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Dietary Adaptation to Climate Change: Rethinking Food in the Next Hundred Years (part 1 of 4)

Through industrialization, carbon emissions have exceeded the Earth’s threshold of sequestration of greenhouse gases.  Accompanying the pollution from manufacturing, construction, and vehicles, industrial agricultural practices have been just as influential towards climate change as any other human activity.  Industrial (or intensive) agriculture came to dominance in the past century.  For a better half of the century, getting arable farming and grazing lands to yield higher output than allowable by natural ecological means, in other words, not relying on the diversity of supporting life inherent to the natural habitats, has been driving global agroeconomic policies. Methods to enhance land performance are optimized by means of high input (material and labor) to ensure high output (yield production).  In other words, the introduction of heavy amounts of fertilizers, water, and other foreign material to condition the soil, clearing the lands of other inherent vegetation for the purpose large-scale continuous monoculture (agricultural expansion), improper management of the excess waste being deposited into waterways, and the laboring of the land from man and machine further stressing the ground are some of the ways industrial agriculture contribute high level greenhouse gases.  These practices are what scientists refer to as the dangers of overcropping, overgrazing, over fertilization, and deforestation.

Are the high yields worth the global imbalance of the ecological systems in which humans exist?  Industrial agriculture produces enough food to feed all humans many times over, yet 1 in 5 families globally are food insecure.  Such behavior as the destruction of food surplus paired with artificial scarcity helps to ensure greater market value.  The latter becomes ethically questionable when considering the communal dependence on the global supply chain for nutritional sustainability, as in the case with local regions of underdeveloped countries.  Innovative and sustainability driven means of subsistence farming can have immediate impact on food production for local communities globally.  Even low tech means such climate-smart agriculture (http://www.worldbank.org/climatechange) can start to restructure locally available vegetative support systems with more climate tolerant vegetation.

From large-scale continuous monoculture of industrial agriculture arises the issue of diversification of human plant-based diet.  The botanist John Warren explains in his book, The Nature of Crops, that despite there being over 400 thousands species of plant life on Earth, scientists estimate the human body can digest about 250 to 300 thousand.  However, humans only choose to consume 200, approximately 0.05% of all plant life. Humans can potentially be the most diverse omnivorous species and thus the most adaptable to climate change.  Seeking nutrition benefits from our entire ecology system through a multilevel dietary palette may reverse the effects over-cropping such as exhausting the fertility or chemical imbalance of arable soil. Although the demand for animal-protein-rich diets have been propagated by past market policies, the dire conditions of malnutrition and hunger in these underprivileged communities have led them to a forced choice: either to adapt to plant-based diet or continue to suffer hunger.  However, in the short-term, without serious commitment of government, local agribusiness, and communities, this will only provide temporary relief their feeding crisis.  The bearer of the burden of agroeconomic potential for long-term development lies in curbing the consumption demands of overdeveloped nations.  Selective dietary preferences, restrictive access (post-colonial land tenure or foreign exclusivity of land rights), and inefficient allocation of natural resources (direct food source versus, for instance, cattle grazing) continue to deprive the underprivileged of agroeconomic means of self-sustainability.

In the next hundred years, sustainable development may require restructuring the supermarkets or food bazaars of the world to distribute a high percentage of produce from locally grown or domestic farms instead of international food supplies in order to considerably decrease production activities by reducing the dependence on global demand.  Moreover, an exploration of food science may lend itself to creative ways of delivering edible (and palatable) assortments of wild vegetation to meet human dietary needs as arable lands becomes scarce and less ideal for common food growth.

References

Small, F.A.A., Raizada, M.N. Mitigating dry season food insecurity in the subtropics by prospecting drought-tolerant, nitrogen-fixing weeds. Agric & Food Secur 6, 23 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40066-017-0096-6

Biel, R. (2016). Regenerating the earth system, working with climate. In Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City (pp. 66-73). London: UCL Press. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1j1vzc5.12

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