Certain issues don’t immediately come to mind when we think about the environment. Climate change tends to be much more in the forefront of the minds of city dwellers and those in the developed world, for instance, than a prosperous agricultural system, because in our society we are so far removed from the agricultural process. Most of us buy our food staples from supermarkets and never stop to question how they got there, or why shops sell what they sell. We rarely feel the impact of environmental degradation on our food choices.
This is not true, however, for the estimated 86 percent of the world’s rural dwellers (2.5 billion people) for whom agriculture is so crucial – it is their main source of income, and of food. Therefore environmental degradation, changes to the climate and natural disasters, and the resulting crop damage, loss of staple foods and destruction of land, have disastrous consequences for them, and their ability to survive. These issues are made more stringent by the fact that 70 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas. For them there are few social safety nets available when faced with the consequent lack of food and income from harvest damage. And one key reason why farmers are left vulnerable to environmental change is that our agricultural system is focused on producing a few key crops.
Since the Industrial Revolution, crop diversity has been shrinking, with most of mankind living off a few plant species. Our main diet is composed of major crops such as wheat, rice, potatoes and sugar, and globally we get 45% of our calories from wheat, rice and maize. The rising demand for food and the growth of the urban population have meant that mono-cultural farming (where one type of crop is heavily produced in a single space) is prioritised over diversified production. The food industry’s desire for uniform crop farming has meant the introduction of homogenised plants. Homogenisation, however, leaves crops at a higher risk of destruction from climate change, drought, pests and disease – conditions which will grow worse with increasing pressure globally. Moreover, in the developing world this form of agriculture often curtails people’s access to affordable food that is also nutritious.
Crop diversity can provide the basis for offering higher-yielding and more reliable plants, which can support farmers and consumers in low-income countries. It is key for all facets of environmental health including water, soil and air, and it creates more accepting environments for other crops. It can deliver security to the poor by making harvests more resilient to environmental changes. But this is an issue which must not only matter to those living in rural areas of developing countries – it should concern us all. A thriving agricultural system is central to human wellbeing in terms of health, economic security and long-term global environmental welfare. To ensure future food security and the wide availability of nutritious food for a growing global population, as well as safeguarding future environmental health, there needs to be a shift in our current methods of farming and a prioritisation of diversifying crop production, using land to grow different species and varieties of plants.
So how do we communicate these very real but unseen environmental problems? There is no doubt that we need to – these problems are set to increase in both severity and magnitude, and will have a great effect on all of humanity. Raising public awareness is central to driving change and pressurising policy-makers to implement crucial measures. However, it is extremely hard for us mobilise around complex environmental problems, especially when the effects of agricultural degeneration are felt by different people at different times and in different places. This is the challenge – communicating the reality of these issues to those who are in the position to drive real change.
Crop Trust, the largest organisation working to safeguard crop diversity, is communicating this issue in a new way by using imagery and in doing so is telling a powerful story. They recently launched a campaign with photo-journalists to document crop diversity and the process behind which foods are produced. They are visually encapsulating something crucial to us all, which is easily taken for granted. Campaigns like this may be the start of a new wave of mobilisation, and the spread of digital channels of communication around the globe provide great opportunity for initiating action. Public awareness is so important because we all have a stake in the environment and its functions, and we all potentially contribute to its ruin through our actions, but also in our lack of action. Understanding this immense problem as individuals and a global society is essential to our survival.
As we have seen in the agreement reached at the Climate Change Conference in Paris this month, there is now momentum for driving change. In recent times we have seen people across the world uniting on issues such as conflict in Syria and lending support and shelter to refugees and victims of natural disasters. There are more and more opportunities through online platforms for people to work together to drive change globally. It is now time for our society to take action on these complex environmental issues, which have such huge impact – we need to raise them up the global agenda so there is a more equitable and prosperous future.