What is Sustainable Food?
Building a sustainable food system is a big part of the broader sustainably movement. But what does it really mean, and how do we get to a truly sustainable food system?
A sustainable food system is one that is cultivated with the long-term health of soil and, water and ecosystems in mind; a sustainable food system features safe working conditions for farmers and farmworkers; and a sustainable food system nourishes our body for a lifetime of health.
In this post we’ll address how and why our current food system doesn’t meet these standards, and share examples of how all consumers can play an active role in building a more sustainable food system.
Sustaining Soil and Water for the Future of Food
The sustainability of the food system is dependent upon the long-term health of the soil, the land, and the water. Current models of agriculture deplete the soils, impair local and global ecosystems, and degrade our water systems due to overuse and/or misuse of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. When agricultural chemicals came into common use mid-century, these chemicals seemed to truly boost production and fertility and were a big benefit to agriculture. However, decades of research has shown that chemical-based fertilizers and other agricultural inputs deplete the soil and harm the local ecosystem.
Agricultural chemicals have a disastrous impact on the soil because repeated applications deplete the beneficial microorganisms that form the backbone of life in the soil. Many of these chemicals also contain heavy metals, which remain in the soil, are absorbed by plants and can contaminate local waterways. The UN FAO says that nutrient depletion of soils is a big concern globally. Also of concern is soil erosion, some of which is natural. Topsoil erosion is often the result of poor management practices, such as overuse of chemicals, mono-cropping, slash and burn and other non-regenerative agricultural practices. None of these practices replenish the nutrients taken out the soil by the crops, and all leave the soil less healthy and more vulnerable to erosion. Maria Rodale, author and organic activist, reports that chemical intensive agriculture essentially destroys the soil, sometimes beyond repair. In fact, one fifth of agricultural land in China is so toxic that it cannot be used to grow food any longer.
Soil damage is a problem in itself, but it leads to water issues as well. An unhealthy topsoil cannot hold water, and thus soil and any applied chemicals turn into runoff. Agricultural chemical runoff is the nation’s leading cause of impaired water quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Fertilizer runoff can create problems for lakes, streams and groundwater by spurring overgrowth of algae and other plants that impair the natural ecosystem. The FAO writes that this happens in rivers, lakes and along the coastlines, threatening ecosystems and our drinking water supply. In many places across the country drinking water is contaminated with agricultural chemicals.
Another facet of this chemical intensive agriculture is the introduction of GMOs (or genetically modified organisms, also called genetically engineered foods or bioengineered foods). GM crops are made by inserting the genes of one plant, virus or animal into another plant to create desired traits. One example is the Roundup Ready Soybean produced by Monsanto; the soybean has been engineered to tolerate large doses of the chemical Roundup, which works for a short time, but encourages larger doses of chemical applications because newly evolving superweeds grow resistant to the application of the pesticide. Increased pesticide use leads to more contamination and further soil degradation.
Genetically modified crops rely on a chemical intensive form of agriculture that works against all natural cycles. GMOs have conclusively been linked to superweeds, declining bee and pollinator populations, and increased soil degradation. GM crops are promoted as helping farmers by reducing pesticide application, improving yields and reducing drought– but none of these have turned out to be true.
We believe that organic foods– those grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides– are healthier for the planet and for our bodies. Organic foods have been proven repeatedly to be better for food production overall. Rodale explains that organic farming improves the soil for now, but also for the future, with restorative growth and building techniques. Organic also has proven to be more productive in the short-term than chemical-intensive farming, especially in times of drought and flood. Healthier soils are able to withstand weathering that nutrient-depleted soils simply cannot tolerate.
One of the arguments against organics is the cost, but recent studies show that organic farming is actually about 22-35% more profitable than conventional farming. Not only does organic farming improves the soil and localized ecosystem, making the area more liveable for all creatures, healthy land has a high value – or natural capitol– that is important for future farming and living on this planet.
Read more about the importance of soil health
Read more about GMOs
Learn more about how you can take action against pesticides
Learn more about local water quality
Find out about the hidden costs of our industrial food system
A System of Safety and Security
Food safety is a very important aspect of a sustainable food movement. We want to see food that is fair and safe for those that grow the food, and we want to see that all consumers have access to safe, healthy food.
Fair trade is a rating system that encourages fair pay for farmers. Fair Trade USA explains that Fair Trade certification allows shoppers to identify products produced in an ethical manner, ensuring that farmers have been paid better prices on fair terms. Fair trade programs support farmers and communities by improving profit margins and building business skills so farmers can compete in the global marketplace.
Fair trade is most often used for tropical commodity crops like coconut, bananas, coffee and chocolate, as farmers and workers have historically been paid poorly relative to their final cost of the crop. But fair trade is expanding, and you can encourage more farmers and companies to support fair trade practices for all products. Ask your local farmers if their farmworkers are paid fair wages and receive benefits, and ask your favorite brands whether their sourcing includes fair-trade ingredients.
A truly sustainable food system also helps ensure safety and security on the farm. Farmworkers in the US (and around the world) are subject to modern-day slavery, dangerous working conditions, and harassment at work, and none of this has a place in a just society. As many of these workers are immigrants from other nations with limited means, they often find themselves in exploitative conditions with no recourse. The physical safety of farmworkers is imperative, and equally important is their health. Not only does chemical intensive agriculture destroy the land and water as we discussed above, it also has a huge impact on the health of the human body, and farmworkers that are exposed to these chemicals everyday are subject to health issues for the rest of their lives.
Research shows that agricultural chemicals can be linked directly to a range of health concerns for both consumers and farm workers. The US EPA estimates that 10,000-20,000 farmworkers are poisoned each year on the job due to pesticide exposure, making farmwork one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. But the exact number of workers suffering from pesticide exposure or injury is unknown, because there is not a system for reporting or tracking chronic illness related to pesticide exposure, as reported by Farmworker Justice. Additionally, Rodale says, “the World Health Organization labeled the world’s most widely used herbicide, glyphosate, as a ‘probable’ human carcinogen [and pesticides are] associated with autism, diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, and allergies” across the country.
Learning more about how farmworkers have been and continue to be treated around the world and how large companies support this system of exploitation is key to building a food system that is better for us all.
Nourishing the Body for a Lifetime of Health
Most of the nutrition in fruits and vegetables comes from healthy soil and ecosystems, but studies show that the nutrition of our food has declined over the years, mostly due to soil depletion. As soils become depleted– from chemical intensive farming and mismanagement of lands– the soil loses nutrition, which means the vegetables cannot uptake necessary vitamins and minerals from the soil.
How much has our food declined in nutrition? Scientific American reports that, “A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent.”
Organic agriculture, with its focus on soil building and ecosystem restoration, actually helps improve the nutritional content of foods. A meta study concluded that organic and conventional produce contain similar levels of major vitamins, but organic foods are notably higher in antioxidants. According to the findings, organic fruits and vegetables can contain anywhere from 18-69 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown varieties, along with other bonuses! Mercola quotes the study, “Many of these [antioxidants] have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies.”
The other very important reason to choose organic is that organic foods do not contain any of the pesticides that are normally found on conventional produce. There is a lot of debate about whether these pesticides cause harm to our bodies or not, but the truth is not really known. In a report from Consumer Reports, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., a toxicologist and executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center says, “Tolerance levels are calculated for individual pesticides, but finding more than one type [of pesticides] on fruits and vegetables is the rule—not the exception.” CR noted that nearly a third of all produce tested contained residues of two or more pesticides, the effect of which is unknown.
Studies of pesticides do not look into the effects of long-term, low-level exposure, nor at the combination of chemicals from all the foods we eat. It’s best to adopt the ‘precautionary principle’ with regard to pesticide exposure, which means that until we know for sure that it’s safe, we should avoid it.
Many would argue it’s more important to choose organic produce to reduce our exposure to these questionable chemicals and to ensure safety of our farming community, but others suggest that eating local foods can make a bigger impact. While it is important to eat local foods when possible, it turns out that how food is grown is more important than where the food is grown.
Scott Matthews, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says that, “If you’re someone who cares about the greenhouse gas impact of food, you should be thinking about diet changes, not localization.” In a study with a colleague, Matthews found that transportation of food was only about 4% of the life cycle emissions of the food. The rest of the impact comes from the inputs needed to grow the food: fuel, water, fertilizer and more. This is yet another argument for choosing organically grown foods, as organic farms use less fossil fuel inputs, and can have a net positive impact on carbon emissions because the farming practices are more sustainable.
However, there is value in supporting local food systems to support your community and farmers, and it has also been found that local foods are often fresher and healthier. Produce can lose up to half of its nutritional value between harvesting and eating, so choosing foods grown closer to home ensures crisper, juicier and healthier produce. The continued growth of farmers markets is reflective of consumers’ growing needs for better, fresher foods, and a better connection with their food system. This gives you a chance to connect with farmers and talk to them about these key points of sustainability in our food system.
Being more conscious about our food helps address another issue for food sustainability, food waste. There is plenty of food grown in the world, says Becky Streipe, food activist and author, and the big change needed to truly improve our food system is to reduce our food waste throughout the entire food chain. This means, “more than just reducing food waste in our own kitchens. It even means more than eating “ugly” produce. Our food system needs a global overhaul to help us get food to people who need it, rather than letting it rot in fields or storage facilities.” Know that as a shopper, restaurant patron, or chef, you have the responsibility and the power to save food and build a system that honors and respects food.
Cultivating a respect for food sounds a bit vague, but it means understanding the effort that goes into growing, harvesting, packing and cooking food, and acknowledging it with a promise to treat it well, not to waste food, to know where it comes from, and to eat thoughtfully. These steps help us build a healthier diet, and a more sustainable system for us all.
14 Food documentaries about building a safer and healthier food system
Read the excellent Consumer Reports special report about Pesticides in Produce
Find out which store sells the most organic food
Join the Ugly Food movement
Are pesticides making us sick?
Watch ‘The Organic Effect‘ and learn what happens when you eat organic foods