Earth Day Is a Reminder of How Creation Care Can End Hunger

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By Isabel Vander Molen

Earth Day– April 22—is a day to mobilize people around the world to pursue environmental justice on behalf of all creation. Bread for the World has emphasized that healthy food systems are essential to ending hunger. In turn, strong food systems depend on the well-being of the Earth, its inhabitants, and its environment and climate.

Yet problems within food systems are the main cause of biodiversity loss. Food systems are also a significant cause of pollution and resource degradation, both of which accelerate climate change. Transforming food systems is a key part of meeting three important goals: protecting the planet, improving people’s nutrition, and ending hunger.  To end hunger caused by climate change, U.S. and global leaders must take action to improve food systems and accelerate their environmental stewardship efforts. 

Worldwide, food systems are responsible for 70 percent of all biodiversity loss on land. This is because most large-scale farming operations practice monocropping – the practice of repeatedly planting just one type of crop per season—so that the natural plant and animal variety in a given area is replaced by a single homogenous group. Out of the thousands of edible plant varieties on the planet, just 10 crops provide 83 percent of all harvested food calories.

These commodity crops include corn, soy, and wheat. Most of what is grown is used in the industrial, export, or processing sectors and as animal feed, rather than going directly to feed people—and the share of land used to grow crops directly for human consumption is decreasing. While animal-based foods can be valuable sources of protein, the growing demand for them has made the agriculture and livestock sector the main cause of deforestation. This sector is also the source of 26 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the food system. 

Commodity crops also have implications for human nutrition. Because they are grown in such large quantities, they are the most readily available and least expensive foods. They are usually high in calories and low in nutritional content. Thus, nutritious foods become an unaffordable luxury for many families. There is a clear link related to overproduction of less nutritious crops, lower prices for meat and for foods made from these crops, and their overconsumption, which is associated with higher risks of diabetes and cardiovascular disease

Commodity and monocrop-based food systems contribute to environmental degradation and climate change. Diverse and healthy ecosystems provide a sustainable landscape for farming by filtering freshwater, replenishing soil nutrients, and pollinating a variety of plants. However, commodity-driven and monocrop farming reduce the effectiveness of the many roles played by healthy ecosystems in maintaining conditions necessary for farming, such as revitalizing the fertility of the soil.

Additionally, farmers begin to rely more heavily on stronger pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial inputs to keep their businesses and crops afloat. These inputs contribute to further air and water pollution, other forms of damage to resources, and overall ecosystem fragility. It is therefore important to support improvements in food systems that will align them with nutritional and ecological wellness goals, so that all components reinforce each other. 

Empowering farmers to diversify their businesses by investing in different types of crops and farming methods that complement and work well with natural ecosystems is critical to delivering the best nutritional outcomes and choices for consumers. It is also crucial to ensure that farms and agribusinesses can continue to operate even during a crisis caused by climate change, resource shortages, or other problems. A U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report on reaching zero hunger while limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius recommends that governments adjust crop subsidies and food taxes so that producers and consumers are encouraged to grow and eat more foods that are nutritious and good for the environment but not yet grown in large quantities. 

Similarly, the 5th National Climate Assessment, a study of climate change impacts in the United States, recommends diversifying diets to include more produce and nutrient-rich foods to meet national food security, health, and climate goals. These changes could be facilitated by policies in the U.S. farm bill, which governs much of federal food and farm policy.

Adapting farming techniques is just one component of ensuring that food systems are healthy for people and the environment, but it is an essential one. Other important steps to ending hunger include boosting farmers’ access to markets, improving purchasing decisions, and raising consumer awareness. 

Caring for creation means caring for all of creation—human, animal, and plant. The benefits of doing so stem from the fact that their interconnections are symbiotic. Taking actions to make our food systems more biodiverse and to prevent further degradation of resources will ultimately enable our food systems to improve the condition of natural ecosystems and expand people’s access to nutritious foods.

 Isabel Vander Molen is a climate-hunger fellow, Policy and Research Institute, with Bread for the World.

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