way to rivers, lakes and seas[v]. In these bodies of water, the concentration of agricultural chemicals becomes so high that they become polluted. Organisms that live in these waters are then affected as are people who depend on these water sources who find themselves, sometimes unknowingly, consuming chemicals which are detrimental to health. However, the high use of chemicals and fertilisers is fuelled by an ever-growing desire for economic productivity and unnatural desires that allow the few corporations who own most of the agricultural industry to continue lining their pockets. We need a system where farmers are supported to make the sustainable choices for their livelihoods, for other people and for the environment. Farming practices need to change so that we care all able to enjoy clean water.
Healthy Food to Eat
It doesn’t take a scientist to say that the number of people who find it hard to stop eating crisps after that first salty crunchy bite is high. Or that walking down the street and having our stomachs suddenly invaded by the smells of a freshly deep-fried, golden, crispy, chicken wing is not a rare occurrence. Our food environments continue to make unhealthy and unsustainable food the easy choice. Sure, a packet of crisps or some chicken wings are unlikely to do much harm but when the majority of food being sold is owned by corporations with the power to use addictive quantities of sugar, salt and fat as well as other additives the situation becomes much more complex. In Scotland 5.4 % of the population suffers from diabetes[vi]. Additionally, over 60% of the population suffers from being overweight or obese[vii], and really when arriving home late from work and needing to take care of children how can we expect individuals to make the choice to buy local, healthy and sustainable ingredients for a lovely, time-consuming homemade dinner? That is if they even have the choice at all. In Scotland 1 in 5 people are in poverty after housing costs (heating, electricity, rent, etc)[viii], which means that when choosing between a roof over their heads and buying fresh organic food that is sometimes double the price, why would you not go for the cheaper family-pack of filling and energising biscuits?
Furthermore, this food environment is sustained by our aforementioned reliance on monocultures. Currently most of the products in the supermarket are some derivative from corn, wheat and soy which hardly meets our nutritional requirements of diverse diets. Our current food system does little to ensure that healthy choices are the easy ones for everyone.
The Good Food Nation Bill: An Opportunity for Change
So what links together the quality of our air, water and health being put at risk?
A broken food system.
We need a new framework centred on both people and planet so that fair, healthy and sustainable food is the easy choice. In Scotland, with the Good Food Nation Bill, we have the opportunity to make meaningful change so that our food system does no harm to animals, people and the environment. This bill has the potential to take a joined-up approach that accounts for the environment, worker’s rights, animals, health and food insecurity. But to ensure the bill is centred on social and environmental justices we need to show public support for ambitious legislation.
The Scottish Food Coalition have five key asks which we believe can support a transition towards a fair, healthy and sustainable food system:
You can show support for an ambitious Good Food Nation bill by writing to your MSP. Let them know what you want this bill to look like. Here is a template for a letter you could use. You can also become a Good Food Nation Ambassador and be the bridge between your community and policy-makers, ensuring the concerns of people are heard by those developing the policy. Or simply stay in touch:
Newsletter: Sign Up Here Facebook: Scottish Food Coalition Twitter: @GFNCampaign
[i]Crop Trust https://www.croptrust.org/our-mission/crop-diversity-why-it-matters/
[ii]WWF Scotland 2019 p.9 https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-12/WWF%20Net%20Zero%20and%20Farming.pdf
[iii]British Meat Processors Association https://britishmeatindustry.org/industry/imports-exports/sheepmeat/
[iv]FAO p.1 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i7959e.pdf
[v] Solutions for a cultivated planet, 2011 https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10452
[vi]Scottish Government 2017 https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/statistics/2017/11/obesity-indicators-monitoring-progress-prevention-obesity-route-map/documents/00527553-pdf/00527553-pdf/govscot%3Adocument/00527553.pdf
[vii] House of Commons 2019 https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN03336/SN03336.pdf
[viii]Nourish Scotland Food Atlas 2018 p.3 http://www.nourishscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Food-Atlas_FINAL_online.pdf
By Karlotta Ingmann, volunteer at RSPB Scotland