5.1 Why are the environmental impacts of the food system a concern?

5.1.1 The food system’s impacts on the environment are multiple and connected

The food system’s impacts on the environment are multiple and connected

FCRN, 2016.

The food system – spanning production, distribution, manufacturing, consumption and waste disposal – impacts upon the environment in multiple ways. Agriculture is the stage responsible for the majority of these impacts. Chapter 2 gives more detail about how these impacts are categorised and quantified using a life cycle assessment approach.

All forms and systems of food production generate environmental impacts. However, the intensity of these impacts varies and forms/systems of production will also differ in the extent to which they impact upon one issue of concern (biodiversity for example) as compared with another (non-renewable energy use).

When thinking about how to design more sustainable food systems, decisions will need to be made about which environmental impacts are of most concern and whether the goal is to ‘optimise’ across multiple environmental dimensions (i.e. by reducing impacts across the board), or focus on minimising impacts in one or two key areas over and above what might be possible using an optimisation approach – but accepting that impacts on other areas of concern could increase.

5.1.2 These environmental impacts have a direct bearing on our wellbeing and survival

These environmental impacts have a direct bearing on our wellbeing and survival

Adapted from MEA, 2003.

This diagram, developed by the United Nations’ four year Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2001-2005) is one approach to conceptualising the links between the ‘services’ provided by the ecosystem, and human survival and wellbeing.

These services are categorised into ‘supporting’ services (the foundations for the others), ‘provisioning services’ (food and so forth), ‘regulating’ services (that keep systems functioning) and ‘cultural’ services (such as aesthetic and spiritual value).

Other diagrams have also been developed to conceptualise these linkages (see for example some of the graphics in UK National Ecosystem Assessment, 2014).

A related term ‘Natural Capital’ is also often used.

Natural Capital can be defined as the stock of resources (soils, air, water, geology, living organisms) which generate ecosystem services.

A useful discussion of ecosystem services, natural capital and the difference between them (which can be found here) points out that “Ecosystem services are the flows of benefits which people gain from natural ecosystems, and natural capital is the stock of natural ecosystems from which these benefits flow… The crucial link between natural capital and ecosystem services is that when some classes of ecosystem services are appropriated by humanity at an unsustainable rate, the stocks of natural capital which provide them may be depleted.”

Both concepts are intended to make the value of nature to humanity more immediately visible; an additional step taken has been to assign monetary value to these stocks and flows of goods and services, meaning that harm to them incurs a cost, and safeguarding or enhancing them a payment. For many stakeholders this valuation-based approach is essential if the environment is to be taken seriously and factored into decision making and actions. For others, putting a price on nature – as this approach does – is seen as flawed both practically and morally – see for example.

One important point made by critics is that the environment can be argued to have intrinsic value, over and above its utility to humans.