Food and Food Culture are Key to Environmental Solutions

Principal Researcher, National Agriculture and Food Research Organization
Professor, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature
Kentaro Hayashi

Today we face various global issues, such as global warming due to human activities, loss of biodiversity, nitrogen pollution, and COVID-19. From Japan, it might seem like some of these are irrelevant matters in a faraway world. However, with products and information travel all across the globe in the blink of an eye, the world has gotten smaller. Things that have been pushed off as a hassle sometimes come back full circle. Japan procures food, animal feed, raw materials, and fuel from various countries worldwide, and bears a great deal of responsibility for future possibilities. That is, if Japan gets serious about solving these global issues, it can make the world better connected through trade. This is perhaps the very purpose of Cool Japan.
Moving on, some of you may be unfamiliar with nitrogen pollution. Nitrogen is an essential element for proteins, nucleic acids, and other biomolecules. Humans absorb nitrogen from food proteins. Nitrogen (N2) is ubiquitous, and accounts for around 80% of the Earth’s atmosphere. However, N2 is incredibly stable and cannot do much by itself. Only when it is transformed into a reactive compound such as ammonia can it be used as a fertilizer for crop production, a raw material for industrial production, and a fuel for energy production. Technology for the artificial synthesis of ammonia was put to practical use in the early 20th century, and since then nitrogen has brought great benefits to us as a fertilizer for mass food production. That said, much of the nitrogen we use is released into the atmosphere in a reactive state. This in turn leads to a wide range of environmental problems such as global warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, air pollution, water pollution, eutrophication, and acidification. These combined environmental impacts are known as nitrogen pollution.
Our world is huge but finite. Including ourselves, there are many different living things in the world, and we all influence and impact each other. Human activities have become so large that they have drastically changed the material cycle and in turn caused various environmental problems. In doing so, we have made the world more difficult for other organisms to survive. There are many things we can do to ensure that future generations can live in happiness, and to ensure that the world’s living things can remain as they are. Food is one element of our daily lives that is closely linked to global issues. The production, distribution, processing, consumption, and disposal of food are significant sources of greenhouse gases and nitrogen. The production of some food has a particularly large impact on the environment. When food is wasted, the resources that have been used in every process from its production to its delivery to the consumer are also put to waste. Reexamining the handling of food, as the accumulation of small improvements, can ultimately play an important role in solving global environmental problems. Japan is home to a rich food culture, abundant ingredients, and most importantly, outstanding human resources. In addition to revisiting food culture from all over Japan, we must also seek to create a new food culture. By thinking about food sustainability together, implementing it, and communicating it to the rest of the world, I hope we can inspire future possibilities. Food and food culture are the key to solving the world’s many environmental problems.

Principal Researcher, National Agriculture and Food Research Organization Professor, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature
Kentaro Hayashi