When we think of sustainability, and more specifically the environment, the first three things that come to mind are ‘Climate Change’, ‘Environment’ and ‘Carbon Footprint’.
And there is good reason for that: when looking on Google News, there are 5,000,000,000 results about the environment, 322,000,000 results about Climate Change and 3,940,000 about carbon footprints. But if we were to try to research a more niche aspect of environmental impacts such as biodiversity loss or soil pollution, we would only find 333,000 and 2,320,000 results respectively. That is to say that the conversation around the less mainstream areas of sustainability is a lot more difficult to come by.
The issue, however, is that because the material isn’t out there, we’re not having these important conversations. Issues such as soil pollution are often only discussed in scientific or environmentally focussed circles, and even then, they often have no definition, making the entire conversation inaccessible to the average joe.
This is why we’ve decided to put together a short introduction into some of the areas of environmental food impacts. In this guide, you’ll find quick definitions and descriptions of commonly known terms such as ‘fossil fuels’ as well as the more niche terms that we discussed earlier. Moreover, over the coming weeks, we’ll also be populating this guide with links to more in-depth blog posts on each topic, ready for you to learn more if you feel inclined to.
So please do, grab a cup of tea and refer to this document the next time you are trying to learn about environmental impacts on the web.
We are currently facing the sixth major extinction. While extinction is a normal occurrence, often at a rate of 0.01% of species per 100 years, mass extinction is much rarer. The last mass extinction took place 65 million years ago, killing 78% of all species, including the last non-bird dinosaurs. Some scientists think that we could be facing a sixth major extinction due to the current rate of biodiversity loss, which is between 100 and 1,000 times higher than expected. This is attributed to growing levels of soil pollution, land use change and ocean pollution.
Soil naturally contains a number of different chemicals and compounds; when the levels of these chemicals become higher than natural, and/or chemicals that shouldn’t belong there start to appear, we call this soil pollution. Often, soil pollution is caused by the use of artificial chemicals and fertilisers by farmers, construction activity (which can allow chemical substances to spread quickly through the air as dust) and improper waste disposal. However, soil pollution can also occur through natural means, for example through reactions between air pollution and water.
Soil pollution can affect any living organism that comes into contact with the land, whether that’s plants, animals or humans. Often, given their propensity to play with dirt, children are more susceptible to soil pollution - related diseases than adults. However, polluted soil can also infiltrate an entire water supply, endangering a population.
Oceans are increasingly becoming filled with foreign objects. Chemical pollution is often the result of artificial fertilisers being used on farmlands and running into the sea. These chemicals can accumulate in coastal regions causing the growth of algae, endangering animals that live in the sea and humans who rely on the region for food and recreation.
Physical pollutants, such as plastics, are the most well-known form of ocean pollution. Human activity such as littering and poor waste management, when combined with strong winds, can cause the buildup of these materials. Given the vast majority of pollutants come from the land, ocean pollution is worst in continental plates.
Currently, the UK uses 71% of its land for agriculture. That means that almost three-quarters of land is regularly used for monocultures, filled with artificial fertilisers and physically disturbed through farming practises. More importantly, this land isn’t being protected as forests and parks. As such, biodiversity is often lost in these newly converted agricultural lands, further contributing to the impacts of climate change.
Land is also a finite resource. As the global population continues to grow, and more and more people transition to a animal-based diet, more land is needed to meet these growing demands. Already, half of global habitable land is used for agriculture, and this is expected to grow over the coming decades. Therefore, it is essential that we assess how much land is needed to grow each food when assessing its sustainability.
Soil pollutions, ocean pollution and air pollution can all contribute to bad human health. According to the UN, climate change is set to cause another 250,000 deaths a year between 2030 and 2050.
The greenhouse effect is a natural process which allows the planet to maintain its constant, livable temperature of 15 degrees celsius. Gases such as carbon dioxide occur naturally and contribute to this effect. The issues come when the proportion of these gases are thrown out of balance. When more of these gases are added to the atmosphere, the result is that more heat from the sun is trapped, which causes the problems.
Burning fossil fuels releases an unnatural amount of greenhouse gases, accelerating the greenhouse effect and causing our planet to warm. Thus global warming and climate change are becoming realities.
Global warming is not the same as Climate Change. Generally, the former term has been made redundant by the latter; while global warming describes the warming of the planet, climate change encompasses all meteorological shifts, including those in temperature and weather patterns. If anything, global warming causes climate change.
It has been understood that global warming is caused by the greenhouse effect; fossil fuels are burned, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, these gases trap heat causing the earth’s average temperature to increase. The earth has been naturally warming for many centuries, however, the increased level of greenhouse gases from human activities has sped up this process.
Only 3% of water on the planet is fresh; and ⅓ of that freshwater is frozen in glaciers or deep underground. Much like with land use, as the demand for water intensive foods such as meat increases, the amount of water necessary to fulfil these needs grows.Therefore, how we use our water is increasingly important.
Agriculture currently accounts for over 70% of our global water use. Farming also contributes to water and ocean pollution through the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. These disproportionate impacts indicate how important it is for us to be able to choose foods that use less water.
Fossil fuels can be found beneath the earth’s crust and take millions of years to form. When burnt, they release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide which contributes to the warming effect. Given the timeframe that it takes to create fossil fuels, they are considered to be a finite resource.
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