In an era where environmental concerns are at the forefront of our collective consciousness, the way we produce, consume, and think about food has become more crucial than ever. Food systems produce approximately 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions, one of the largest categories of emitters overall. As we grapple with the challenges of climate change, diminishing resources, and social inequities, the concept of sustainable food has emerged as a focal point—a pathway towards a healthier planet and a more equitable society.
Sustainable food encompasses a holistic approach to nourishment that extends far beyond our dinner plates. The UN describes sustainable practices as those which “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It embodies a commitment to preserving the environment, fostering biodiversity, prioritizing animal welfare, supporting local economies, and empowering communities. It encapsulates the idea that every bite we take can either contribute to the degradation of our planet or be a catalyst for positive change.
Here we embark on a journey to explore the multifaceted world of sustainable food. We delve into the principles that underpin this concept, the innovative practices being adopted by farmers and food producers, and the transformative power of informed consumer choices. Together, we will discover how sustainable food systems offer a compelling solution to the interconnected challenges we face.
Join us as we unravel the secrets behind sustainable agriculture, uncover the environmental and social benefits of eating local and seasonal, and shed light on the pivotal role played by biodiversity conservation. We aim to inspire and empower you to make conscious choices about the food you consume, to support the farmers and organizations working tirelessly to build sustainable food systems, and to contribute to a more resilient and equitable world. Together, we can embrace the transformative potential of sustainable food and pave the way towards a future where every meal nourishes not only our bodies but also the planet we call home.
The Pillars of Sustainable Food
Sustainability is a complex, multi-faceted concept that can be viewed from many different angles. So the question of what makes food sustainable has many answers. To fully assess the sustainability of a product, often a full lifecycle analysis is performed, carefully accounting for everything that goes into making a product and then downstream impacts thereof. For the purpose of simplicity we will use a straightforward framework to explore this topic: what we eat, how it’s produced, and how we consume it.
What we eat
First and foremost, what we eat has a major bearing on sustainability. To begin with an extreme example, eating plants or animals that are endangered is clearly an unsustainable practice. If we extrapolate consumption patterns of these endangered species we see that there is a point where there simply is no longer a supply, an easily identifiable hallmark of an unsustainable practice. On the other end of the spectrum, eating only plants that are abundant and readily regenerate faster than consumption is occurring is clearly a sustainable practice. It could continue in perpetuity without inhibiting the ability of future generations to enjoy those same plants as food.
The reality is that most consumption occurs somewhere in between these two extremes and sustainability is not solely a matter of whether the supply of a given food will be available in the future. If the aforementioned plants, which are abundant and readily regenerate, require a tremendous amount of freshwater to grow, thereby exhausting the supply of freshwater faster than it can be replenished, it would no longer be considered a sustainable food despite its availability to future generations. Determining how sustainable foods are is therefore a matter of evaluating all the inputs and downstream impacts of producing that food.
In general, calories from sources lower on the food chain are more sustainable. That is, plant based foods are more sustainable than animal products. Plants simply are less resource intensive and more efficient to produce than animal products, requiring less land and water for the same caloric output. Whereas 1000 calories from beef requires approximately 119.5M2 of land to produce, 1000 calories from rice requires only 0.76M2 to produce. The same is true for water use, with 1000 calories derived from pork requiring 751 liters of water to produce, while 1000 calories derived from corn requires only about 48 liters to produce. Plants also generally produce fewer emissions than animal products. Methane from animals alone is estimated to produce approximately 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While plant based food production certainly isn’t free from greenhouse gas emissions, particularly due to the use of certain fertilizers, overall the resource intensity per calorie produced is simply much lower with plants.
How it is produced
Other than what we eat, how that food is produced has a major bearing on how sustainable it is. Production methods for the same type of food can vary widely, so if you’re eating corn from a farmer who uses the most advanced irrigation methods, that might be more sustainable than eating corn produced by a farmer using less efficient methods and therefore requiring more water use overall for the same output. Several examples of variations in production methods that may impact the sustainability for the same type of food include:
- Monoculture Crops: The practice of growing a single crop over large areas, can lead to a loss of biodiversity. It reduces habitat diversity and increases the vulnerability of crops to pests and diseases. Sustainable agriculture encourages crop rotation, polyculture, and the conservation of native plant varieties to enhance biodiversity.
- Chemical Inputs: The use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in conventional farming can harm the environment, including pollinators like bees and water ecosystems. Sustainable agriculture promotes organic and natural alternatives, reducing chemical inputs and supporting healthier ecosystems.
- Soil Health: Conventional farming practices, such as heavy tilling and monoculture, can degrade soil quality over time, leading to erosion and reduced fertility. Sustainable practices, such as no-till farming and cover cropping, help maintain soil health and fertility.
- Water Pollution: Excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides can lead to runoff, polluting water bodies and affecting aquatic life. Sustainable food production focuses on reducing chemical inputs and implementing water management strategies to minimize pollution.
- Deforestation: Clearing land for agriculture, especially for commodities like soy, palm oil, and cattle farming, contributes to deforestation and habitat destruction. Sustainable food production seeks to protect forests and other natural habitats by promoting responsible land-use practices and supporting alternatives like agroforestry.
- Factory Farming: Also known as intensive animal agriculture, has significant environmental impacts. It contributes to deforestation as vast areas of land are cleared for feed production and livestock housing. It generates substantial greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, particularly methane and nitrous oxide, exacerbating climate change. Additionally, factory farming leads to water pollution due to excessive manure and chemical runoff, and it depletes water resources for feed production, aggravating water scarcity issues. The use of antibiotics in crowded and unsanitary conditions can also promote antibiotic resistance, posing a threat to human health and the environment
This is far from an exhaustive list, but it exemplified how variation in production methods can substantially impact how sustainable a particular product is. Other than what we eat, how that food is produced has the second largest impact on the overall sustainability of our diets.
How we consume it
How we purchase and consume our food is the last pillar of sustainability in our simplified framework. This includes transportation and retailing. If we take the example of corn, which by its nature will be more sustainable than beef due to a lower resource intensity, and imagine farmers are using the most advances and sustainable agricultural practices, there still may be a difference in the core sustainability of the product before it hits our plates. What if, for example, we purchase that corn from a retailer committed to minimizing their environmental impact versus one who is not. The committed retailer runs a fleet of clean energy vehicles, uses advanced logistics to maximize the efficiency of each delivery from its warehouses to its stores, and sells the corn in its own husk in large cardboard boxes made from recycled materials from which consumers can directly take however many ears of corn they need. The conventional retailer runs a fleet of diesel vehicles without advanced logistical routing software, and sells corn in bunches of 3 ears in styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic. Ultimately the corn we purchase from the committed retailer will still be more sustainable than corn purchased from the conventional retailer, simply because of the way we purchase and consume it.
The degree of sustainability is also generally aligned with this framework. What we eat is the largest driver. Eating sustainably raised beef is likely still going to be less planet-friendly than conventionally grown broccoli. Production methods are generally the second largest driver, with sustainably grown tomatoes purchased from a conventional supermarket likely being more eco-friendly than conventional tomatoes purchased from an environmentally oriented grocery chain. Finally, how we ultimately purchase and consume the product will generally have the lowest overall bearing on the total sustainability of a given product.
The point of all this is not to imply that one should only eat plants, produced in an optimally sustainable way, and only buy from the most environmentally committed retailers. For most people that's simply not possible, or desirable. This framework is merely a tool that one can draw on to make informed decisions about the food you purchase. Perhaps it is possible to eat a bit less beef and more chicken, which is much less resource intensive to raise. Or you may be eager to try eating a few vegetarian meals per week. Choosing to support farms and brands that are committed to using more sustainable practices when selecting your produce is another way to be a bit more sustainable. All these small decisions add up and knowing the relative impact of different choices is the foundation of being an informed consumer.
Examples of Sustainable Foods
Given this basic framework for sustainable food it’s helpful to evaluate certain examples. There are myriad labels applied to sustainability, such as “eco-foods” or “green foods,” which all may have highly variable degrees of sustainability. Keep the simplified framework in mind to assess which of these may be more sustainable than others.
- Plant-Based Diets: Plant-based diets, or diets that focus primarily on fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and grains, have lower environmental footprints compared to diets heavily reliant on animal products. Reduced consumption of meat and dairy can help alleviate the pressure on land, water, and energy resources associated with intensive animal agriculture.
- Organic Produce: Organic farming practices prioritize natural methods of pest control, avoid synthetic chemicals, and promote soil health through composting and crop rotation. Organic fruits, vegetables, and grains are grown without the use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, making them a sustainable choice for both human health and the environment.
- Locally Sourced Food: Purchasing food from local farmers and producers reduces the carbon footprint associated with long-distance transportation. By supporting local economies, consumers can help strengthen community resilience and decrease the environmental impact of their food choices.
- Sustainable Seafood: Opting for sustainably sourced seafood helps protect marine ecosystems and fish populations. Look for seafood certified by organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), which ensure fishing and farming practices meet strict sustainability standards.
- Regeneratively Raised Meat and Poultry: Regenerative agriculture focuses on restoring and enhancing soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem resilience. When applied to animal agriculture, regenerative practices involve rotational grazing, where livestock are moved frequently to mimic natural grazing patterns. This allows pastures to recover, improves soil quality, and sequesters carbon. Regeneratively raised meat and poultry prioritize animal welfare, reduce the need for supplemental feed, and contribute to more sustainable and resilient farming systems. Consumers can look for certifications like "Regenerative Organic Certified" or "Animal Welfare Approved" to identify products from regenerative farms.
These examples demonstrate how sustainable food choices can have positive impacts on the environment, support local communities, and contribute to a more resilient and equitable food system. By incorporating these practices into our daily lives, we can collectively work towards a more sustainable future for our planet and its inhabitants.
So What Makes Food Sustainable?
The truth is that whether or not food is sustainable is not a binary question, it comes in thousands of shades of gray. The most important factor will usually be what the food is - the nature of the product itself often is the biggest determinant of how sustainable it will be. Second, methods of production such as whether regenerative agriculture was utilized or if meat was factory farmed will be a major determinant. Finally, how the food is purchased and consumed will further contribute to the overall sustainability of it.
Eating sustainably therefore isn’t binary either. Choosing to eat a bit less meat, being willing to pay slightly more for produce coming from organic farms, or shopping at grocery stores that aim to reduce packaging and run energy efficient operations are all sustainable choices. Eating sustainably doesn't need to be expensive either, you can eat sustainably on a budget as well. While it's easy to become discouraged when you’re not able to always make the more sustainable choice, every small choice does make a difference. With a bit of know-how and the willingness to make small changes, the cumulative impact can be meaningful.