With just one click, I open the Deliveroo app and start scrolling through the options, my appetite reaching an all-time high. My cravings for the Ahi Poke Bowl with mango and avocado is dissipated by a sudden desire to be drowning in Paneer Butter Masala which is, in turn, forgotten by the sight of a Pizza Margarita only half a second later. The abundance of food choices is getting the better of me.
I have become a (somewhat voluntary) victim of a Dutch trend from recent decades: an increase in the diversity of eating. As a consequence of this development and trends in population and technology, the Dutch have pushed agricultural lands to increase yield. “Can we go on like this?” I ask while continuing my digital quest for the perfect dinner. The short answer turns out to be ‘no’ because everything comes at a price.
The continuing rise in food consumption has lead to the point that humans confiscated 25% of the biomass produced on the entire planet. This so-called Human Appropriated Net Primary Production (HANPP) is expected to keep rising until 44% in 2050. So far, conventional farming practices have primarily aimed to increase the HANPP by focussing on maximum yield. This aim means more competition for non-harvested species such as soil fauna and soil microbial life. Without this type of life, future yields will plummet and so will my choice on Deliveroo.
For years soil biodiversity has been decreasing in large parts of Europe that has been linked to rising agricultural intensification. Wageningen University and Research has compiled years of studies on this topic; regional government agencies [pdf] increasingly report the adverse effects of conventional farming practices on soil biodiversity. The Global Soil Diversity Atlas identifies a few main destructive factors of farming, which include the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, monocultures, and ploughing. Although the national Dutch government already subsidies farmers who follow ‘green requirements’, biodiversity above and below-ground is declining at one of the sharpest rates of all European countries.
If the diversity in my dinner choice really is at the cost of the biodiversity in the soil, would I be willing to pay for this cost? And if Deliveroo allows me to add a euro or two on top of the price of my meal, would that make actually make a difference? And if we, miraculously, all share this cost, will the benefit be greater?
I start to lose my appetite as I overthink the consequences of each and every food choice that has appeared on my screen tonight. Slowly but surely I approach my fridge, with a belly that’s empty but a head full of thoughts. Beer turns out to be my only salvation for the night. I crack open a cold one and think to myself: “Today, I saved the Earth”.
Bottom line: The pressure on agricultural lands and ecosystems has increased with consumption in recent decades. Conventional farming practices are weakening ecosystems needed for future yields. Consumers, unfortunately, will have a hard time considering these costs because it’s difficult to understand all the impacts of one’s daily choices.
* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).