The global impact
Our transition from the past to now
Throughout the history of mankind, we have lived closely connected to what Earth provided us (Crone, 2003). Our survival depended on our skills and knowledge on how to produce our own food but also on nature itself. For millennia this dependency held our population growth in check (Roberts, 1993). However, the Industrial Revolution soon laid new foundations for us, which lead to the end of this absolute dependency (Briney, 2019). Now, we can control food with fertilisers, we trade across longer distances, and we irrigate on previously infertile lands. This has forever changed the way food is produced worldwide and created an entirely new food system.
The collective impact of human activities has drastically and significantly altered the conditions of life on Planet Earth, and this is now becoming truly visible across our environment (Waters et al., 2016; Crutzen, 2002; Castree, 2016).
- Science shows that nine processes and systems regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System. And the Earth System is defined as the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that together provide conditions upon which our societies depend (Anthropocene.Info, 2019)
- There are environmental boundaries that have been defined for each of the nine systems, within which humanity can safely operate. Crossing them increases the risk of moving the Earth System to a state much less hospitable for human civilisation (European Commission, 2015)
- Four out of the nine boundaries defined have now been crossed, as a result of human activity: climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen) (Steffen et al., 2015)
The biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus have been radically altered by humans, as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes. Of these, fertilizer production and application is the main issue as we continue to pollute coastal areas and aquatic systems (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2019).
More than 97% of ‘actively publishing’ climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely to be due to human activities (NASA, 2019). These human activities include: producing, handling, transporting and refrigerating food in all corners of the world. We are now experiencing the 'Great Acceleration' (IPCC, 2014; IGBP, 2015) in which we are directly impacting nature's cycles across the globe (NASA, 2019). To find out more on the impact of GHGs, click here.
Wildlife populations have declined by over half in less than 50 years (WWF, 2018). We are now in midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction (Ceballos et al., 2017; Kolbert, 2014) and losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate that will in directly impact food security around the world (FAO, 2019). By cutting down habitats such as forests and degrading land through monocultures, agriculture and industrial farming, our current food system is quickly becoming the culprit for these ongoing issues (FAO, 2018; Dudley & Alexander, 2017).
Land System Change
Almost 40% of land surface is used to grow food (Foley, 2011), which is 50% of habitable land (UN Environment, 2019). Agriculture therefore spreads at the expense of vast regions of forests, directly impacting the loss of biodiversity and the release of carbon that may eventually further alter future crop yields (Campbell et al., 2017). To find out more on how we are changing our landscapes, click here.
If we continue as we are, global mean temperatures will continue to rise and reach + 1.5°C between 2030 - 2050 (IPCC, 2018; Levin, 2018). This will fuel extreme weather events such as severe hurricanes (Knutson et al., 2013; GFDL, 2019), heatwaves and droughts (Sheffield & Wood, 2007) and intense flooding (Trenberth, 2011; Min et al., 2011). Glaciers will melt (NASA, 2019), sea levels will rise further (NOAA, 2018; NASA, 2019; National Geographic, 2019) and oceans will become warmer and acidify - destroying marine life and disrupting the water cycle (IUCN, 2019; Cheng et al., 2019).
For more detailed information on how climate change will impact our planetary systems, see here.
With changes in the water cycle, in many places water availability will become less predictable, while in others we will see severe flooding drown crops or contaminate water sources (UNWater, 2019; Haddaland et al., 2013; Schewe et al., 2014). As freshwater becomes more scarce, food can no longer be irrigated and crops will no longer productively yield the right amount to sustain communities (Gosling & Arnell, 2013; Hanjra & Qureshi, 2010; Fischer et al., 2006).
This may result in mass migration and violent conflict (Reuveny, 2007; Perch-Nielsen et al., 2008), while climate refugees from underdeveloped countries will be amongst the first to suffer. Undoubtedly, climate change will impact humanity even further through increased pandemics (Swiss Re, 2016), diseases (WHO, 2003) and health issues that will spread across vast territories (NRDC, 2017; McMichael et al., 2006; IIASA, 2018).