If you’re at all interested in the world of food, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about sustainability recently. Whether it’s farms practicing sustainable agriculture, farmers’ markets selling sustainable produce, or restaurants committing to sustainable ingredients on their menus, sustainability is the word on everyone’s lips.
But sustainable food is more than just a fashion or a buzzword. As the impact of humanity on the world around us - from climate change, to the destruction of entire ecosystems - becomes ever clearer, more and more people are stepping up to help preserve the delicate balance of life on Earth for generations to come. In honour of Earth Day, celebrated on 22nd April, we thought we’d take a look at some of the key elements of the sustainable food movement
Sustainable Food Principles
There is no single definition of sustainability, but the central idea is one of putting as much into the environment as we take out, rather than simply taking what we need and leaving it damaged when we’re done with it.
Maintaining a healthy, functioning environment means taking responsibility for the land we farm, for local wildlife and ecosystems, for human communities, and for issues like climate change that affect the planet as a whole. Sustainable food production achieves this by eliminating waste, and using the resources available more efficiently, working with the environment, not against it.
Sustainability means a commitment by farmers and producers to avoid harmful chemicals, protect natural habitats and resources, and provide a good quality of life for livestock. For consumers, restaurants and grocers, it means buying as directly as possible from sustainable producers, and avoiding foods that are transported for hundreds of miles or processed in energy-hungry factories in favour of fresh, local produce.
Agriculture and Husbandry
Sustainable food begins at source, with farmers and producers. Irresponsible farming can cause massive damage to the environment, with dangerous chemicals polluting our soil and waterways, and important ecosystems razed to make way for ranches or arable mono cultures incapable of supporting wildlife. Natural resources are abused, and the ocean in particular, with careless overfishing meaning that fish are being caught before they can spawn, and stocks of certain species are running dangerously low. According to the non-profit World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), our current food system is responsible for 60% of biodiversity loss worldwide.
Luckily, the last few years have seen a decided move towards sustainable farming, with a growing number of food heroes stepping up in an attempt to reverse the damage. Instead of relying on chemicals, these producers focus on foods that grow well in the local climate, rotating their crops through the year as the seasons change.
Many farms also help protect wildlife by reserving a part of their land for conservation, and by growing a diverse range of native or non-invasive crops that won’t harm the local ecosystem. These days more than 15% of all farmland in the USA is dedicated to conservation and wildlife habitat.
Many fishing companies are also taking steps to protect the ocean - and their own livelihoods - by committing to sustainable fishing practises. This means leaving enough fish for the population to replenish itself, and may also include throwing back young fish that haven’t had a chance to breed.
Sustainability also includes a commitment to care for livestock, with humane living conditions, and humane slaughter of animals bred for meat. Sustainable farming is increasingly moving towards plant-based products, however, largely because farming animals is such an inefficient use of resources, with the production of large amounts of feed required to provide a relatively small amount of meat or dairy. The United Nations estimates that animal farming is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the cars, trucks and airplanes in the world put together, and, sadly, the effect is increasing.
Excess packaging can also cause problems for the environment. It uses natural resources like metal, oil and wood, making it consume energy, and it can often be difficult to recycle, leading to waste and pollution. Some plastics can take hundreds of years to break down if not properly recycled.
Many companies are now committing to cut down on waste by adopting minimalist packaging and ditching plastic in favour of materials that are easier to recycle. There are also a growing number of farmers’ markets where produce is sold loose.
According to the USDA, 30 - 40% of the food supply in the US is wasted. This occurs at various stages throughout the production and supply chain, and includes food that spoils during long journeys, is damaged during processing, or is simply thrown away uneaten by consumers.
Wasting food means that all the resources that went into producing it are lost. According to the United Nations, if farmers all around the world fed their livestock on agricultural by-products, and on the food that we currently waste, there would be enough grain left over to feed an extra three billion people, which is more than the expected population increase by 2050
As public awareness of the problem increases, home cooks are looking for ways to make the most of their food, using leftovers in soups, smoothies or homemade stocks. Restaurants are also increasingly aware of food waste, with many adopting a nose-to-tail strategy when it comes to cooking meat, and creating tasty dishes that use the whole animal.
What Can we do on a Daily Basis?
As consumers, there are several things we can all do to help. Simplest of all is reducing waste - when grocery shopping, plan ahead and only buy what you need, and if you do have leftovers, make them into something else. There are plenty of recipes for leftovers online if you’re stuck for ideas. Have a few sturdy, reusable bags to take with you when you shop to cut down on plastic waste.
When buying food, avoid over-fussy packaging and buy your fruit and vegetables loose - it can sometimes work out cheaper, too. Avoid foods that have travelled a long way or been processed in energy-hungry factories, and try to cut down on meat and dairy. If you do buy products from abroad, buying fairtrade helps protect overseas communities from exploitation.
Where possible, support local, sustainable producers. Attend farmers markets to buy seasonal produce and feel free to ask stall holders about their farming methods. Visit restaurants that champion local food and the farm-to-table ethos.
Finally, remember that not everyone has the luxury of affording these options. More needs to be done to make sustainable food accessible to everyone, but in the meantime, it is more important than ever for those that can to support the sustainable food industry.
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