Air pollutants and climate change gases are released as fossil fuels are used for production, transport and packaging of food and drink products. The CO2 emissions created by producing, processing, packaging and distributing the food consumed by a family of four come to about eight tonnes a year. Road freight alone is responsible for a high proportion of toxic emissions, such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which are implicated in a number of public health problems, such as asthma and other respiratory diseases. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture supplying international markets involves overuse of pesticides which leach into groundwater and threaten wildlife, land erosion, loss of wildlife sites and reduced biodiversity in wild and cultivated species.
Growing food for sale in distant markets requires a high level of specialisation to compete with producers in other countries around the globe. Only those varieties will be grown which can withstand long distance transport and storage and look good on the supermarket shelf, rather than the local, tasty or nutritious varieties. For instance, 75 per cent of strawberries produced in the UK are a single variety, Elsanta, which doesn’t taste particularly good, but has a long shelf life and good travelling characteristics. However, it is susceptible to diseases such as powdery mildew, which necessitates the use of chemicals such as methyl bromide, a toxic chemical which destroys the ozone layer. Official testing found pesticide residues on 88 per cent of both imported and UK strawberries.
Pressure for specialisation and modern farming methods mean that many crop varieties are disappearing: there were 287 varieties of carrot in 1903, but now only 21. This poses a threat to food security as the genetic base of our crops is now narrower than it has ever been, increasing the likelihood of widespread crop failure.
Industrial, specialised agriculture favours the large over the small. Small producers in the UK and developing countries are squeezed out of the marketplace as they are unable to produce crops cheap enough and in sufficient quantity for supermarkets, food processors, and transnational corporations, who prefer to deal in large quantities. These companies add considerable mark-ups to foods, while continuing to pay farmers low prices. One UK farmer traced his three year bullock to find out the profit margins when he lost £32 on a sale in 1998. He found that between the abattoir and final sale a profit of £800 was made on the animal.
Up to 1970, food security was seen as an important objective in food production in developing countries. More recently, food and agricultural products have come to be seen as commodities for trading, to pay off debts and earn foreign exchange. However, producing for distant markets promotes insecurity for growers, and the lowering of environmental and social standards to cut costs and compete in international markets. For example, many pesticides are used in developing countries on crops destined for industrialised countries, which are banned in the latter because of environmental or health effects. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, at least 40 000 people are killed each year and up to one million people are made ill or permanently damaged by misuse of pesticides, mostly in developing countries. Even in the UK, thousands of farmers and farmworkers believe they have been poisoned by organophosphorous sheep dip, a close pesticide cousin of nerve gas.