There are two distinct issues when it comes to the environmental impact of food – the impact of the food we produce and the impact of the food we consume, we explore this below.
There are two distinct issues when it comes to the environmental impact of food – the impact of the food we produce and the impact of the food we consume. These come from carbon emissions from how we manage our land and how we transport food, the degradation of soil because of intensive, non-regenerative agriculture, the loss of biodiversity because of the destruction of natural habitats, the loss of pollinators and other impacts from the use of biocides (weedkillers and pesticides), and the dredging waterways and loss of flood plains which causes flooding and the washing of excess phosphate fertilisers into rivers. In addition to this are the packaging and chemicals needed to support long supply chains (transporting food long distances and often ripening it artificially at the end) and the harm done to water levels in the countries which produce our food.
Dealing with production is more straightforward though certainly not simple. We need to adapt quickly to using ‘agroecology’ to produce our food. This is a term for regenerative agriculture, working with nature so that soil and wider ecosystems are allowed to recovery after each harvest. Mostly this simply means better management and farming techniques; for example, returning to a more systematic process of crop diversity and rotation. All food crops take different nutrients out of the soil and put others in, so in any given field you plant crops one year which replace some of the nutrients extracted by the crops last year, or you use mixed planting approaches were fields have more than one crop in them. This leads to increased efficiency in the long run, as we will no longer be dependent on imports of artificial fertiliser to maintain soil nutrients.
There are simple approaches which can help regenerate soil and capture carbon (the roots of plants capture and store a lot of carbon from the atmosphere and then decompose to produce soil). Using approaches such as ‘no dig’ (where you don’t plough fields and disturb root systems but simply grow in the topsoil) or rotational grazing (the longer the grass, the deeper the roots, so grazing smaller areas of longer grass allows more root system to develop) capture carbon and prevent soil erosion. Other simple practices such as replanting trees and hedgerows at the edge of fields helps to restore biodiversity, and we throw away enormous amounts of household waste which is compostable and should be used to restore and fertilise land. Using these approaches also helps to suppress weeds naturally so there is less need for weedkillers.
Using fewer pesticides is more difficult given current practices. Crop rotation helps a lot (insects which eat crops are often crop- specific and so if the same crop is planted in the same field year after year their numbers keep increasing), and better planning also helps (some crops repel the creatures which eat other crops and so mixed planting can have a big impact). But even many agroecologists accept that there will be some reduced but continued use of biocides, though in a much more limited and targeted way. So there must be retraining of farmers who will have to learn new techniques – and farmers must be supportive partners throughout this process. And second, it is more labour-intensive. While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that yields need not be reduced if these techniques are used, more labour-per-hectare may be needed.
This would make Scottish agriculture a net beneficial contributor to resolving climate change and other environmental crises, but it would do nothing about the impacts of the food we import. This is difficult to deal with and will be limited by any free trade agreements Scotland is committed to. The options are limited; eating only seasonally in Scotland would mean we’d have little access to fruit for much of the year. Setting higher environmental standards for imports would be very difficult to police even if it was legal under trade rules – but should be done nevertheless. Hoping that the issue will be tackled through negotiation at an international level is unrealistic. The remaining option is ‘import substitution’ – grow more ourselves of what we currently import. New technologies make this a tangible possibility. Indoor growing using artificial light is now economically viable and means, at least in theory, that there are no foodstuffs we consume that we can’t grow ourselves.
Efficient LED lights and hydroponics (growing not in soil but in a neutral grow medium which is regularly ‘flooded’ with nutrient-rich water) offer real opportunities. The density of nutrients is greater than in soil so more plants can be grown in less space, crops can be harvested faster (it reduces the time to harvest by about a quarter for most foods) and continuous cropping is easy (you can get four or five crops per year where you’d only get one or two from traditional methods). This alone means that a hectare of indoor grow can be as productive as 20 hectares of traditional grow – and since growing can be stacked (so-called ‘vertical farming’) even a single-storey warehouse-sized space might enable three or four tiers of growing. The inputs are fertilisers which can easily be produced organically 6. and renewable energy – because these are effectively ‘clean rooms’ no biocides of any sort are needed. The outputs are only food and compostable materials. Common Weal has estimated that, even using currently-available technology, Scotland could produce the equivalent of about a quarter of the food it imports with only about one-eighth of the energy needed to decarbonise transport and at a cost of only about £1.70 per person per day.
But this will still mean we need to import food, so we must make sure that the cost of the food represents its real cost to the world. At the moment none of the ‘externality costs’ of food are included in their price (costs paid by society but not the producer). We should impose ‘externality taxes’ which cover the real costs of the damage done during poor production and the carbon emitted during transport. This will increase the cost of food, but this extra cost can be returned to people through schemes such as a Universal Basic Income or a weekly ‘food budget’ (a payment everyone receives which can be spent only on food). This would also make high-quality Scottish produce more competitive which would help us to shorten supply chains. To do this we must also have much more food processing domestically – it is simply not sustainable to have foodstuffs like bread produced badly in large factories and then hauled into Scotland by articulated lorry. Shortening supply chains would lead to both better food and more jobs.
Finally, we need to change diets. We should be eating much better food with much less industrial processing and fewer chemical additives (which are often used because food is transported such large distances). A system of local agroecology producers with more high-quality local processing and close-to-market foods grown with new technologies, combined with higher costs on low-quality imported chemically-processed foods would in itself help to change diets. Banning the advertising of food should be considered (there’s a business model for advertising a poor-quality frozen pizza but not a carrot). Cooking and food preparation should be an integral part of school education and everyone should be supported to cook more from fresh ingredients. And we must be encouraged to eat meat of a higher quality, with less meat consumption overall.
To achieve all of this we need to set up a National Food Agency and invest heavily in retraining for the farming community. But we also need to implement a legally-binding ‘Right to Food’ to ensure that consumers (and particularly poorer consumers) are protected through the transition.