The Complex Ways Our Food System Impacts the Environment—and How You Can Help

Growing food and raising animals affect the earth, air, land, and water in tangible ways. Here's how you can minimize the damage.

how food systems affects the environment: coral reef, bees, butterfly, sunset
Photo: Yeji Kim

When you consider the long-term effects of climate change—or even the immediate challenges we're already facing—the topic might feel daunting. At times, it may even leave you wondering: Do my actions alone really have a significant effect on the environment?

The answer is easy: Yes.

Everyone—from large corporations to small farmers or businesses to the average American—plays a role in the health of the planet, especially when it comes to the greenhouse gas emissions caused by our food system (which, by the way, contributes a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions). From which products we buy at the supermarket to what we do with our empty water bottles, our day-to-day choices affect the environment in many ways. Here are a few of the ways food consumption and our food system impacts the earth's air, land, and water quality.

Air Pollution

Whether it's the travel required to transport food, packaging used to contain those foods, or waste produced along the way, many aspects of food production contribute greenhouse gas emissions.

Bleached Coral Reefs

One of the most detrimental effects of air pollution and harmful gases is rising global temperatures. "The ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the extra heat caused by our greenhouse gas emissions, causing the temperature of the ocean to rise," says Ryan Bigelow, senior program manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program. "This has led to coral bleaching, more toxic algae blooms, and disruptions to the marine food web." Bigleow says that nearly half of the world's coral reefs today have already disappeared. "Unfortunately, these are vital for supporting biodiversity and thousands of marine species, as well as the seafood industry."

The seafood industry is already in a fragile state due to bycatch (when fish or other marine species are caught unintentionally when a fisherman is targeting a different species or size of fish) and overfishing of endangered species caused by commercial fisheries. This means the supply of fish will continue to diminish beyond the rate that they're able to replenish.

What you can do: When shopping for seafood, refer to the Seafood Watch for sustainable recommendations to help reduce your purchase's impact on the environment.

Increased Food Miles

Food miles refer to the distance of transporting food—such as by plane, boat, or truck—multiplied by the quantity of food transported by mass. Research shows that about 0.2 percent of food miles come from air travel, nearly 60 percent come from boat travel, and approximately 31 percent are by road. However, due to the limited capacity of air-freighted products per trip compared to land or water travel, studies indicate that transporting food by air emits 50 times as many greenhouse gases as transporting the same amount by sea, five times as much as by road. Typically, foods with a short shelf life that are produced internationally are air-freighted due to their perishable nature, increasing their carbon footprint by mass for the product exponentially.

What you can do: Some ways to reduce food miles are shopping locally at farmers' markets, eating seasonal products while they are actually in season, grocery shopping less frequently, and even growing your fruits and veggies in your backyard or a community garden. Grocery delivery companies, such as Imperfect Foods, adapt their business models to help reduce food miles. They do so by "batching customers and neighborhoods together to reduce miles traveled, and purposefully shipping by neighborhood one day a week to deliver groceries to [an] entire community in one trip," says Madeline Rotman, head of sustainability for Imperfect Foods.

Food Waste

Another highly impactful contributor to climate change comes from food waste. According to the World Resources Institute, an astounding one-quarter of the calories the world produces are thrown away, spoiled in supply chains, and wasted by retailers, restaurants, and consumers. According to a study by Poore and Nemecek (2018), this means that about 6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food waste alone.

To stop the abundance of food waste, companies like Imperfect Foods "work with farmers and producers to purchase perfectly delicious and nutritious food that may not meet conventional grocer's aesthetic standards and would have gone to waste," explains Rotman. The company "rescues items that would've otherwise fallen through the cracks of our food system," she says. Last year, as a result of reduced travel and mass gatherings throughout the pandemic, airlines and other public entertainment centers had surpluses of products they would have quickly sold through otherwise. "We were able to repurpose, for example, snack trays and movie theater popcorn and deliver them to consumers, eliminating unnecessary waste. In 2020, our food sourcing strategy saved over 50 million pounds of food," she says.

What you can do: Food waste often occurs without intention, like innocuous household practices like food storage or disposal done incorrectly. To help mitigate the impact of food waste and reducing the quantity that makes its way to greenhouse gas-emitting hubs (like landfills), composting can help provide a solution. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), composting reduces methane emissions, eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, promotes higher yield of crops, enhances water retention in soil, among many other benefits. Composts at every Imperfect Foods' fulfillment centers helped "divert over 75 percent of our waste from landfills" in 2020, Rotman says.

Increased Methane Emissions

Another critical issue contributing to the greenhouse effect on our planet is methane emission from livestock digestion. Though not as prominent as carbon dioxide, methane is far more detrimental and potent. According to the EPA and the American Farm Bureau Federation, methane emissions account for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gases. According to Andrew Walmsley, Congressional relations director at the American Farm Bureau Federation, "methane digesters not only help better manage the nutrients coming out of our animals, but can also create renewable energy, renewable natural gas, and renewable electricity." He notes that the bureau is a "strong proponent of biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel. The use of biofuels has helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 71 million metric tons, which is equivalent to taking 17 million cars off the roadways."

What you can do: Consider reducing your beef consumption by even one meal per week. A study held in France found that swapping out beef for pork saved 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that would have come from beef. Poultry has an even smaller climate footprint than pork.

Julia Bohan

Land Pollution

Several factors, including pesticides and global warming, have caused damaging effects on soil health and pollinator populations, leaving the food system in a vulnerable state.

Depleted Soil Health

"Our agriculture system is destructive—for the earth and human health. The way we produce food destroys the soil, mows down rainforests, depletes our freshwater resources, and drives massive loss of biodiversity in our ecosystem," says According to Mark Hyman, MD, New York Times best-selling author of Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? and head of strategy and innovation at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. "We have lost 75 percent of our pollinator species, 90 percent of our edible plant species, and half of all livestock species, not to mention millions of other species of flora and fauna."

What the industry can do: To combat the issue, Hyman recommends a method of regenerative agriculture that includes animals in the natural cycle of agriculture to build soil, produce fertilizer, conserve water, and eliminate the need for toxic agricultural chemicals. "Regeneratively-raised animals are a net benefit to climate change by restoring the largest carbon sink on the planet, far greater than all the rainforests, a sink that can store three times as much carbon as exists today in the atmosphere: soil. There is no better carbon-capture technology on the planet than photosynthesis," he notes. The goal is to build nutrient-rich soil, ideal for farming by mimicking natural grassland animals' behavior with managed grazing and regenerative agriculture. "Some estimate we could draw down 50 to 100 percent of all carbon in the atmosphere if we scaled up regenerative agriculture," Hyman says.

At-Risk Pollinator Populations

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 35 percent of the world's food crops—including apples, broccoli, coffee, and almonds—depend on animal pollinators like bees and butterflies to reproduce. Unfortunately, pollinator populations are at high risk due to environmental factors like habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and diseases. Walmsley points out that "pollinators have a huge impact on the environment, and too many of our crops cannot reproduce without a pollinator." Farmers mark zones that working bees are spreading to ensure pesticides and chemicals minimally disturb their environment. Walmsley adds that farmers work to "make sure decisions are in conjunction with [pollinator] migration patterns," and they have gone as far as "working with departments of transportation to establish habitats for pollinators along the roadways" to protect colonies of these vital insects.

What you can do: Limit use of pesticides in your garden and choose organic foods when possible.

Water Pollution

Seeing as 71 percent of the earth's surface is covered by water, pollution of the ocean and other freshwater sources are top of mind for those researching our at-risk food system. Major contributing factors that pollute or disrupt these ecosystems include microplastics in the sea from deteriorated plastics, in addition to tainted and diminishing freshwater sources due to runoff.

Plastic Packaging Littering Ecosystems

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the average American creates 270 pounds of plastic waste every year—and only 9 percent of the plastic ever made has been recycled, and another 12 percent has been incinerated. The rest of the plastic, more than 5 billion tons, has ended up in landfills or as litter in the natural environment (including the ocean). Unfortunately, the 5 billion tons of unrecycled plastics cannot biodegrade under normal circumstances, resulting in microplastics. As the plastic attempts to break down, it fragments into tiny pieces less than 5 millimeters thick, which the aquarium's research says can be found throughout the ocean, from the surface to the seafloor, and in the stomachs of ocean animals.

Most packaging for consumer goods, takeout containers, and even shopping bags are made of nonbiodegradable materials that make their way into the sea or other bodies of water, causing irreversible water pollution. According to the National Park Service, it takes about 450 years for a plastic bottle to degrade fully.

What you can do: To help reduce the abundance of plastics that make their way into waters, consider eliminating single-use packaging, upcycling waste materials, and switching to reusable bags and containers.

Tainted Runoff From Farmland

As a result of farming, excess runoff from the agriculture industry can make its way into freshwater lakes or rivers that flow into the ocean. "Runoff from California's farmland contributes to ocean pollution. When excess nutrients from fertilizers and animal waste enter waterways, they can cause algal blooms and deplete oxygen levels, harming ocean animals," explains Bigelow.

What you can do: Shop farmers' markets and farm stands, and talk to your local farmers about their agricultural practices.

Predominate Water Footprints

Agriculture plays a significant role in the water resources available in the world. According to the USDA, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the nation's consumption of water. The beef industry, for example, requires an astounding 2,000 gallons of water per pound of beef to produce.

What you can do: To help track the average American's daily water footprint, GRACE Communications Foundation (GRACE), a non-profit dedicated to creating a more sustainable food system, created the Water Footprint Calculator, which helps you track water consumption based on your household usage.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles