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Food production affects Earth’s natural processes

A new study led by the Aalto University in Finland has found that food production – already one of the largest stressors on our planet – is made substantially more challenging by the interaction of Earth system processes, defined as the natural activities that keep the planet in a habitable and useful state, such as carbon sequestration in forests or nutrient run off into freshwater systems. According to the scientists, the complex interactions between these processes challenge their boundaries, and affect how well they function.

“Food production is a major cause of environmental stress, impacting on biodiversity loss, the climate, and overexploitation of marine resources,” said study co-author Steven Lade, an expert in Sustainable Development at the Australian National University (ANU). “We need to start producing food in a sustainable way. By assessing the interaction of Earth system processes we can ensure they are considered when designing and implementing food production and agriculture policy.”

By examining and characterizing various Earth system processes, the researchers highlighted how they can be used in order to develop more sustainable food production techniques. The investigation revealed several pivotal interactions which are frequently overlooked, such as the impact of “green water” on food production and biodiversity.

“Green water refers to the water stored in soil that is available for plants to grow. It has a central role to play in interacting with, and regulating all the other processes like land, biodiversity, and water flow,” Dr. Lade explained. “Ensuring we address these various interactions will require action. We need better communication, meaning that authorities responsible for areas like agriculture policy and marine policy need to talk to each other.”

“We need to take a holistic approach when it comes to managing sustainable food production so that it doesn’t strain the boundaries of our natural systems. We need to look beyond just water and land as inputs for food production.”

The scientists argue that most challenges stem from a complex web of interactions between the ocean, freshwater, and land biospheres. Acknowledging these interactions and boundaries is crucial for maintaining stability and resilience in the Earth’s systems. “System interactions make sustainable food production more challenging. However, the interconnected nature means taking positive actions can have extensive flow on effects,” Dr. Lade concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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