Around the Wei river, trees and shrubs dot the area and grass stretches over kilometres of land cut by dramatic canyons. This green stretch of land in central China covers the Shaanxi province and extends to inner Mongolia is known as the Loess Plateau (Ahlquist, n.d.). Here 20 million people have lived and grown their food like the Sichuan pepper, to sustain themselves for centuries. These highly fertile soils have been significant in China’s history and played a crucial part in the survival and wellbeing of its civilisation.
People living here are dependent on these rich soils. Farmers are very much attuned with the land with its properties and needs, agriculture here is planned. Terracing has provided a way to control soil erosion and the resultant loss of land. Land which is sloped into a series of successive planes provides a way to control sediment flow which then flowed into downstream (TheWorldBank, 2007). Also, herders cannot leave their herds to wander freely around grasslands and graze wherever and as much as the animals would like. Other measures include sustainable water management, increased vegetation cover, and this was all reinforced with policy.
This is what land degradation looks like.
This however has not always been the case, actually it was quite different before 1994. Planned sustainable agriculture was an outcome of WWF’s project entitled the ‘Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation project’ (TheWorldBank, 2007). Its aim was to attain sustainable living among residents by revisiting agricultural practices in the area. Farming here was exhaustive, acres of trees were cleared to make space for agricultural land, crops were planted on steep sides of the valley, grasslands were exhausted by herds of goats, and most importantly people did not own the land but they could just farm it (Liu, 2005). These practices went on for centuries while people did not really think ahead, and so the land started to turn to sand and wild plants and animals disappeared. People were left without a source of food or income causing poverty within the region.
Land degradation refers to the diminished value of land from disturbances, either caused by natural phenomenon or human activity. These changes or disturbances negatively impact the ability of land to function as part of the ecosystem and hinder its ecosystem services, i.e. the absorption, storing, and recycling of water, energy and nutrients (FAO, 2013). Such natural phenomenon as extreme weather, drought, or salinization from coastal surgance can cause for land to dry up and erode. However, the causes of land degradation are mainly anthropogenic and agriculture related. The increasing and combined pressures of our modern-day agriculture and livestock production include; overcultivation, overgrazing, forest conversion, deforestation, pollution and urbanization (FAO, 2014).
Globally the total amount of food wastage in 2007 occupied almost 1.4 billion hectares (this is significantly larger than the size of Canada), equal to about 28 % of the world’s agricultural land area.
While the major contributors to land occupation of food wastage are meat and milk, with 78%of the total surface.
The way we produce and consume food requires us to slash acres of trees, destroying natural habitats, displacing numerous species, and in so doing jeopardizing biodiversity. This conversion from natural vegetation to agricultural land tends to go beyond the soil’s natural ability to recover. The industrial agricultural method intensively grows a single crop within a region, this is known as Monoculture. This drastic shift depletes the nutrients from the soil which is normally used to the richness of biodiversity. Additionally, the improper use of fertilizers, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus contaminate and pollute the soils making it more acidic and less fertile.
When it comes to live stock, this requires huge amounts of land, as a place to keep the animals but also vast agricultural land to grow their feed crops i.e. alfalfa (FAO, 2013). Besides land occupation, livestock production is also responsible for over grazing, where pastures are exposed to constant intensive grazing over long periods of time.
It’s not just the way that we produce our food, it’s also the rate. The land’s resources are consumed much faster than they can replenish and this fails to ensure the long-term sustainability of land. Which can eventually lead to desertification, meaning that a piece of land dries out, losing its water sources and wildlife and becomes a desert. (Fertile Crescent)
All these negative implications of the present food supply chain, and faults in the industrial agriculture methods illustrate the repercussions which the natural environment is subject to. However, these repercussions extend to our communities and economies.
On the environment
Soil is also an excellent source of water, green water that is. This was already highlighted in a previous blog post on the implications of food waste on our water sources. Poor agricultural practices and poor land management also leads to the contamination of waterways and groundwater (FAO, 2013). This mostly happens because of the irrigation method that is used, the pesticides which are either discharged into freshwater creating deposits in river banks or leak into groundwater.
On our communities
The constant and increasing pressures on land to extract as much food as possible is actually backfiring. Nutrient less soil produces poor quality crops which negatively impacts our health. Loss of land means that there is less space to grow food, which is a huge issue for a growing population already dealing with food insecurity. It also means loss of livelihood for those who are dependent on this land, farmers risk their income or even their own meals and fail to provide for their families. Once soil is degraded it turns into sand and dust which is swept away by the wind, increasing particles in the air and creating greater respiratory problems for us all (FAO, 2013).
When we then realise that one third of all the food produced for human consumption is then being wasted, this continues to make less and less sense.
Once we take a few steps into the journey food makes to get to us, we start to gather all the ‘invisible’ resources that are necessary. When talking about food waste, we can not only talk about the food that is wasted, though this is an excellent starting point. We have to look at where this food comes from, who is producing it and why these resources and long hours of labour than end up in landfills decomposing. However, very much like in the Loess Plateau there is potential. Here, land was allowed to regenerate resulting in vegetative cover increase by 17 up to 34%, crop production was more stable ensuring a secure food supply for the inhabitants (Liu, 2005). By protecting their natural resources 2.5 million people were lifted out of poverty as employment opportunities increased and they could provide for themselves once again.0
Now, this may seem like a story of a distant place that has nothing to do with us but we know that our food is global, and so is our food waste. Borders and distances in kilometres mean nothing to nature and our eco system’s biodiversity. We’re all in this together (un)fortunately. In our local efforts to reuse food, reduce food waste, and recycle what’s left we are actually contributing to a much larger effort.