This Food and Science section sets you on a path to explore the science topics given in this chapter’s Learning Objectives:

  • Energy transfer and nutrient cycling in natural and agricultural ecosystems through plants, soil, and animals.
  • The main technological developments in agriculture in the modern age.
  • The environmental challenges posed by industrial agriculture and the solutions offered by methods of sustainable agriculture.

Looking Ahead


The distance many people have from the land where food is grown and gathered can have a negative effect on their ethical and spiritual thinking about food. This is discussed in Ethics and Spirituality sections later in chapter.

Humans are constantly linked to Earth’s ecosystems through the act of eating. All sources of food are dependent on the environments they come from, but as we noted in the Table of Contents that opened this chapter, many people are several steps removed from the source environment of the food that sustains them. With increasing urbanization, more and more people buy their food from a store or supermarket rather than gathering, hunting, catching, or growing it themselves as humans historically did for thousands of years.

Like all forms of life, human beings depend on healthy ecosystems for the food they eat. However, as you will discover in this section, several current methods of food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal pose serious health threats to the plants, animals, soil, forests, water, and air that make food possible. Many of these methods are features of the industrial food system which, at the same time, takes pride in producing higher yields of crops and produce around the world. 

3 by 3 photos. Top left photo is artesanal fishing. Left middle photo people are bundling hay. Bottom left photo someone is feeding two animals of livestock. Top middle photo is industrial fishing. Middle photo is a tractor on a farm. Bottom middle is a photo of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. The top right photo is aquaculture farm. Right middle photo is farming but separated by trees, and the bottom right photo are livestock grazing on a field.
Figure 1: Food is acquired around the world today through traditional methods of farming and fishing (left top, middle, bottom), industrial systems of agriculture and fishing (center top, middle, bottom), and new experiments in sustainable farming and aquaculture (right top, middle, bottom). 1

Looking Ahead


In the upcoming Ethics section, we consider the moral dimension of both the industrial and sustainable food systems. The upcoming Action section of this chapter gives examples of what people are doing around the world to build a sustainable food system.

The industrial food system is a growing feature of today’s world, but one third of the world’s population still relies upon traditional, small-scale farming. Many of these traditional farmers and fishermen possess intimate knowledge of the natural world, knowledge important for the future of human life and the protection of Earth’s resources. Contemporary experiments in sustainable food systems are attempts to join these traditional food systems with new knowledge from environmental science and technology. The goal is to create a system that produces healthy food in an environmentally sound manner.

Before moving on in this section, it is necessary to understand the five main steps of a food system: production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Read the Closer Look on food systems for this important information.

Closer Look


Read this important information which orients you to food systems.

In environmental science, food is studied through the lens of ecology. Accordingly, we begin here by investigating the natural processes and structures that make food production possible. These include food webs, photosynthesis, biogeochemical cycling, and soil. Another important topic is the historical development of agricultural food cultivation. This section covers the highlights of this history, with special attention given to the Green Revolution, which fundamentally changed agricultural practices worldwide in the mid-twentieth century. This historical perspective provides the necessary background for examining the ecological impacts of modern industrial agriculture. This Science section ends signaling that sustainable cultivation of healthy food for present and future generations will require a transition, distancing ourselves from environmentally harmful aspects of the industrial food system and directing us towards Earth-friendly practices of a sustainable food system.