Spoiled for choice but not for soil

Sebastiaan writes*

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 :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Spoiled for choice but not for soil”

  1. In light of our growing population, is the answer to restrict our dietary practices to foods/ crops that are farmed less intensively but produce high yields? Do such ‘naturally efficient’ crops exist or is the answer to go fully organic and hope that we can produce the same amount of food despite limited land available for farming? What needs to change exactly?

  2. Hey Seb, very interesting topic!
    Just recently, I listened to a podcast about Britain’s ability to feed itself and it taps into the issue of the productivity of land and how to satisfy consumer needs. Let’s say if demand does not drastically reduce, likely in light of a growing world population, then how is that growing demand satisfied? Is it feasible to increasingly plant upwards by means of hydroponic systems? Here, the opportunity would be to increase yields per unit area without using soil and using significantly less water. Further, the season for any type of food could be extended and, since it is pretty much a closed system, controlling pests would require considerably less chemicals. But then of course, this means heavy management and it is questionable to what extent bulk commodities (e.g. wheat, potatoes, etc.) that require lots of land could be grown vertically? On the other hand, what about GM technologies? Benefits are increased yield per unit area and reduced pesticide use, but then, among other issues, consumer issues are significant and ultimately, farmers will grow what consumers want to buy. So, definitely a situation involving several trade-offs.
    The podcast ended on an interesting note talking about a study that found that intensive farming producing higher yields on less land could be beneficial for the environment IF, and that if is important, the freed-up land is used to for example restore natural habitats. These could then increase carbon uptake and be beneficial for biodiversity conservation.

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