DemoSite HB Enviro Centre

Hawke's Bay 

Food production

Energy Outputs and Inputs in an Agricultural System 

Image courtesy of Penn State University

There's two different things to think about when we talk about Food Production. One is domestic food production (usually covering home vege gardening and having chickens for eggs or meat) and the other is commercial food production.

Food production can result in tremendous negative effects on the environment, especially in commercial situations where water is redirected from natural sources to irrigate, pesticides and herbicides are used to control unwanted insects and plants and artificial fertilisers are used to promote growth beyond what the land can naturally support. Food then has to be transported. Some animal products (like eggs) are produced in a really unethical way. These advances in growing technologies and agricultural techniques have drastically improved the crop and meat yields over time, but many aren't sustainable. Some of the effects are:

  • Removing water from rivers or bores to irrigate land alters the water table.
  • The use of pesticides often impacts helpful species (such as bees, which are very important for pollination) as well as unwanted insects, as well as leaving residues on crops or in meat that humans or other animals then eat.
  • The use of herbicides can leave residues behind in the same way as pesticides.
  • Pesticides and herbicides are usually strong chemicals. These chemicals have to be synthesized in factories, bottled in plastic and shipped the the distributor, then the retailer, then the end user - all of which leaves behind a big carbon footprint.
  • Fertilizers can be made out of waste organic material (eg blood and bone), or can be mined eg NPK fertilisers. Naturally based fertilisers can be a good thing, they are a useful way of utilising an otherwise wasted by-product of meat production. Refined fertilisers have more of an impact on the environment - the raw materials are minerals that have built up in the ground over millions of years, which are then mined, refined (or concentrated), and transported to all the different distribution partners necessary to get the product to the end-user. 
  • Harvesting of the crop is usually done with the help of a machine - usually running on diesel. The metals, plastics and oils that run the machine had to be mined, refined, transported and assembled - whew!
  • Transportation of the crop to the distribution centre (many crops are held in coolstores for a time - coolstores use a lot of energy), and from the distribution centre to the retailer, and from the retailer to the home of the consumer, or the location of the cafe or restaurant, or to the processor who alters the state of the product (cutting, freezing, canning, bottling, dehydrating and cooking - all of which take considerable electrical, mechanical or heat energy). 
  • Much overland transportation of crops and live (or not) animals is done by diesel powered trucks. Fuel of all kinds is a challenge that the world faces - we know it's not sustainable to continue to drill for fossil fuels in an ever fuel-hungrier world,  but for now we don't have many economically viable alternatives.  
  • Cruel farming practices like factory egg farming or using sow crates for pig farming require animals to be contained in an unnatural environment, therefore restricting their natural behaviours and forcing them to eat unnatural foods (by unnatural foods, I refer to both GMO crops, and to the content of the feed itself - it's not normal for chickens to eat a diet of crushed seashells, corn, and grain exclusively).

Phew, heavy stuff! But we can help make food production more sustainable.

Buy locally produced food from organic farmers to cut down the carbon footprint of your food, remove the pesticide and herbicide residues as a risk, and support the local economy. Chances are - your local organic farmer reinvests his or her money back into the local economy, making local organic food purchasing an ethical and sustainable choice. 

Produce food at home - the sustainable way. There are lots and lots of books and videos that teach you how to grow your own veges, so we won't go into that here. We'll just take some time to show you why it's a really great option.

  • You have total control over what you grow, how and where. 
  • It costs a lot less to buy a packet of seeds once (and collect your own thereafter), than to buy veges from a supermarket or other food distributor
  • You can use water responsibly - collect water off your roof when it rains to water your veges when it's dry
  • You can use the waste organic matter from the garden to make compost - (a natural, made-on-site fertiliser), or have a worm farm (which also helps remove waste food) and use the worm pee and castings as a plant food
  • You have no fuel costs or carbon footprint from harvesting or transporting your food from your garden to your kitchen
  • You know that your eggs (and/or meat if you have the space and inclination to produce it at home) has been farmed ethically

Have excess plants that you want to donate to other gardeners? Keen to try out some new varieties? Plantcatching is a new website dedicated to helping gardeners share plants, seeds, and other gardening resources.