Human beings make up the largest number of any species that roam the face of the earth today. Dramatic rise in population was one of the prominent features of the twentieth century, with the human population expected to hit the 12 billion mark between 2050 and 2100. Feeding the large number of people has remained a complex challenge where in some parts of the world malnutrition is critical while in others obesity is the chief concern.
An increasing human population in the 20th and 21st centuries calls for the use of several strategies to improve food production. Mechanization of agriculture running back to the days of the industrial revolution contributes quite a lot to increasing food production. Large tracts of land are cultivated with minimum labor thus lowering food production cost.
Secondly, improved farming methods have been significant in improving food output. Use of fertilizers to improve soil quality has had a significant positive effect on crop production with higher yields reported for almost all crops planted under them. This measure coupled with use of pesticides to ward off pests has ensured increasing supply of food.
Animals have provided better yields due to improved animal husbandry. With research, it has been possible to take better care of animals to ensure optimum yield. “Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)” (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008) is used extensively to raise large numbers of animals in relatively small farm spaces.
The animals do not waste any energy on walking around and foraging, as was the case in older methods such as free range grazing. Aquaculture has also greatly developed where the rearing of fish and other aquatic food sources goes on in inland ponds using small spaces.
Genetic engineering contributes considerably to the increased food production for the needs of the human race. The development of better seed, with improved pest and drought resistance has secured food supplies. In addition, fast growing pest and weather resistant genetically modified animal feed crops are easier and quicker to produce.
Fishing methods have improved greatly with just one vessel bringing in tones of seafood per trip as opposed to traditional small scale fishing methods.
Unfortunately, the environment has had to bear a huge burden from the consequences of these developments. Paredes-Lopez (1999) says, “Intensified crop production has had undesirable effects on the environment, for example, contamination of ground water, soil erosion, and exhaustion of water reserves” (p. xiii).
The environment suffers harm from carbon emissions from farm machinery, fishing vessels, associated transport of inputs, and the resulting produce. Increasing acreage under farmland made possible by mechanization is leading to the damaging of pristine land such as the Brazilian Cerrado. In the process, sensitive ecosystems are disturbed, and in some cases, they are permanently destroyed.
The exposed soil becomes susceptible to erosion and the accompanying loss of nutrients. Pesticides kill untargeted organisms and endanger human health. Water diverted for irrigation leads to downstream destruction of dependant ecosystems. Overfishing has affected fish populations with the UN estimating that up to 75% of edible fish populations require protection to assure their survival.
Three major concerns stem from the food production methods In relation to the safety of the food currently consumed. The first concern relates the long-term impact of human beings eating genetically modified foods.
It is not yet clear whether there are any negative effects to human health from GM food consumption since they have not been around long enough for conclusive studies. Indeed, as Cunningham and Cunningham (2008) point out, GM “Opponents worry that moving genes willy-nilly could create a host of problems, some of which we can’t even imagine”.
The next concern has to do with the ingestion of chemical residue left on food due to use of fertilizers and pesticides while growing them. The long-term consequence to human health can be grave.
Finally, there is concern on the nutritional quality of food we ingest due to the improved production methods. The possible caloric intake per person has increased to the extent that many American adults are obese. Cunningham and Cunningham state, “some 64% of American adults are overweight”. This is due to a fast food culture made possible by the improved food production methods, which supply the fast food chains with their inputs.
Cunningham, M.A., & Cunningham, W.P. (2008). Principles of environmental science: Inquiry and applications (Custom 5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Paredes-Lopez, O. (Ed.). (1999). Molecular biotechnology for plant food production. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Technomic publishing company.