Have you ever thrown a bad apple in the dustbin just because it had spots on it? Have you ever been to a fruit vendor and picked up fruits and veggies that looked good aesthetically? Have you ever wondered why in spite of eating enough fruits, you have to take vitamin supplements? Your answer will be yes to probably all the question. You will be amazed to know the unsustainable agricultural practices that are responsible for them.
Agricultural practices have transformed considerably as the population of Earth increased to 8 billion from 1 billion in the 1800s. With the increasing population and the resources being limited, methods that are unsustainable in the long run are being adopted to increase the yield of animals and crops.
The subsequent sections will unfold some significant unsustainable practices and their repercussions on the environment.
The first is the discarding of ugly food.
Whenever we buy fruits or vegetables, the first thing we look for is the ideal shape, size, weight, and look of the food. Due to this, the farmers and other intermediaries discard much of the edible produce. In 2015 in the USA alone, close to 60 billion kilograms of produce was discarded because of its appearance, regardless of it being edible. Extrapolate this to the whole world, and we find that a phenomenal amount of food is being wasted every year, which could help millions of lives from malnutrition and hunger.
We think that if the food doesn’t look good, it is inedible, but that is not true!
Much of the ugly produce is, in fact, edible. This not only contributes to waste but also significantly increases the burden on the soil and the water requirement.
While researching, frustration creeped in thinking why nothing has been done about this problem. But, it seems that many national governments are undertaking education campaigns on this ‘wasteful’ prectice, and startups in India like DesiVDesi are encouraging farmers to use innovative solutions to store such produce for future consumption and selling.
The second is the nutritional decline.
The nutritional value of fruits and vegetables is on the decline. The nutrition in some garden crops was 38% lower than 20th-century levels as reported in a study in 2004. The calcium, phosphorous and iron content dropped by 16%, 15% and 9% in 43 vegetables during the same period.
So, guess what, even if you are eating enough veggies, you are not meeting the daily nutrition requirement!
The lack of nutrients may be due to soil depletion, the trade-off between high yield versus high nutrition crops, water tables going down, excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, increasing temperature, etc. All these problems are interrelated. The sustainable way here is to use the right manure, crop residue, cover crops, and weed control on the farms. All these measures are natural, and may help with nutrition, as well as yield increase.
The third is the meat and dairy industry.
Pressing moral arguments exist in favour of not killing animals for meat. First is that all animals are sentient and can feel pain. Second is that even when the animals are alive (before they are killed for their meat), they are abused cruelly. Dishes like foie gras require the duck/goose to be forcefully overfed by inserting a tube down their throat. This makes their liver swell, and this swollen liver is the foie gras delicacy.
But let us ignore the moral arguments for now, and examine the facts.
The meat and dairy industry accounts for 14.5% of total GHG emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Methane emissions from livestock account for 32% of global methane emissions of human origin.
You may wonder as to what does excess methane do to the environment? Why should I care, right?
According to UNEP data, methane has accounted for 30% of global warming since pre-industrial times. Methane also has 80 times the warming power compared to carbon dioxide (CO2), although it stays for a lesser time in the atmosphere compared to CO2.
So, the next time you feel hotter in the summer than the previous years, it is not some random oil and gas company to blame. It is you!
You may think that I am biased against non-vegetarians, and you may also tell me that agriculture also has many adverse effects. The question is totally valid, but hear me out!
FAO’s data points out that 33% of the croplands are used to grow livestock feed. So, lowering meat consumption will not only reduce methane and other GHG gases, but also reduce the emissions from agricultural produce. The meat industry is a phenomenal water guzzler. To produce a single kilo of beef requires 15,500 liters of water. Water used for the meat industry in just 35 hours is enough to provide drinking water for everyone on earth for a whole year.
Alternative solutions are being explored to substitute/reduce the consumption of meat. For instance, protein from insects is far more sustainable because the water needed to generate 1 gm of protein is far less than that of other meats. Along with that, the plant-based protein industry is making leaps and bounds in this area. FMCG giants like ITC, Unilever, and startups like Blue Tribe, GoodDot, and Impossible Foods, are leading the way in this space  .
Despite all this, why do humans behave the way they do?
The reason why humans are not able to see the harmful effects of these 3 issues is their myopia. Because the dire effects of climate change were not fully visible yet, humans had little motivation to act immediately. Now, this is changing for two reasons: first, the effects of climate change are more tangible, and hence there is far greater importance assigned to summits like COP27 to assist in global planning for climate change control; and secondly, considerable efforts are being put into quantifying the effects of climate change by bodies like the UN’s IPCC.
In the end, the only way to become more sustainable is by consuming less, and hence, the onus is on us to be mindful consumers (literally and figuratively) in our daily lives.