Farm workers load harvested maize onto a tractor trolley in a field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India. Photo by: REUTERS/Amit Dave

Since the very first Earth Day nearly five decades ago, the environmental movement has tackled a wide range of problems, including air pollution, water contamination, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. But this Earth Day, there are two fundamental issues the movement must address over the coming decade if it is ever to defuse the tension between human development and the environment. In fact, these two issues underlie many, if not most, of the world’s environmental challenges.

“The costs of inaction are much greater than the costs

of the interventions.”

— “Creating a Sustainable Food Future” report

I’m referring to the human quest for food and the human quest for fuel.  

The food system has significant ― but often underappreciated ― impacts on the environment as my colleagues and I show in our report, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.” Take climate.  

Nearly a quarter of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions are linked to agriculture. About 14% come from livestock, fertilizer use, rice production, and farm-related energy consumption. Another 10% results from the clearing of forests, primarily for agriculture. Such conversion of natural ecosystems into farms and pastures is the number one cause of forest and biodiversity loss.

Take water. Agriculture is responsible for approximately 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals and has a major impact on water quality. For instance, fertilizer runoff from farm fields plays a major role in creating the massive annual “dead zones” in lakes and coastal waters such as the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico. Next time you hear about a water shortage somewhere, ask what role unsustainable water use for food production played in the crisis.

Or take land. Today, nearly 50% of the planet’s landmass, outside of deserts and permanent ice, is dedicated to growing food. Think about that: half the vegetated planet to grow food. Next time you take a flight, look out the window. Most of what you will see isn’t cities, it’s farms and pastures.

And then there is the ocean, an essential source of food. More than half the world’s marine surface is being fished, and unsustainable fishing threatens more than 55% of the world’s coral reefs. Moreover, the ocean has been absorbing so much of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels over the years that it is becoming too warm and acidic for corals.

The human quest for fuel — or “energy” — has similar wide-scale impacts. For instance, the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions arises from burning fossil fuels. Coal-fired power plants are a leading global source of mercury pollution. The energy sector accounts for about 15% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. Extraction of fossil fuels impacts biodiversity, especially as remaining reserves are located in more and more remote places. And oil spills are still with us; the United States alone experienced at least 137 oil spills in 2018.  

Food and fuel are critical not only for the global environment but also for the global economy. Although it directly accounts for just 3% of global GDP, agriculture employs more than 2 billion people, more than a quarter of the human population. Accounting for 10% of global GDP, the energy sector employs more than 40 million people. And it ranks as one of the planet’s largest industries in terms of annual revenue.

If the aspirations of Earth Day are ever to be realized, then figuring out how to achieve sustainable food and energy systems — addressing both the production and consumption sides of the equation — will need to be a strong focus of the environmental movement. Such a focus would directly tackle the underlying causes of most of the world’s environmental challenges, getting beyond putting just a Band-Aid on symptoms. It would ensure environmentalism aligns with human development since little is more basic to human well-being than food and energy. And such a focus would be relevant for all nations since food shortages and fuel shortages can topple governments.

In short, this and future Earth Days should boil down to food and fuel.

The rest is footnotes.

About the author

  • Craighanson 2 0

    Craig Hanson

    Craig Hanson is the director of WRI’s Food, Forests, and Water programs. Craig has co-developed a number of WRI’s leading projects including Global Forest Watch, Forest and Landscape Restoration, Forest Legality Alliance, Project POTICO, the Brazilian Business & Ecosystems Partnership, and is the lead author of a number of WRI publications.