Food and Science

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    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.

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 today 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 rather than gathering, hunting, catching, or growing it themselves.

Figure 1: Food is acquired around the world today through traditional methods of farming and
fishing (left), industrial systems of agriculture and aquaculture (center), and new experiments
in sustainable farming and fishing (right).1

Like all forms of life, human beings depend on healthy ecosystems that make possible the food we eat. As we discover in this section, however, several current methods of food growing, transporting, processing, marketing, consuming, and disposing characteristic of the globally-expanding industrial food system pose serious health threats to the plants, animals, soil, forests, water, and air that make life possible.

Though the industrial food system is a major feature of the contemporary world, one third of the world's population still relies upon traditional, small-scale farming practices. Many of these traditional farmers and fishermen possess intimate knowledge of the natural world that is important for the future of human life and the preservation of the Earth. Contemporary experiments in sustainable food systems are attempts to join traditional food systems with new knowledge from environmental science and technology in order to create a food system that is more ecologically sound than the industrial model (Figure 1).

Closer Look

Read this important information this important information on the steps of a food system before moving on in the Food Chapter.

Before moving on in this section, it is necessary to understand the six main steps of a food system: growing, transporting, processing, marketing, consuming, and disposing. Read the Closer Look on food systems for this important information.

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 possible. These include food webs, photosynthesis, biogeochemical cycling, and soil. Another important topic is the historical development of 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 with the observation that sustainable cultivation of healthy food for present and future generations will require a transition out of the harmful environmental effects of the industrial food system and into the Earth-friendly practices of a sustainable food system.