Eating cancer – why we need to rethink agriculture and food sustainability.

Since the 1700s our planet has been significantly shrinking every year. Not physically getting smaller but seemingly so. The dawn of industry and technology has allowed us to move around the planet faster than ever before, communicate instantly with people living halfway around the Earth and build machines capable of completing work in hours what formerly took weeks. The result is a planet that is no longer undiscovered or mysterious, every piece of information man has ever gathered is available at the strike of a few keys on a keyboard. These advancements are also the reason we have seen a demographic explosion in this time. Exponential growth between 1700-2016  (from less than 1 billion to 7 billion) is a result of faster food production, medical advancements and a global marketplace/information highway where new products and ideas for growth are shared instantly from anywhere on earth. This new epoch we are currently living through, researchers call the Anthropocene, has presented the human race with challenges on a global scale that cannot be ignored. In this essay I will discuss these challenges in relation to global agriculture and how we must adapt to sustain and conserve our planet while also providing nutritious but cheap food for our exponentially growing population here on Planet Earth


Certainly the biggest challenge we face as a race is how to feed the population despite its colossal growth. In less than 400 years we have gone from many small family run farms to huge industrious agricultural production. Over the course of this time biological response to revolutionary methods has decreased. There are 2 notable spikes in food yield and production, post agricultural revolution and post world war 2. Today the research has shown that the agricultural response is now plateauing and declining in response to chemical management and fertilisation yet the amount of chemicals being added to crops is more now than ever in human history, these chemicals are being washed out of the soil and into the atmosphere and water supply, contaminating the planet further with fewer benefits in food production. We are losing millions of hectares of soil per year due to the current food production model based on machines, fossil fuels and chemical fertilisation. The level of processing involved in food production is having severe consequences in relation to human health. Pre industrial revolution, cancer was not an issue the world was concerned with. By 1900 1 in 30’000 people had cancer, by 2000 it was 1 in 4, today 1 in 2 will experience cancer at some point in their lives, by 2050 almost every person on earth will develop some form of cancer. These detriments can be directly attributed to the current state of our food production system and its lack of sustainability.


At present Earth is experiencing a spectrum of food production and sustainability that is lopsided and needs to be addressed. The two main issues are both related to food security, Food security is the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. The developed countries of earth have access to a wide variety of cheap food, the majority of which is unhealthy and non nutritious, while the developing world has a shortage of food. The pressing question is “is it possible to fix our current model of food production?” With this question comes 3 major issues and a web of complications interlinking government policies, sustainability, economics and social consequences.

The first issue that needs addressing has come with the dawn of modernisation and ease of access to higher level education. This is that the world is growing richer and average incomes are rising, with rising incomes comes a rising demand for high quality food. The research shows that the more you earn, the more calories you demand on a daily basis. This has led to a huge spike in demand for meat and dairy products which is simply not sustainable as the meat industry is one of the leading drivers of climate change. Since 1960 global diet has begun to merge into each other and we have seen far less diversity in diet, in short, we essentially now all eat similarly, western culture now has access to eastern cuisines and vice versa. The consequence of this is that our diets are now very international and not locally produced. The constant complex logistics of global food supplies places these supplies at risk. For example the Chinese pig industry is reliant on soybean from Brazil, if there is a collapse in Brazil, the knock on effect will ripple out internationally. The most important crop on Earth today is grain crops, these account for 85% of nutrition, the consequences of global warming on these crops could place food security in international jeopardy. This is not a problem for future generations either. Presently there are 5 food producing hotspots on earth. Only 5. These include the US midwest, South America, North Europe, India and southeast Asia. Of these 5 hot spots, all but North Europe is currently being affected by global warming, causing decreasing yields and more frequent “bad seasons” annually. As well as global warming, 80% of food produced on Earth comes from areas affected by droughts, 70% of the world’s freshwater usage is for agriculture. These drought affected countries are pumping much of their water supply into agriculture products to ship to developed countries, most of which, are wasted.


The second issue is trying to pair current food production demands with essential need for sustainability. Sustainability is defined according to the Brundtland report is “development that sees to the needs of the present without risking the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” Since the industrial revolution we have been developed at a speed that should be impossible. We have developed at this rate due to our lack of foresight. Destroying resources and causing irreparable damage to our planet and placing ourselves as a species, along with all species,  at serious risk of extinction, The main issue is that today  what we define as needs are simply not needs at all. The world is on a constant quest for more for the last several centuries. We cannot get enough products no matter how they are obtained or the damage caused to produce them. This quest for more is across all sectors, from food to technology. In order to truly achieve sustainability we need to seriously manage our needs and our wants. If everything on Earth were to collapse the only needs we would be basic food, water, energy and working biogeochemical processes – the world we live in today is blinded by industry and so it will be almost impossible to slow industry and development to introduce sustainability successfully. In order to achieve this we need to link demand/development with sustainability strategies so the two may go hand in hand.

The problem with agricultural sustainability is that there is no magical solution as there is always a trade off. Many people point to organic farming as the solution to food production sustainability. The research shows that the levels of environmental impact are much lower on these farms to be fair, and that biodiversity is higher, the yields however are much lower. Contrast this to a commercial farm where the environmental impact is higher and the change of habitat affects biodiversity – but these produce higher yields. Both of these farms, in terms of key human needs, input much of the same resources but the result ratio difference is not sustainable on either site. The waste of land, water and labour on an organic farm negates the environmental benefits, and the environmental impact of a commercial farm is simply not sustainable. The main problem is that the world is currently eating 20% more kcals than we need on a daily basis. This is obvious when studying a demographic such as China that went from developing to developed in the last 100 years. The diet of the chinese used to be one of the healthiest on earth. Now 50% of the population is pre diabetic or obese. The medical cost to look after these people equates to 500 billion dollars. This problem is localised to developed countries, the food consumption total of sub saharan africa is equal to that of the total food waste in the EU and USA.


The fact of the matter is, if we continue along the same vein we have been following

  • By 2050 we will have to produce more food than ever in human history just to supply basic needs.
  • Land use and water use pressures will reach breaking points.
  • Agriculture alone will burst the 2 degree threshold resulting in a 5-6 degree increase globally
  • 40% increase in diet related illness such as certain cancers, diabetes and obesity.

The human race needs to realise that we can’t have it all. We cannot have access to cheap, sustainable, healthy and diverse foods – there has to be some kind of tradeoff in order to reach a solution. When it comes to food production and sustainability almost all the solutions come with challenges.

Finding a solution to sustainability in the face of environmental pressure and rising demand is a herculean task. At the core of it is a frustrating paradox. That is, that while we need to drive sustainability, we also need to drive land intensity. Population increase has led to an agricultural output by 400%. As population increases exponentially and with that,  demand for more food. We need to produce food, problem is, we are out of land. The areas of arable land capable of supporting agriculture are not widespread on earth. The only land we have left to exploit is the tropical rainforest, which are absolutely essential carbon stores in the fight against climate change. With growing population comes less global space for the world’s animal and human populations. Individually today each human has about a rugby pitch sized area of land. From this piece of land we need to extract building supplies, food, water, energy and the rest of our needs. In the past (post wwII) land intensitification has worked to produce more and more crops from smaller patches of land. Today, as stated before, this is no longer working. The intensification strategies we are employing today are causing more environmental stress than they are producing food.

So in the future,if we are to save agriculture from causing environmental destruction, we must employ innovation and technology to find new and sustainable ways to produce more food without causing environmental damage. The key to this is the following

  1. Efficiency – Using smart agronomics and technology to apply the best amounts of fertiliser, control. Pests and manage soil correctly.
  2. Genetic research – We need to decrease total plant size while also increasing yields, genetic exploitation will be key to this.
  3. Soil – Management soil sustainability is going to be pivotal to protecting the arable areas we have on earth, we are losing huge amounts of rainforest soil each year due to poor soil management which completely defeats the point of clearing rainforest for agriculture.
  4. Economic systems – The efficient storage, transport and processing of food can also make intensification more sustainable. 3D printing is now being tested to greater efficiency levels in food processing factories.
  5. Reduce food waste – We are currently over producing food to the point that most of it is being wasted. While we  waste this food, people in Africa are starving. Managing food production and demand will help to reduce waste in future.

The future of food production and sustainability rests on human beings ability to adapt, and to adapt quickly. This is not a far off future world. This is the world of our children and if we cannot adapt to change then the world we pass down to them may be one where there are wars over resources just because we refused to change. It is in the hands of our generation now.



  • de Olde, E. M., Moller, H., Marchand, F., McDowell, R. W., MacLeod, C. J., Sautier, M., Legun, K. A., … Szymanski, E., … Manhire, J. (2016). When experts disagree: The need to rethink indicator selection for assessing sustainability of agriculture. Environment, Development & Sustainability.
  • Cooper, M. H., & Rosin, C. (2014). Absolving the sins of emission: The politics of regulating agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand. Journal of Rural Studies, 36, 391-400
  • Mike Williams lecture series
  • Lecture from Professor Tim Benton – Champion of UK global food security programme.



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Kilian Murphy

Kilian Murphy

Kilian Murphy is a final year Environmental Science student in Trinity College Dublin, set to graduate in May 2018. He is currently working for the Irish Wildlife Trust conducting ecological fieldwork to develop a management plan for a regenerating woodland and wetland ecosystem. Kilian hopes to complete a PhD in the near future. His main interest lies with the behaviour, evolution and ecology of large predators, especially wolves. He is also interested in how land use affects biodiversity and ecosystem functionality. Kilian is looking to expand his skills in conservation and ecological research and would welcome any position that would help him achieve this. Email: Twitter: Blog:

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