food more cheaply support or undermine sustainable development and population health

 Influence of Cheaper Food Production on Sustainable Development and Population Health

Introduction and Background of the Study

Today agriculture and food production stand at crossways. Significant improvements in food production have been registered over recent decades to meet the ever-growing demand of the increasing global population. The progress has, however, come with environmental and social implications, including soil degradation, water scarcity, and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in fish and aquatic stocks, ecosystem stress, and biodiversity loss, including forest cover. The productivity potential of the world’s natural resources base continues to be damaged, compromising the future fertility of the planet (Semida, Beheiry, Sétamou, Simpson, Abd El-Mageed, Rady, and Nelson, 2019, p 334). Besides, the health of the population is compromised by excessive agricultural chemicals, loss of biodiversity, and environmental pollutions (Carvalho, 2017). The present paper takes the stand that producing food more cheaply undermines sustainable development and population health. Sustainable development is defined in this context as the ability to satisfy the increasing human demand for food or nutrition while concurrently supporting the capacity of natural systems to offer natural resources and ecosystem balance (Jägermeyr, Pastor, Biemans, and Gerten, 2017, p 7), on which the society and economy rely on to operate effectively. Population health is health outcomes as a result of current food productions.

The transition of Agriculture from Sustainable to Industrial

In ancient days, sustainable agriculture was the primary method of food production. Sustainable agriculture promotes the quality of the environment and natural resources, application of natural biological means, and finding practical usage of nonrenewable resources to improve the quality of life for society as a whole (Goddek, Delaide, Mankasingh, Ragnarsdottir, Jijakli, and Thorarinsdottir, 2015, p 4121). However, there has been an industrial revolution since World War II, marked by the movement from sustainable to industrial agriculture. The introduction of industrial agriculture methods such as antibiotics and chemicals has translated to better rates of food production through technology—hormones, chemicals, and preservatives are applied to boost production and food growth (Gauker, 2010, p 26). Sustainable agriculture is not any more effective approach to agriculture and food production.


The sustainable methods of food production that were applied in the past have been exchanged with modern techniques to increase the quantities of production. The strategies adopted today are industrialized systems of farming and agriculture (Winson, 2014). Industrial agriculture is the production of crops on massive scales. Industrial agriculture, on the one hand, is raising a large amount of livestock in confined areas. Modern industrialized agriculture and farming were developed to minimized production costs and maximize the profits for the firm owners while human health continues to suffer (Winson, 2014). The need for industrialized agriculture and farming is to meet the food demands for a growing number of the global population who live in urban settlements.

Upstream Influences on the Contemporary Cheaper Food Production Systems

Globalization trends, such as high urban settlement and population growth, power, and politics, play a significant role in the current global food systems. O’Kane (2012) writes that world population growth is on the rise every day. Therefore, current global food systems are faced with a significant challenge of enhancing the capacity to produce adequate food for the increasing population growth, while simultaneously addressing the environmental, social, and economic constraints of sustainability (O’Kane, 2012, p 268). The modern industrialized food production systems have, for the past four decades, been exceptionally successful in attaining a doubling of world food production, keeping pace with the global population growth (O’Kane, 2012, p 269).

Nevertheless, the increase has not been even globally. Study shows that there are still about 800 million of the world population who go hungry, particularly in developing parts of the world. Others are also suffering from prolonged illnesses caused by overconsumption (O’Kane, 2012, p 269). Increased obesity and chronic diseases are now common in the developing nations undergoing a “nutrition transition” when the consumption of foods high in sugar and fat is on the rise, motivated globalization and urbanization, replacing the traditional starchy, high-fiber foods. With projected global population growth at 50% above the present 6 billion people, by the year 2050, food demand is expected double (O’Kane, 2012, p 269). The need for grain, for instance, is projected to increase by 50% as a result of the expected rise in per capita real income and the changes in nutritional trends that will encompass more grain-fed meat. Farmers are shifting to specialized crop production such that four main grains, maize, rice, wheat, and barley, occupy about 40% of the world cropland (Herrero et al., 2013). Besides, the supermarkets are also beginning to produce their private labeled food staffs using cheaper raw materials imported rather than locally produced (O’Kane, 2012, p 269), increasing the consumption of finely processed food. The restructuring of agriculture and farming implies that manufacturers and retailers increasingly influence what farmers grow under a contractual arrangement; hence farmers are left with less control (McEntee, 2011, p 786). The current food production system is all about profit maximization even at the expense of environmental, social, and health degradation.

Implications of the Current Food Production Systems on Sustainable Development

The current industrialized food production systems come with environmental and social implications, including soil degradation, water scarcity, and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in fish and aquatic stocks, ecosystem stress, and biodiversity loss, including forest cover Semida et al. 2019, p 334). All these factors are detrimental to sustainable development, which is defined earlier in this paper as meeting the human demand for food while simultaneously supporting the capacity of natural systems to offer natural resources and ecosystem balance. This section of the paper examines the various sustainability issues associated with the industrialization of food production.

Environmental Implication

Industrialized agriculture that has been designed to attain maximum food production has countless inadvertent environmental impacts. Study shows that about half of the usable land globally is occupied by intensive farming and agriculture. However, with the land degradations, the portion of the global arable land is in steady decline. Soil erosion and degradation are considered significant threats to sustainable growth in agricultural production both in the developing and developed world (Carvalho, 2017). In developed worlds such as the U.S and Australia, the nationwide programs to improve soil erosion have been put in place, but the implications of soil erosion are still on the rise. Acidity and salinity also impact the quality of the soil and subsequently impairs plant growth (Gauker, 2010, p 27), implying a looming scarcity of arable lands in the future.

Industrial agriculture adversely affects water sources. The quality of water sources is polluted by the high application of large quantities of agricultural chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. There is also an increase in salt load and sediments, resulting from salinity and soil erosion. Study shows that crops absorb about 45% phosphorous and up to 50% of nitrogen fertilizers, leaving the rest deposited in the environment. The extensive clearing of land for agriculture and overgrazing has translated to a severe decline in biodiversity (Lu, Song, Wang, Liu, Meng, Sweetman, Jenkins, Ferrier, Li, Luo, and Wang, 2015, p 5). The current food production methods also favor a narrow variety of crop species that have to replace complex crop and multi-strata vegetation patterns (Lu et al., p 6). The noticeable effect has been the loss of structural diversities, destruction of native habitats, and decline in the animal population, particularly pests, predators, and invertebrate consumers.

Mono-cropping, a common practice in industrial agriculture, depend mostly on synthetic pesticides for disease and pest control, which further damage the biodiversity, buy killing other species of animals and insects that are not nearly the target organisms. The high yielding crops used in industrial food production are less resistant to pests and pathogens, hence susceptible to attacks by an adapted or new form of parasites (Lu et al. p 8), threatening the sustainability of the industrial farming systems. 

            Industrial agriculture also contributes to climate change. Agriculture donates about 12% of human-induced greenhouse gas releases globally, according to the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” Outside the food production point of the industrialized agricultural systems, the carbon emissions produced when transporting the food is also another environmental challenge. The impact is dependent on the mode of transporting food from the paddocks to plates (Lu et al., p 10).  For instance, boat transport generates about four times carbon emissions than the use of large tracks (Lu et al., p 8). These environmental effects rise against the sustainability of modern agriculture. The increased production volumes are at the expense of environmental degradation.

Food Insecurity

Studies in both the United States and Australia indicate a higher distribution of fast-food restaurants or food outlets in low-income than in higher-income neighborhoods. Logically, cheap or affordable energy-dense foods are most favored by those who are food insecure since they supply more energy per dollar spent (Lloyd, 2019, p 27). However, too much energy is consumed; as a result, leading to excess weight, as will be discussed later in this paper.

Industrialized Agriculture and Implication on Population Health

Besides the environmental implications of the current industrialized food production, concern has also been raised on health impacts. Industrialized food production approaches may have undesirable costs on population health. Food is vital for healthy growth and development. However, the lingering question is, “How can one develop healthily if chemicals and unsanitary conditions contaminate the food one eats, altering the body’s natural way of functioning?” (Lerner and Matthias, 2015, p 485). Industrialized farming and agriculture use chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, antimicrobials, and fertilizers to control pests and diseases and increase production. Some of these chemicals are known for endocrine disruptions and, to a more extensive extent, cancer in humans (Lerner and Matthias, 2015, p 487).

Excessive reliance on antibiotics to keep livestock healthy is another practice common in industrialized agriculture. It continues to cause antibiotic-resistance on humans feeding on the livestock meat. Antibiotic-resistant microbial cause known methods of treatments for humans to be less effective. Besides, livestock is given artificial growth hormones to promote growth. The practice, in turn, alters human hormonal functioning and levels (Lerner and Matthias, 2015, p 489). The preservatives used by food processors and manufacture to lengthen the product shelf-life have been shown to exacerbate the symptoms of asthma in humans (Linke, Casagrande, and Cardoso, 2018, p 308). In addition to the chemicals, processed food also has substantial amounts of salt, sugar, and facts, which is unhealthy and can result in obesity and improper cell metabolism. Last but not list, high fructose corn syrup, a common component in almost processed foods staff results in fatty tumors and cirrhosis (Lloyd, 2019, p 30). The list of health risks is endless, an indication of how the cheaper food production methods applied today adversely affects population health. 

            Exposure to some of these chemical result from residues in food, which can be on or within vegetables and fruits, or in final and fish tissues that humans eat. Study shows that about 70% of the vegetables and fruits that we consume contain at least one pesticide residue (Lu et al. p 10). Drinking water, on the other hand, has at least four pesticides or metabolites components. Pesticide residues do not wash vegetables and fruits thoroughly when one prepares to eat (Lu et al. p 11). Chemicals used applied for farming first soak into the roots of the crops, move to the skin, and finally into the end products that humans eat (Lu et al. p 14). What gets on our tables is cheaply produced, but toxic foods, with a myriad of health consequences, not sustainable at any cost.

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Obesity and Associated Chronic Disease

The rise in the obesity epidemic and associated chronic diseases is another health issue associated with the increasingly production of cheaper foods in American and across the world. The food we eat plays a significant role in determining the risk of weight gain and obesity. However, the choice of food is shaped by the environment, the kind of foods available in the food stores, and restaurants (Buzby, Farah-Wells, and Hyman, 2014, p 2). In the United States and many parts of the world, the food environment makes it challenging to choose healthy foods. The environment favors processed food, high in fat and sugar, and refined grains, explaining the increasing cases of obesity around the worlds (Buzby, Farah-Wells, and Hyman, 2014, p 4). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers in their finding argued that the primary contributing factor to the soaring rates of obesity is the accelerating calorie jump, where the food supply delivers a large number of calories to the average eater. About 24% of the extra calories result from added fats, 23% from added sugar, and refined grains contributing to the larger share of 46% (Gardner, Hartle, Garrett, Offringa, and Wasserman, 2019, p 200). Data published as of 2018 indicated that Americans ate an average of 3,770 calories daily, nearly double the recommended requirement of 2000 and 2500 calories intake for men and women, respectively (Gardner, Hartle, Garrett, Offringa, and Wasserman, 2019, 198). The high intake of calories is influenced by the food environment, which comprises of cheaply produced—refined grains and other processed foods with substantial sugar and fat additives (Hall, Ayuketah, Brychta, Cai, Cassimatis, Chen, Chung, Costa, Courville, Darcey, and Fletcher, 2019). The trend further supports the argument that producing food more cheaply undermines sustainable development and population health; in this case, population health is at risk.

Looking back, substantial enhancements in food production have been recorded over recent decades, owing to the introduction of industrialized agriculture, which has resulted in cheaper methods of food production. The increased production is significant to meet the ever-growing demand of the increasing global population. However, more affordable food production comes with many adverse effects both to the environment and human health. Environmental degradation, through the use of excessive chemicals, emissions of greenhouse gases, and loss of biodiversity are some of the impacts of industrialized farming. Human health is also not spared, witnessed by increased food-induced chronic diseases such as cancer, asthma, obesity, and related complications. As such, cheaper food production undermines sustainable development and population health.


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