Ecological Impacts of Scientific Research on Plant-Based Food Industry.
The introduction of agriculture transformed human societies and helped in feeding the exponentially rising world population. The transition to the present has not been smooth; many challenges emerged, such as increased food demand, climate change, food safety, etc. These challenges led to the necessity of innovation and research in the food industry, contributing significantly to modern methods, curbing the existing obstacles to some extent. Still, as we transit into the future, there are furthermore to come.
The significant drift towards automation and mechanization assisted with fertilizers and other chemicals began in the early 19th century with the implementation of scientific study and research work. As the research enhanced and fast-paced the growth in agriculture, there was a simultaneous increase in social and environmental issues, leading to the introduction of organic farming, the modern alternative to the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals.
A method of farming that involves the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals, and Genetically Modified Crops intended to increase production. It is resource-demanding and energy-intensive. Conventional Farming has significant advantages which make it possible to feed the world with nutritious food.
i. Feeding Global population: Conventional Farming has helped the farmers produce high yields on less land, which is one of the most significant factors that ensured that the production level is at par with the growing demand. As the population is still rising, the need for the coming future is, producing high yield on less land even when the land is not suitable. Conventional farming allows the potential of the entire world still being fed as the use of pesticides and fertilizers keeps the pests away and increases soil fertility. Other chemical applications help in the retention of water by crops and eliminate the weed competing for soil nutrients.
ii. Use of Genetically Modified Crops: GMCs are croppings whose DNA has been altered to achieve specific beneficial traits. Some of the major benefits of using GMCs are that they are fast-growing, resistant to weather and pests, more nutritious, and taste better. Due to gene alteration, they can give an equally good yield with less water consumption, less use of chemicals, and even less land. It is an important contribution of research to overcome the nutritional deficiencies found chiefly in the world’s vegetarian population. Though GMCs are being used and consumed globally, some of the GMC’s have been a part of controversies with issues related to allergies and other diseases that might develop due to long-term consumption. Though there have not been any proven reports of harmful effects of GMC’s but no shred of evidence of harm is not proof of safety. Research and examination on food safety levels of certain GMC’s are still in progress.
The disadvantages of Conventional Farming are as significant as its advantages and cannot be sidelined.
iii. Pollution and Biodiversity Loss: Monoculture pollutes the soil and degrades its quality.; electrolyte imbalance, chemical toxins, and soil erosion lead to groundwater pollution. Water runoff from farms to nearby water bodies pollutes the water bodies, and the harmful chemicals then disperse into neighboring ecosystems. These chemicals rise up the food chain and concentrate on the top predators resulting in significant biodiversity loss and disrupting ecosystem services.
iv. Resistance to the chemicals: Nature has the ability to adapt to change; it learns and improves based on environmental conditions. Feeding pesticides and chemicals to control pests and weeds from growing would eventually lead to the pests and weeds becoming resistant. This worsens the case, as treating the resistant pests and weeds would require even more harsh chemicals.
This cycle eventually leads to a global breakdown of optimum food supply and leaves us with barren, polluted lands and water bodies. (The graph is an example of how crops become chemical resistant, case of glyphosate-based herbicide uses on corn, cotton, and soybean in response to the growing popularity of their GMO versions. Since the introduction of Roundup-tolerant crops, herbicides have experienced a significant increase in the application.)
A method that has been created combining the scientific knowledge of ecology and modern technology to promote
the cultivation of plants in a sustainable and environmentally friendly environment with the use of organic
A method that has been created combining the scientific knowledge of ecology and modern technology to promote the cultivation of plants in a sustainable and environmentally friendly environment with the use of organic resources. It has a smaller carbon footprint as compared to its conventional counterpart.
Organic farming has promoted various methods that maintain soil fertility and ecological balance generating minimal or no pollution and waste. Some of which are as follows.
i. Polyculture: The science of agroecology has revealed the benefits of planting multiple crops in the same space supporting a broader range of insects and soil organisms, adding to the farm’s health.
ii. Soil management using green manures, composting, adapting to natural soil microorganisms, and well-researched crop rotation are effective methods to replenish the soil's nutrients naturally.
Though organic farming has many advantages, it also carries along with itself some baggage of issues.
i. Less yield per unit land: The Oxford meta-analysis of 71 studies found that organic farming requires 84% more land for an equivalent amount of harvest, mainly due to lack of nutrients but sometimes due to weeds, diseases or pests, lower-yielding animals, and land required for fertility building crops.
ii. Emissions and impact on the environment: The same study found that nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions, ammonia emissions, eutrophication potential, and acidification potential were higher for organic products.
Ongoing Innovations and The Way Forward
As the graph depicts, the major challenges according to people in the food industry are namely; developing environmentally sustainable solutions, food for all, water scarcity and biodiversity issues, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
The future requires agriculture based on sustainable principles that not only ensure the availability of food but simultaneously also respect the ecological, economic, and social domains that ensure the durability of production. The research is in progress, with many different organizations coming forward to contribute with different ideas. The Solar Impulse Foundation has taken up the initiative to capture 1000 solutions, some of which are:
- Polyter Gr — A fertilizer for all crops, increasing quality and quantity of agricultural production while preserving and revalorizing water and soil resources.
- SRU — Sodium Reduction Unit prevents nitrate and phosphate pollution from greenhouses by selectively removing sodium from the re-used irrigation water.
- Fyteko — Bio-based products that are applied to plants to activate their defense mechanism to respond better to abiotic stress as a result of climate change.
- SinaSens Smart Agri — It is the solution for irrigation management, agricultural maintenance, and preventing waterborne problems.
- Noblegen Protein — Unlocking complete, vegan protein that is affordable and efficient compared to traditional plant and animal protein production.
- AgriAlgae — Exploit the potential of microalgae as a CO2 consuming & inexhaustible raw material to develop innovative & efficient solutions for agriculture.;
Other than the above solutions, Hydroponics is also a good option for future farming. It is a form of agriculture that does not use soil. Rather than growing in soil, crops are grown in some nutrient-lacking substrate with nutrients delivered through the water.
- The world should move away from conventional livestock meat and should try to increase the share of plant-based meat and in its place. Production of this must increase to make it a commercially viable option in the future.
- Society should understand the importance of striking a balance between conventional and organic farming and opting for the one which is best according to the needs and environmental conditions available. And should simultaneously make efforts to shift towards sustainable farming and to raise awareness about it. Only sustainable farming holds the potential to keep up with the increasing food demand worldwide and parallelly ensure the conservation of the ecological system.
1. (Fargione J, and D Tilman. 2002. “Competition and coexistence in terrestrial plants.” Pages 156–206 In U. Sommer and B Worm editors, Competition and Coexistence. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany)
2. ( Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? — A meta-analysis of European research, H.L. Tuomisto, I.D. Hodge, P. Riordan & D.W. Macdonald, Authors’ version of the paper published in Journal of Environmental Management 112 (2012) 309–320)