Agriculture, Food & Nutrition, People, Americas, Europe, Planet, Climate Change

How rewriting the way we make food can help fight air pollution

Hugh Weldon | Jun 04, 2019


This article was originally published by UN Environment and is republished with permission.

We don’t talk much about air pollution.

But we should, because the air we breathe is slowly killing us.

Take for instance a report published by CHEST Journal in February 2019 which outlines how air pollution affects every organ in the body.

I live in Ireland. It is a damp, windy island drifting off the coast of Europe. It’s the last place that people would think of as polluted. When we think about air pollution, we think smokestacks and diesel cars. Container ships and jet engines. Beijing, London, New Delhi.

What we don’t consider, is how our entire society is one well-oiled machine, pumping out the waste and pollution necessary to keep this reckless, materialistic show on the road.

In the pursuit of wealth and gain, we ignore the very real physical limits of our oceans, forests and air to provide endless raw materials. And even if we don’t ignore them, we as humans often find associating our individual actions with global trends tough.

We know, for instance, that 95 per cent of the human population breathes polluted air. In Dublin, we know that air pollution is caused by burning peat and wood in our stoves and by driving fossil-fuel propelled cars, but we find it difficult to relate these everyday actions to the trends of increased instances of asthma, heart attacks and even the loss of IQ driven by air pollution.

It’s well known now that we have to rewrite our contract with nature to safeguard life on earth. We can only do this if we take a long, hard look at how the system works.

The cars that get us to work on time; the food that we put on the table; the packaging we use to put our lunch in; the plastic spoon we use to stir our morning coffee with: in each of these areas we have the opportunity to present solutions that excite and engage people.  We rapidly need to make sustainability the new context for our daily lives.

Let’s start with food. Not only, as detailed with increasing frequency, do we have to entirely change the way we produce and consume food. For most of us, food is now the most intimate way we are connected to the natural world on a daily basis.

By growing more food in urban environments, we can help those who consume the majority of food and resources to understand where it comes from, start to reconnect with the natural world and even improve our mental health and well-being.

Perhaps we have to see, taste and touch the benefits for our bodies of being closer to nature to realize them. Perhaps by growing more food in cities, we’ll begin to place a higher value on the natural world. Perhaps then we’ll better appreciate how we depend upon it to survive.

Airfield House in Dundrum, Dublin, is an excellent example of how nature and food production can exist within a city’s boundaries, with educational and community benefits. They’ve recently announced a partnership with Evocco, helping consumers make food choices which can prevent climate breakdown and improve sustainability.

GIY – Grow It Yourself is an organization focused on helping people grow their own food at home, whether they have an expansive suburban garden or just enough space for a window box.

All of this brings us closer to nature. It is part of the solution to treating our polluted air. City authorities too, in many countries, have become dynamic agents of change driving efforts to improve air quality. Some have adopted policies to curb transport and energy emissions. Others have promoted the use of clean, renewable energy.

We need all of this action—but as well as treating our air through green spaces and producing food in our cities, we need to turn off the flow of toxic pollution at the source. We need industry, entrepreneurs and the private sector to switch from mass production of cheap, breakable “stuff” to longer-lasting, quality products. Sustainability and quality before volumes.

Rather than waiting for air pollution to slowly suffocate us, let’s take back the power to grow our own solutions. Let’s enjoy the benefits of more greenery in our cities, and grow our way to cleaner air—one window box at a time.

The Young Champions of the Earth prize is awarded each year to seven entrepreneurs under the age of 30 with an exceptional idea to protect the environment. This year’s regional finalists have just been shortlisted. Winners will be announced in September.


Your subscription has now been confirmed. We look forward to keeping you up to date on the latest news around sustainable development in your chosen fields.