Environment and Resources

Contemporary food systems have a very significant, and generally very negative, impact on our environment and are responsible for tremendous consumption and pollution of natural resources.

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Human beings have always extracted plants, animals, fungi, and minerals from the Earth to meet their needs and advance their civilizations. However, the pace and scale of resource extraction has escalated in modern times, depleting and degrading Earth’s resources, emitting greenhouse gases, and disrupting the biogeochemical cycles upon which all life depends. As a result, we now face a climate crisis of our own making — a crisis that threatens the persistence of the life-supporting atmosphere that has made the Earth uniquely congenial to human flourishing.

Contemporary food systems have a very significant, and generally very negative, impact on our climate and environment. The way we currently produce and consume food gives rise to some 20-30% of global climate changing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Livestock production accounts for an estimated 14.5% of global GHG emissions from human activities.1

Food and associated human activities are also responsible for tremendous consumption and pollution of natural resources. For example, food production and consumption accounts for around 70% of freshwater use and acts as a major source of water pollution.2 Occupying nearly 40% of the earth’s land surface, agriculture has long been the main driver of land use changes (including deforestation); it is also directly and indirectly responsible for about 80% of associated biodiversity loss.3,4 Moving from land to sea, unsustainable fishing practices in combination with water pollution, often from terrestrial agriculture, have led to the collapse of many fish stocks. Approximately 90% of fish stocks are now over exploited or fully exploited, or depleted, and there have been major attendant disruptions to marine and freshwater ecosystems.5 Agriculture is also the major global user of land and natural resources, both finite and renewable.

The environmental and climate-related impacts of food systems are determined in large part by the kinds of foods that are produced as well as how they are produced and distributed. Also important is how much food is produced and what portion of production is ultimately consumed by humans, as opposed to being fed to animals, turned into biofuels, or wasted. By 2050, without substantive changes, food production is expected to exhaust the emissions budget we must maintain to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius.6 Research indicates that a 50% reduction in wastage of food and a substantial shift toward consumption of more plant-based foods can actually reduce the GHG footprint of global food production by 50% over the same period.7 Additionally, shifts toward more regenerative, soil-building, and perennial agricultural practices create opportunities for substantial carbon-sequestration, allowing us to return to the ground the climate-destabilizing compounds that we have sent skyward.8 These are just a few indicators of how the aggregated effects of environmentally astute choices by both producers and consumers can transform food production from a source of tremendous harms into an effective tool for positive change.

The mounting natural challenges to food production, such as extreme weather events, drought, coastal flooding, mudslides, and impaired water supplies, demonstrate the connectedness of human and planetary well-being. As the human population continues to swell, food demand will increase, and the challenge is to conserve land and natural resources while meeting this demand.

Limiting the environmental impacts of the food system and restoring ecosystem health is ethically important for at least four clusters of reasons. First, the food system’s negative impacts on the natural world affect the well-being of current generations. Both secular and religious moralities acknowledge that we have ethical responsibilities towards other living people — extending beyond our own families and communities. These ethical responsibilities may be based in justice concerns, in moral imperatives to avoid harming others and to enhance the well-being of others, and in recognition of fundamental human rights.

Environmental degradation threatens the physical and mental well-being of living humans (i.e., current generations) in multiple ways: from pollution, heat stress, and an increased spread of diseases into new regions of the world; from an increased incidence and severity of extreme weather events; from dwindling resource availability, which diminishes prospects for economic development; from reduced stability and increased volatility of habitats and livelihoods; and from diminished ability to experience and integrate meaning and purpose in life through a connectedness with the natural world.9 More specific to food, environmental degradation also triggers challenges to food security, impairs access to adequate nutrition,10 and reduces the nutrient content of food grown in poor soils or amid elevated CO2 levels.11

Second, environmental degradation negatively affects the well-being of future generations. Both secular and religious moralities acknowledge that we have ethical responsibilities towards future generations of human beings, including responsibilities not to impose a risk of significant harm on future generations, and responsibilities to ensure that future generations have natural resources and opportunities that are equivalent to those resources and opportunities that our generation had. Some believe that we owe ethical duties to future generations because it is our reproductive behavior that brings about their existence. More basically, insofar as we are invested in the continued persistence, thriving, and evolution of the human race, we should care about promoting the well-being of future generations.

We cannot be certain precisely how dramatic of an impact environmental damage will have on future people or what roles technology and innovation may play in mitigating the consequences of ecosystem disruption, resource exhaustion, climate change, and related harms. We can be reasonably certain that we are bequeathing a less natural resource-rich and less resilient planet to future generations than that which those of us living today experience. This is bound to negatively affect the well-being of future generations. At best, we are impairing the prospects for future generations to enjoy a quality of life commensurate with that enjoyed by their recent ancestors. At worst, we are seriously degrading the habitability of the only planet known to support human life and jeopardizing the existence of our successors.

Third, environmental degradation also has negative consequences for living organisms of other species besides humans. Some believe that humans have ethical duties to avoid directly or indirectly harming other species and, in particular, other species of sentient animals. Ethical duties to animals may be based on a conceptualization of animals as beings who are objects of moral concern in their own right. Alternatively, some religious doctrines conceive of human beings as caretakers of all creatures, giving rise to obligations to both limit harm to animals and to meet their needs in connection with meeting our own.

Human-caused environmental damage threatens the well-being and existence of non-human animals in multiple ways, including through destruction and fragmentation of habitats, intensified competition for scarce resources, human-catalyzed extinctions, and resulting disruptions in food webs.

Fourth, reductions in biodiversity and ecosystem integrity matter in and of themselves, according to some ethical views. Some people think the natural environment, inclusive of the variety and variability of lifeforms on Earth, has intrinsic value. Those who emphasize intrinsic value — the value of nature and its variety in and for itself — assert that the natural diversity of organisms and species, the complexity of ecological systems, and the resilience created by evolutionary processes are objects of moral concern. This ecocentric philosophy, central to conservation biology and deep ecology, holds that maintaining and restoring biological diversity are individual and collective responsibilities of humans. In the view of biospheric egalitarians, we must demonstrate care for the environment and practice resource conservation not only because a failure to do so prevents human and animal flourishing but because Earth’s varied terrains, ecosystems, and biodiversity have high intrinsic value. Others, including environmental humanists, emphasize that acknowledgement of inherent value provides secondary benefits to humans. On this theory, by recognizing and respecting the inherent value of our planet, its natural systems, and its other inhabitants, we are able to enjoy a deeper connection to the natural world and more fully realize humanity’s inherent dignity and exceptional capacity for empathy.

Core Ethical Commitments


1. Production, distribution, and waste management methods minimize greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon, and/or offset climate impacts.

The aggregate greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production are tremendous and increasing. The food system accounts for approximately 25% of global GHG emissions, fueling climate change. Climate impacts from agriculture arise chiefly from the use of fossil fuels at all stages in the food value chain, the rearing of livestock, the cultivation of rice, and the production and use of synthetic fertilizers. All such impacts are ethically important and are encompassed by this commitment.

Some argue that because food production and distribution are more essential to human well-being than other activities, we should prioritize GHGs reduction in other areas rather than food. On the other hand, because the food system contributes mightily to GHG emissions, others argue that minimizing greenhouse gas emissions in the food system should be prioritized. By reducing agri-food-related GHG emissions — in particular emissions of CH4 and N2O, which are especially potent greenhouse gases — we improve the chances of forestalling a 2°C temperature rise and can buy time to develop new solutions to reduce GHG emissions (i.e., efficient products and renewable energy).

Agriculture has the potential to be an effective force for climate change mitigation and offers compelling opportunities for GHG-offsetting because carbon is taken up by plants and sequestered by healthy soils. Actors should urgently shift to more regenerative methods of production (i.e. improved grazing management, planting of deep-rooted grasses, avoided tillage above ground, shifts to permaculture and tree-produced crops, and afforestation). A widespread transition to “carbon farming” offers the potential to sequester hundreds of billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere in the coming decades.12

The ethical rationale for embracing this commitment is straightforward: we have ethical responsibilities to minimize the harms of climate change to current and future generations of people; adequately reducing GHG emissions will require concerted action to reduce GHG emissions across the economy; and food system activities are a major source of GHG emissions.

Conservation & Regeneration

2. Practices are in place to conserve natural resources.

Research suggests that future food production, in response to future food demand, may run up against “planetary boundaries” that define a safe operating space for humanity, including carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and other climate variables, biodiversity, and biogeochemical flows related to nitrogen and phosphorus cycles.13,14 Planetary boundaries are limits for human-caused impacts on the environment. When environmental impacts exceed these limits, there is a risk that Earth systems may destabilize and make the Earth less habitable for humans and less able to support our way of life. This commitment requires prioritizing conservation of the natural resources upon which our food and agricultural systems depend: land, water, air, soil (and its microbiota), and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and potassium, to name a few.

Presently, dominant modes of production operate on a linear take-make-waste model, which is anathema to this commitment. This commitment calls for reducing the consumptive use or substantial degradation of finite resources throughout the food system. It aligns with calls to move both economic and food systems toward circular models that design out waste and pollution, keep resources, products, and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.15 This commitment requires producers to make land management and production decisions that conserve natural resources and regenerate those that can be renewed, rebuilt, or rejuvenated. It also requires actors further down the production chain, such as food product developers, manufacturers, and marketers, to consider food products’ resource footprints and favor those that are less resource-intensive.

The resource intensity of foods and ingredients should be assessed along numerous dimensions, such as:

  1. the extent to which the food has inherently high net environmental impacts, regardless of production methods, processing intensity, or distribution distance, and especially as compared to nutritionally comparable foods (i.e., many animal-source foods);
  2. the extent to which the food, when shipped to, sold or consumed in a particular region, has inherently high environmental impacts, uses substantial amounts of non-renewable resources, or increases the risk of loss and waste (i.e., air-freighted highly perishable food, including produce, fish, and seafood);
  3. the extent to which the particular methods used to produce a food or ingredient amplify (rather than minimize) resource use or ignore (rather than prioritize) regeneration;
  4. the extent to which consumptive resource use or other negative environmental impacts are counterbalanced by regenerative practices and environmentally beneficial outcomes;
  5. the extent to which the food’s consumptive resource use is especially problematic in the area where it is produced (i.e., the production of an inherently water intensive crop, such as almonds, in an arid region);
  6. the extent to which consumptive or extractive resource use associated with a particular food may be justified because of the food’s high nutritional value, or, conversely, may not be justified because of the food’s minimal nutritional value, tendency to worsen health, or lack of novel dietary or appropriate cultural contributions;
  7. the extent to which public policies or trade groups and industry initiatives serve to deflate the true cost of or increase demand for particular foods without sufficient regard to the food’s resource intensity; and
  8. the extent to which companies run price, bulk-buying, or other promotions that encourage over-purchasing, leading to food waste or excessive consumption, which both represent a ‘waste’ of food production and associated impacts.

Soil Quality

3. Practices are in place to improve soil quality and management.

Soil quality or soil health is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Healthy soils with substantial organic matter and robust, diverse populations of soil microorganisms generate a multitude of ecosystem services that simultaneously benefit agriculture and the environment. This is because increased organic components improve soil structure, aeration, water retention, drainage, and nutrient availability for plant growth while reducing nutrient and chemical runoff and erosion. Healthy soils also improve the bottom-line of farmers and create greater security for consumers, who have an interest in productive agriculture and an abundant food supply. Moreover, year-round soil cover is useful for carbon sequestration and storage, which serves climate goals, benefits air quality, and supports wildlife and plant diversity. Finally, healthy soils require less tillage, reducing fossil fuel usage and associated CO2 emissions.

The increasingly large and heavy equipment used in industrial production systems causes soil damage in the form of compaction that reduces soil fertility. Additionally, erosion can be caused simply by cultivation that leaves soils vulnerable to transport by wind, water, and gravity. Soil loss is itself a significant and, on human timelines, irreversible environmental impact that can dramatically reduce the productive capacity of land. Eroded soil also acts as a conveyor for nutrients and pollutants, which has negative effects on water quality and aquatic ecosystems.

Maintaining and building soil health is important because it is essential to farm and food system sustainability. In general, producers should strive to keep soil covered as much as possible, disturb soil as little as possible, use cover crops and crop rotation to feed soil, and develop and implement soil health management plans, as initial steps toward improving soil.

At present, there is a heated debate about the role of soilless agriculture production techniques such as hydroponics and aquaponics. These production techniques decouple the growing of crops from land and soils. Proponents of soilless agriculture systems view them as a key tool for producing enough food for a growing population, producing fresh food affordably, producing food in or near urban centers, and doing so without more land conversion. Opponents have deeply held convictions that agriculture must remain tied to soil, and that healthy soils, especially those made healthier through regenerative practices, provide tremendous ecosystem services — not the least of which is carbon sequestration. They also worry that the proliferation of soilless methods will excuse or encourage the destructive practices that erode and deplete rather than build soil. While soilless growing methods do not necessarily offer soil improving or carbon sequestration benefits, they may be ethically valuable as ways to reduce land conversion and improve food access (and thereby improve public health).

Water, Water Footprint and Stress

4. Practices are in place to manage and conserve water and to prevent water pollution, especially under conditions of water stress and scarcity.

Food production and consumption accounts for around 70% of freshwater use. Current patterns of water use threaten to make water scarcity increasingly frequent. Moreover, nearly half of our food comes from the warm, dry parts of the planet, where excessive groundwater pumping to irrigate crops is rapidly shrinking groundwater reserves. If water is not carefully conserved, vast swaths of India, Pakistan, southern Europe, and the western United States are likely to have dangerously depleted aquifers by mid-century. Because it takes centuries for aquifers to recharge, this will both shrink the global food supply and leave as many as 1.8 billion people without access to adequate freshwater sources.16,17 Thus, this commitment requires the use of good agricultural irrigation practices to avoid wastage of water. This commitment also favors consumption of foods with a lower water footprint. Principally, this means favoring plant-based foods over animal-source foods,18 though there are also meaningful differences in water footprint between different plant-based foods (potatoes vs rice) and animal-source foods (chicken vs beef).19

Food production is also a major source of water pollution. Inputs such as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides that farmers apply enter waterways via runoff from farms, which ultimately leads to leads to pollution in both surface and groundwater. Additionally, animal wastes from confined feeding operations also supply a surfeit of nutrients and contaminants like antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, heavy metals, fecal bacteria and pathogens to surface and groundwater.

Runoff from farms containing nutrients and pollutants has negative environmental, social, and economic effects beyond the bounds of the farm. For example, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from farms in the Midwestern region of the United States aggregates into waterways in the Mississippi River Watershed. Nutrient loading, or eutrophication, is the leading cause of harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrient-rich waters fertilize aquatic plants much in the same way as they do crops, supporting explosive summertime blooms of algae and initiating a seasonal progression of biological processes that causes serious depletion of oxygen in bottom waters. The problem has grown so severe that a hypoxic zone — an area of water with insufficient dissolved oxygen to support marine life — larger than the State of New Jersey forms each summer. In this way, efforts to increase yields in land-based agriculture reduce yields in marine fisheries, diminishing the quantity, quality, and diversity of food sources in the global food supply.

To minimize these harmful effects, this commitment calls for targeted and judicious applications of fertilizers and other inputs, and encourages alternative methods of building soil fertility besides the application of fertilizers, encourages alternative methods of controlling the presence of unwanted species besides pesticides (i.e, through integrated pest management and conservation biocontrol), and calls for consistent use of appropriate livestock waste handling practices.

Food and water are both necessary to support human life. Indeed, international law recognizes human rights to food, water, and sanitation.20,21 Under conditions of water stress and scarcity, food system actors must carefully and continuously consider the needs of other water users in a given region and take or support steps to allocate water in ways that do not impair the ability of inhabitants to access adequate water for drinking and sanitation or to produce food for local consumption.

Air Quality

5. Practices are in place to avoid contributing to air pollution through food production, processing, and distribution activities.

Food production and air pollution exist in a vicious circle: food production contributes significantly to air pollution; in turn, air pollution can impair the ability to produce food.22 Along with being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (a form of air pollution addressed above in CEC #1), agriculture is a primary source of particulate matter and other air pollutants, including ammonia, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and hydrogen sulfite.

Pesticides applied to plant food and feed crops are a significant source of VOC emissions.23 These emissions contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which impairs plant health and crop productivity by penetrating into plant structures and disrupting normal functions. Many staple crops — including wheat, soy, potato, rice and corn — are susceptible to ground level ozone damage,24 threatening yields at a time when we need yields to increase.

Agriculture is a major source of particulate matter, a form of air pollution. Fertilizers and animal waste release nitrogen compounds (including ammonia gas) that combine with other kinds of emissions in the air to form particulate matter. When inhaled, particulate matter and ground-level ozone cause cardiovascular and pulmonary disease in humans, along with a range of negative health consequences in other species, contributing to decreased biodiversity.25,26

Air emissions from animal operations can also contain pathogens, including those resistant to medically important antibiotics, which put inhabitants of surrounding communities at risk. Moreover, the odors from confinement operations and the “mists” from associated manure spraying can also reduce the quality of life for area residents and prompt deleterious lifestyle changes (e.g., needing to remain indoors to avoid encountering noxious odors or being sprayed with liquid feces.) Thus, concern for air quality offers yet another reason to judiciously use and carefully manage the inputs and waste outputs of agriculture.

Additionally, beyond the primary production stage, the food system — like other sectors involving manufacture and transportation via heavy duty vehicles — also contributes to air pollution at the processing, distribution, and retail stages.

This commitment also encourages rapid efforts to transition away from the use of fossil fuels throughout the food supply chain in order to reduce climate-warming emissions of nitrogen oxides and pollutants such as carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxides.

Environmental Degradation and Agricultural Inputs

6. Use of inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, is appropriate and judicious.

Globally, many producers rely upon inorganic fertilizers to maintain crop yields in degraded or poor soils or to replenish soil nutrients. Similarly, many producers depend upon chemical pesticides to control undesirable species in agricultural spaces. These inputs can offer a measure of security against some inherent risks of agriculture and can increase yields. These positive effects on productivity can avoid further land use change by increasing food output per hectare. However, agricultural inputs also have well-documented negative environmental consequences.

Synthetic fertilizers can have deleterious effects on watersheds and remote ecologies, especially under conditions of overuse and over-reliance, resulting in nitrate pollution27 and rendering surface or groundwater unusable for many purposes, including drinking. Synthetic fertilizers also adversely impact soil biota, reducing fertility and tilth.28 Moreover, the production of synthetic fertilizers requires tremendous amounts of energy, substantially increasing agriculture’s GHG-footprint.29 Pesticides, including insecticides, fungicides and other toxic chemicals, can kill or damage non-target species and harm organisms beneficial to crop production or ecological balance, and extensive use of pesticides can lead to the development of resistance in unwanted species.30 Further, toxins can accumulate in organisms and be transmitted and concentrated up the food chain, leading to loss of vertebrates and attendant declines in biodiversity31,32 (see CEC #8). Chemicals applied to food crops often persist in the environment and on harvested foods, where they can cause rapid or acute interference with cellular or metabolic processes, long term or chronic effects (i.e., mutagenesis) through endocrine disruption, or by mimicking natural chemicals that play an important role in regulating bodily functions. These impacts affect both human and non-human organisms. (Additional concerns about the toxic effects of chemical inputs and risks to laborers and consumers are discussed below in the justifications for CECs #15 and #25).

This commitment favors appropriate and judicious use of these inputs by: using the minimum effective dose, following all recommended safety protocols and latency periods; favoring least-toxic and less-persistent alternatives; implementing systems to monitor and measure impacts of soil and water quality, ecosystem health and emissions; and responding to harms caused by their application. Food system actors should also invest in the production and use of less toxic, less volatile, and more targeted agro-chemicals; smarter ways of applying inputs; and the development of non-chemical dependent techniques. Alternatively, food system actors may conform with this commitment by eschewing chemical inputs and favoring other production systems that protect the environment, wildlife, and health (e.g. organic).


7. Practices are in place to ensure optimal nutrient cycling within the agrifood system and to prevent waste from polluting or leaching into surrounding ecosystems.

This commitment requires proper management of agricultural wastes to minimize the environmental degradation and ecosystem disruption (as well as economic, social, and public health harms, discussed below in CEC #33) that can be caused by agricultural wastes. The inevitable by-products of food production — such as crop excesses and residues, animal waste, livestock that fall ill or die before slaughter, the inedible parts of plant and animal-derived foods, and commodities that spoil or go unused as they move through the food chain — often become problematic “wastes” that leach into and pollute surrounding ecosystems or release greenhouse gasses as they decompose. The very same nutrients that are essential to all biological molecules and necessary for plant and animal growth can have deleterious effects on water quality, air quality, and the atmosphere when they aggregate in ways that are out-of-sync with natural biogeochemical cycles and disrupt sensitive ecosystems. However, if managed properly, these by-products — and the valuable nutrients they contain — can be safely and efficiently cycled back into agroecosystems, allowing producers to reduce their reliance on inorganic chemical fertilizers and inputs. Properly managed organic agricultural wastes can be composted, digested, or otherwise recycled into living fertilizers rich in microbes that can enhance soil health and the bioavailability of nutrients. However, great care must be used in managing, treating, and applying waste-based fertilizers so that other, undesirable residues such as pharmacological drugs do not accumulate in the environment and cause harms, including endocrine disruption, microbial resistance, and heavy metal toxicity.

Waste generation in the food system — and the attendant harms of poorly managed waste products — are not limited to agriculture.33 Food processing and packaging is also a source of waste generation (e.g. disposable packaging), though processing and packaging also helps to extend the shelf-life of food products and thereby reduce waste. Given the eco-social crises associated with both macro and micro plastic waste,34 food system actors (especially global brands, material producers, material converters, packaging designers, logistics, retailers, and solid waste processors) should collaborate to consider the entire packaging life cycle. They should aim to reduce waste of food products and packaging, pursue cradle-to-cradle design, and educate consumers on proper post-use handling of food packaging. Consumers should endeavor to make judicious use of disposable plastics and properly direct food packaging so that it can be cycled back into the materials management system.


8. Practices are in place to enhance biodiversity of species and genetics, both wild and cultivated.

If current trends continue, it is estimated that by the end of this century as many as 50% of earth’s species will be extinct.35 Agriculture and food production are deeply implicated in numerous drivers of wild biodiversity loss, including habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species, pollution, human overpopulation and over-harvesting of wild species. Agriculture uses some 37% of global land,36 causing habitat loss and loss of foraging land for a range of animal species, from the monarch butterfly to the orangutan, imperiling species’ survival.

While all agricultural ecosystems are necessarily less biodiverse than wild ecosystems,37 agricultural production systems vary widely in the extent of the cultivated agribiodiversity that they foster and the degree of their negative impacts on wild biodiversity. Negative effects are amplified with large scale monocultures, which offer little habitat for uncultivated species and typically lead to a dramatic decline in the number of species that are supported within a given land area. Additionally, in the marine context, commercial wild capture fisheries now use sophisticated technology to demystify the ocean depths and track target species, enabling humans to efficiently harvest about 80 million tonnes of marine catch every year from more than 55% of the world’s oceans.38,39 This has led to the collapse of many once-productive fisheries and has dramatically reshaped marine ecologies.

When evaluating the impact of a food product on biodiversity loss or protection, it is important to consider the degree to which the product directly causes or indirectly promotes land use change, such as deforestation. Note, however, that avoidance of land use change may favor intensive rather than extensive forms of agriculture, which means that there can be tensions between reducing land use to protect biodiversity and other commitments in the area of environment and resources. On the other hand, land use change is not the only threat to biodiversity. This commitment also favors production systems that decrease habitat fragmentation, carve out reserves for uncultivated species, create or preserve pollinator habitats, make judicious and targeted use of “pest” controls, and employ conservation biocontrols such as integrated pest management. Admittedly, some ecological impacts and attendant threats to biodiversity are unavoidable whenever humans cultivate land or harvest desired species. However, it is important to consider the extent to which a particular area of land or water is appropriate for production or harvest of a particular commodity or species. Actors should consider whether the commodity can be produced or harvested elsewhere with fewer negative ecological consequences or whether a substitute species can be more sustainably foraged.

Turning from the biodiversity of wild populations to the biodiversity within cultivated populations, there are multiple features of agriculture that can influence the presence or absence of biodiversity. Some cultivated ecosystems are less “diverse” than they could be in multiple ways. First, a very-small number of crop and livestock species are cultivated globally. Much of the food supply is a small number of foods. Second, even among the favored species, there is a lack of genetic diversity within those crops. For example, much of the corn grown has similar genetics. Third, production of particular crops is often geographically concentrated. And, fourth, most commodities are grown in monocultures.

Biodiversity does not merely refer to the number of species on earth. It also includes diversity within species, between species, and between ecosystems and can be elaborated in terms of richness, abundance, and rarity. Biodiversity includes the diversity of alleles that are maintained within a reproducing population of organisms. Thus, farming practices that result in a loss of genetic diversity among both native and cultivated populations do not further this commitment. For example, when humans make use of pesticides, only those members of the species that are able to tolerate the pesticide reach maturity and reproduce, passing on the resistant genes and decreasing intraspecies diversity.

Biodiversity of cultivated crops could be enhanced by cultivating a more diverse array of crops and livestock. However, humans cultivate few of the over 7,000 existing edible crops, and we now rely on relatively few genetic lines to do so. For example, wheat, rice and maize account for more than 50 percent of calorie consumption globally. Sugar, barley, soybean, oil palm and potato round out the total to 75 percent. The majority of these crops — all with substantially similar genetics — are produced in the US, Brazil, Russia and Ukraine. This degree of both genetic and geographical concentration in agriculture is ethically significant because it increases the vulnerability of the food supply to pests, diseases, extreme weather, shifting weather patterns and climate conditions, and trade disruptions, the risks of which are expected to increase and compound with climate change. Concentrating production in particular regions creates vulnerability to regional risks; concentrating production on particular species creates vulnerability to biological risks (i.e., disease and pandemic) and impairs resilience; and over-reliance on a limited gene pool reduces our collective ability to shift production or use breeding techniques to address and adapt to all the aforementioned risks.

Similarly, rather than developing products based off of just a few crop species or breeds of livestock, producers should stimulate demand for less popular food sources and source from growers that are diversifying rather than narrowing genetics. This can be accomplished in many ways, for example, by cultivating either heritage breeds or new crosses, or by operating diversified farms that are intentionally integrated to have crops and livestock support each other in agroecological ways.


1 Tara Garnett et al., Food systems and greenhouse gas emissions (Foodsource: chapters). Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford, 2016.

2 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Water for Sustainable Food and Agriculture: A Report Produced for the G20 Presidency of Germany (Rome: FAO, 2017).

3 Jonathan A. Foley et al., “Global Consequences of Land Use,” Science 309, no. 5734 (July 2005): 570-74.

4 Gabrielle Kissinger, M. Herold, and Veronique De Sy, Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers (Lexeme Consulting, 2012).

5 Mukhisa Kituyi and Peter Thomson, “Nearly 90% of Fish Stocks Are in the Red — Fisheries Subsidies Must Stop,” World Economic Forum, July 13, 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/07/fish-stocks-are-used-up-fisheries-subsidies-must-stop.

6 Brent Kim et al., “The Importance of Reducing Animal Product Consumption and Wasted Food in Mitigating Catastrophic Climate Change,” Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, 2015.

7 Brian Lipinski et al., “Reducing Food Loss and Waste. Working Paper, Installment 2 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future” (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2013).

8 Eric Toensmeier, The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016).

9 Prasanna Gowda et al., “Agriculture and Rural Communities,” in Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II, ed. David R. Reidmiller et al. (Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2018), 391-437.

10 Marco Springmann et al., “Options for Keeping the Food System within Environmental Limits,” Nature 562, no. 7728 (October 2018): 519-25.

11 See, Irakli Loladze, “Rising Atmospheric CO2 and Human Nutrition: Toward Globally Imbalanced Plant Stoichiometry?” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 17, no. 10 (October 2002): 457-61; Samuel S. Myers et al., “Increasing CO2 Threatens Human Nutrition,” Nature 510 (June 2014): 139-142; Samuel S. Myers et al., “Effect of Increased Concentrations of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on the Global Threat of Zinc Deficiency: A Modelling Study,” The Lancet. Global Health 3, no. 10 (October 2015): e639-45; and Danielle E. Medek, Joel Schwartz, and Samuel S. Myers, “Estimated Effects of Future Atmospheric CO 2 Concentrations on Protein Intake and the Risk of Protein Deficiency by Country and Region,” Environmental Health Perspectives 125, no. 8 (2017): 087002.

12 Toensmeier, The Carbon Farming Solution. Toensmeier cites, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014); R. Lal, “Abating Climate Change and Feeding the World Through Soil Carbon Sequestration,” in Soil as World Heritage, ed. David Dent (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2014), 443–57.; and Pete Smith et al., “Greenhouse Gas Mitigation in Agriculture,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 363, no. 1492 (February 27, 2008): 789–813.

13 Will Steffen et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science 347, no. 6223 (February 2015): 1259855.

14 Marco Springmann et al., “Options for Keeping the Food System within Environmental Limits,” Nature 562, no. 7728 (October 2018): 519–25.

15 “What Is a Circular Economy?” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, accessed June 27, 2019, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept.

16 Cheryl Katz, “As Groundwater Dwindles, a Global Food Shock Looms,” National Geographic, December 22, 2016, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/12/groundwater-depletion-global-food-supply/.

17 I. E. M. de Graaf et al., “A High-Resolution Global-Scale Groundwater Model,” Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 19, no. 2 (February 2015): 823–37.

18 “Water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison,” Water Footprint Network, accessed June 27, 2019, https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/water-footprint-crop-and-animal-products/.

19 “Product gallery,” Water Footprint Network, accessed June 27, 2019, https://waterfootprint.org/en/resources/interactive-tools/product-gallery/.

20 “Special Rapporteur on the right to food,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed June 27, 2019, https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/food/pages/foodindex.aspx.

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24 “Air pollution.”

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33 The issue of food waste is addressed directly in CEC #34.

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35 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt and Company, 2014).

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39 David A. Kroodsma et al., “Tracking the Global Footprint of Fisheries,” Science 359, no. 6378 (February 2018): 904-8.