11 Impacts of Food Production on the Environment

Food is one of the basic needs of life. It contains nutrients that are essential for the growth, repair, and maintenance of body tissues and for the regulation of vital processes. These nutrients provide the energy our bodies need to function.

However, the vital aspect of food does not disapprove of the fact that food can affect the environment. But then, this is seen in the production process. Therefore this article is a quick look at the impacts of food production on the environment.

First, before food production even begins, natural habitats and ecosystems are destroyed to clear land that will be used for agriculture.

Hence, it is impossible to separate our food production, processing, and distribution from our environment. Unfortunately, the industrial or “conventional” way of producing food causes large-scale environmental degradation.

Monocropped fields require chemical fertilizers and pesticides that run off into soil and waterways. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms, result in excess animal waste that pollutes soil, water, and air. These methods of food production use finite resources without replenishing them.

In addition, the way we produce and consume food contributes to global climate change, the effects of which exert a huge impact on the food system. Drought, flood, extreme heat, and extreme cold are already affecting crops.

However new advances in sustainable agriculture are rooted in regenerative practices based on a whole ecosystem approach. They invest in the natural environment, rather than depleting it, building soil health, clean water systems, and biodiversity.

The sustainable approach also reduces industrial farming emissions, building environmental resilience, and adapting both food production and the land to climate change.

Ensuring everyone has access to a nutritious diet sustainably is one of the most significant challenges we face. This article is a discussion on the environmental impacts of food.

Environmental Impacts of Food Production

Key Facts on the Environmental Impacts of Food

Food production has a large environmental impact in several ways:

  • Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture
  • Food is responsible for one-quarter (25 %) of the world’s emissions.
  • Emissions from food alone would take us past 1.5°C or 2°C this century
  • Meat and dairy foods tend to have a higher carbon footprint.

11 Impacts of Food Production on the Environment

Food production has a large environmental impact in several ways. Which includes these, but is not limited to them.

  • Global Warming
  • Climate Change
  • Water Resource use
  • Water Pollution
  • Air pollution
  • Soil Pollution
  • Deforestation
  • Impact on Human Health
  • Impacts on Soil Fertility
  • Land Repurposing
  • Food Waste

1. Global Warming

As mentioned above, food production is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, with the majority of those consisting of methane produced by livestock.

When ruminant animals eat carbonaceous matter (such as grass, feed, or other organic materials), the digestive process involves the creation of volatile fatty acids which are used as an energy source by the animal. Unfortunately, it also involves the generation of methane as a by-product, which is expelled into the air by the animal.

Although livestock does account for the vast majority of methane emissions in food production, the aquaculture sector also contributes its share.

Also, the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides has been identified to be unsustainable, because they are very energy-intensive to produce, and thus are heavily dependent on cheap fossil fuels. As fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases, the production of these chemicals helps contribute to climate change, a major factor

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that, if nothing is done, the constant build-up of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere will cause temperatures to increase by more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels over the next century, namely the target set by the Paris Agreement to minimize the negative effects of global warming.

Aquaculture is another rapidly expanding form of farming, now accounting for over 60% of the global supply of fish and seafood for human consumption.

Although GHG emissions from this sector are still much lower than those associated with livestock, recent measurements nonetheless indicate a sharp increase in its global warming potential, mainly due to an increase in methane production.

2. Climate Change

The release of methane (a major greenhouse gas) from the production of livestock is seen to contribute to global warming which leads to climate change.

When animals, like cows, eat plants for sustenance, their digestive tracts produce methane gas, which is excreted as gaseous waste. Farm animals consume a huge amount of food throughout their lives, and thus also produce a huge amount of solid waste.

For example, if a single cow produces 35kg of manure each day, and a farmer has a herd of 100 cattle, then that herd will produce over 1.25 million kilograms of waste each year. While smaller amounts of manure can be used as a natural fertilizer, this amount is unusable and only serves to pollute the air, water, and land.

3. Water Resource Use

Despite more than two-thirds of the world’s surface being covered in water, only 3% of this is fresh water, and 1% of this is available for human consumption.

Water scarcity is a global burden, with 1.1 billion people lacking access to sufficient, clean water and food production accounts for 70% of global water usage.

As economies have grown in developing countries, there has been a significant move away from starch-based diets towards the more water-intensive, meat and dairy products, each with an associated water footprint.

The water demand of the food industry is expected to increase as the population continues to expand. Water is an essential resource required for both both plants and animals for effective production, as well as humans.

However, livestock animals require large amounts of water, it is also required by plants for very intense crop irrigation.  Hence, we can see how demanding food production is on our potable water resources.

As much as it may not seem obvious, our water supply is limited, and with climate change expected to enhance drought conditions in the future, conserving water will become more important than ever before.

Conventional agriculture drains our water reserves at an incredible rate, and so we must change how our food is produced if we are to ensure long-term sustainability.

4. Water Pollution

Once the land has been cleared, it must be primed to grow large amounts of food. This is done using heavy applications of artificial herbicides and fertilizers.

The herbicides are intended to prevent the growth of unwanted plants that would compete for nutrients with the crop, and the fertilizers increase the nutrients available in the soil so that the crop’s yield is maximized.

Unfertile soils may require even larger amounts of fertilizers to meet the demand for agricultural production. Once planted, fertilizers, herbicides, and artificial pesticides are all used throughout the growing process to help promote plant growth (with fertilizer), while simultaneously preventing competition from other plants, and degradation from crop-eating pests.

The exorbitant use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides is unsustainable and environmentally damaging.

In the case of any runoff, these chemicals are washed down, percolating into the water table thereby contaminating the groundwater, also they are washed into nearby rivers, streams, and lakes in the case of heavy or intensive rainfall. This is all in the quest for the production of food to satisfy the world’s growing population.

5. Air Pollution

The agricultural sector is also an important source of fine particles responsible for air pollution, with the majority of these pollutants coming from ammonia generated by livestock farming.

The application of chemicals such as herbicides, and artificial pesticides throughout the growing process of the crops has also been released into the atmosphere as harmful air pollutants.

6. Soil Pollution

Agricultural run-off from heavy rains removes chemicals from the site of food production and transports them to other locations, polluting soils.

When natural systems are polluted in this way, the chemicals are absorbed into the tissues of simple organisms, like algae. These simple organisms are eaten by larger animals further up the food chain; and instead of being destroyed, the chemicals accumulate in the bodies of the larger animals.

Through the process, known as ‘bio-accumulation’, chemicals released into natural ecosystems can grow to potentially toxic concentrations.

At this point, they damage the health of the ecosystem by reducing fertility, causing irreparable genetic damage, or even killing important populations.

7. Deforestation

The environmental damage of food production from conventional agriculture can also be seen in deforestation. In addition to contributing to global GHG emissions, pollution of all kinds, resource use, etc, another environmental impact of food production is its contribution to deforestation.

This negative impact on the food sector should not be overlooked, because the influence of global warming caused by GHGs will be felt above all in the medium and longer term, primarily as a result of the removal of forest trees, a major carbon sink.

Also, overgrazing of livestock is a major contributor to the loss of available grass in the environment, leading to deforestation too.

8. Impact on Human Health

Gases emitted into the atmosphere don’t just cause long-term phenomena like global warming and climate change, either. In the short term, they can have devastating effects on the health of people living in a particular region.

Fine particles of 2.5 µm and less (PM2.5) are mainly responsible for these negative impacts of air pollution on health. Due to their small size, these particles easily penetrate the lungs to the pulmonary alveoli, where they pass directly to the pulmonary blood vessels and then to all arteries in the body.

They then produce an inflammatory reaction and oxidative stress that damage the vascular endothelium, the thin layer of cells that covers the inner walls of the arteries and ensures their proper functioning.

Human exposure as well to contaminated food or water due to chemicals contained in fertilizers such as herbicides and pesticides can lead to several complications in human health.

9. Impacts on Soil Fertility

Our soils are an often neglected factor in determining environmental health but every crop grown on earth depends on a fertile soil profile.

Alarmingly, a recent United Nations study estimated that fertile soil is being lost at a rate of 24 billion metric tons a year. This equates to approximately half of the Earth’s topsoil being lost over the last 150 years.

Intensive agriculture and farming practices are driving this loss by accelerating soil erosion and reducing soil fertility. Harvesting the crop represents a significant amount of nutrients, water, and energy being taken from the land.

This leaves the land barren, and unfriendly for the growth and development of new organisms and ecosystems.

Also, in the monoculturing of plants, areas of land where a single crop is grown, like corn or wheat, are particularly damaging to soils because plants affect and are affected by soil in different ways.

If different types of crops are grown together, they can work in concert to improve soil quality. This does not happen with monocultures, and so the land is left barren and unhealthy after harvesting.

Sometimes, with the help of artificial fertilizers, the soil is revitalized and used again for agriculture. If it is not, then the dry dirt will blow away in the wind, further contributing to the growing trend of desertification on our planet.

Cultivation methods such as tillage can further damage the structure of the soil reducing the depth and structure of the soil profile and making it less suitable for crop growth in the future.

10. Land Repurposing

Many cattle and sheep farms are now situated on areas of land that used to be home to forests and jungles. This has led to loss of biodiversity as well as deforestation

This has turned what was once a powerful carbon sink into a potent source of GHGs (since cows, sheep and other animals emit methane). This double whammy has an outsized impact on the environment.

The same is true for aquaculture environments. Most of these are located in freshwater lakes, displacing the natural flora and fauna that once lived there.

However, it is the aquaculture systems that have taken the place of Asian mangroves in tropical deltas and coastal regions which is the real concern, since these aquatic forests are capable of storing up to four billion tonnes of CO2, so their destruction is sorely felt.

10. Food Waste

Food waste is experienced after the food has been grown, transported, and prepared for consumption. This harms the environment one last time.

Food is wasted throughout the entire production chain, from initial crop growth to supermarket screening, to final household consumption. Food waste includes food scraps, discarded food, and uneaten food.


Statistically, by the year 2050, the world’s population will increase by 33%, which is about 10 billion people. To meet the food demands of this growing population, there would be an increase in food production to about 60-70% or repurpose food waste.

Hence, it has a more significant impact on the environment. Therefore, it is necessary that more sustainable approaches to food production be implemented so as to save our environment.


Environmental Consultant at Environment Go! | + posts

Ahamefula Ascension is a Real Estate Consultant, Data Analyst, and Content writer. He is the founder of Hope Ablaze Foundation and a Graduate of Environmental Management in one of the prestigious colleges in the country. He is obsessed with Reading, Research and Writing.

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