A recent study highlights how non-food production has increasingly contributed to the problem of water pollution.
A big word, and an even bigger problem that’s growing larger by the second.
This occurs when a body of water (like a lake, river, or ocean) contains so much minerals and nutrients that there is excessive growth of the marine plants and algae, leading to algal blooms that depletes the amount of oxygen in the water and leads to the deaths of marine animals and plants.
Currently, there are more than 400 marine "dead zones" caused by over-fertilisation, covering an estimated 245,000 km2.
A recent study in the journal Nature Sustainability has shown that factors other than food production contribute to the problem of eutrophication—factors such as the production of furniture and clothing.
Though seemingly unconnected, such items rely on agriculture somewhere in their supply chain, as in the production of cotton, linen or wood materials, etc. In addition, there is a disconnect in that the country where the finished product is purchased is often not the country where it is produced.
"For example, when we buy a shirt that was made in China, it is China and not the consumer that has to deal with the pollution related to producing it. All traded goods have this problem: the place of production and, thus, pollution is often far removed from the consumers," said first author Helen Hamilton, a postdoc in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Industrial Ecology Programme.
"This makes it difficult to tackle pollution because the relevant players, such as farmers, policy makers and consumers, are spread across several countries."
Using a detailed modelling tool called MRIO, the researchers identified these important but often overlooked sources of water pollution. They discovered that in 2011, the overall demand for non-food products was responsible for more than a third of the nutrients causing entrophication in both marine and freshwater systems worldwide.
This was an increase of 28 percent from 2000.
Hence, to focus on just food production alone is to address only part of the cause of the pollution. "We need to look at the whole picture to address the whole problem," said Hamilton.