What is Sustainable Food?

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You’ve no doubt heard about Organic food, and probably heard about GMO-Free food. But you may not have heard the term “Sustainable Food”. And if you have heard of sustainable food, you’re probably wondering…what does that even mean?

To put it extremely simply, sustainable food is grown/raised in a way that is sustainable. Which means it can last. It can be sustained.

And this means more than paying attention to organic vs. conventional produce. And more than grass fed or gain fed beef. Sustainable food is food which is grown in a way that benefits the people who made it, the people who eat it, and the land and community around it.

Western SARE is a sustainable agriculture research and education group. On their website, they define sustainable agriculture as:

  • Economically Viable: If it is not profitable, it is not sustainable.
  • Socially Supportive: The quality of life of farmers, farm families and farm communities is important.
  • Ecologically Sound. We must preserve the resource base that sustains us all.

More than Organic

There is so much more to sustainable food than whether it was grown organically or not (although that is part of it). The way I see it, sustainable food:

  • Was grown in such a way that benefits the earth.
  • Is packaged in an environmentally friendly way.
  • Makes the most efficient use of our resources.
  • Benefits the farmers and community.

Let’s look a little closer at each of these.

Grown Sustainably

Woman holding organic sign at farmer's market

Some people think the only way to grow enough food for the whole world is with conventional agriculture (pesticides, synthetic chemical fertilizers, and GMOs) and monoculture (huge plots of land that grow a single crop over and over again). Growing the same plant every year in one place depletes the soil of vital nutrients, so synthetic fertilizers are used, which makes the plants grow super fast. This growth spurt is not natural and makes for a weaker, less robust plant. So then the farmer will need to apply more pesticides because pests target weak plants. Do you see the downward spiral here?

There are other people who say that we can feed the world and take care of it if we grow our food in a sustainable way. If we practice crop rotation to naturally foster nutrients in the soil, non-toxic methods of keeping pests away, and biodiversity in our fields to help the bees.

Sustainability is about thinking about the future. If we continue doing what we’re doing….what will happen to the land? To the nutrients in the food we’re growing? To the environment?

If you’re looking to buy sustainable food, start by switching to organic produce. But be informed! Some small farms choose not to get certified because of the regulation and expenses involved. Get to know the growing practices of the farms you’re buying from. Look at their website and if it’s not clear, give them a call.

Talk to your local farmer’s at the farmer’s market and learn about their growing practices. How do they manage pests? Do they use chemical fertilizers? What about pesticides? Do they encourage a diverse landscape?

Packaged Sustainably

Egg cartons stacked - side view

Does anyone else think it’s backwards that Certified Organic eggs often come in a plastic packaging? Organic apples too? This highlights the fact that we’re missing the point. We’re focusing so much on labels like “Organic” that we’re forgetting about one of the reasons behind the Organic movement – to protect the environment.

I know the intent behind plastic packaging it is to protect the food in transit. But seriously? Plastic? Plastic is a material that once it’s created, it will never biodegrade and break down. Think about that for a minute. Every single piece of plastic that’s ever been made is still there. Sitting in a landfill, or maybe in our oceans. It will never break down. Sure, some plastics can be recycled a few times. But then they go to the landfill.

When buying your food, think about the packaging. Is it plastic? Consider choosing another option. Glass is infinitely recyclable. This means it can go through the recycling process over and over again. Choose glass bottles over plastic when you have a choice. And when you buy eggs, cardboard is better than plastic.

Using Resources Efficiently

Ladder going up into apple tree in orchard

Our resources are precious. We waste resources when we transport apples across the country to a place that is known for their apple production. But when we buy from local farms and farmer’s markets we eliminate the need for transporting food thousands of miles, and we preserve our resources.

When we grow corn in million-acre plots just to turn it into high fructose corn syrup to sweeten our soda pop, or add as a filler in processed food, we waste resources.

Related: Learn About 10 Highly Processed Foods to Avoid

Did you know that 30-40% of the corn grown in America is used for animal feed? When you buy meat, buy grass fed and/or pasture raised meat instead of the meat produced in large confined operations. Reducing your meat consumption is another simple step you can take.

Benefits the Farmers and Community

Farmer selling produce in farmer's market

Small farms are the hinges of sustainable food. Without small family farms, we rely on the huge corporate farms that have to ship the food across the whole country. These giant farms use expensive machinery to plant, fertilize, and harvest crops. In doing so, they’re able to drive the costs down, and often put the small family farms out of business.

What if we could find food that’s picked ripe in season, at the peak of flavor, in our own neighborhood? What if there were farmers in our own community who are trying to make a living growing food for others? People who are passionate about contributing in an environmentally sound way?

If we buy local and support our local farmers, we are giving them a chance. And when we have a community of people able to make a living doing something they love, there’s huge benefit to society as a whole.

And if you want to get the freshest food you can find, try starting a garden. Grow your own food! A sunny window can provide herbs year round. Or get a pot and grow your own vegetables on your patio or front porch. When you taste what a tomato is supposed to taste like, you may never enjoy a store bought tomato again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Now What?

I know that’s a lot to think about. And maybe it’s overwhelming right now. But to simplify it, when you’re shopping for food, think about the bigger picture of sustainability. Don’t just read labels.

Think about:

  • How was this food grown, or how was this animal raised?
  • What’s the packaging like? Can I find a similar product in more sustainable packaging?
  • Does buying this food benefit any local farms?
  • Can I grow this at home in my backyard?

If you think about these things as you shop for food, you’ll be well on your way to eating sustainably. As you learn more about making sustainable food choices, tell your friends and family and encourage them to get on board.

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What's better than organic? With apples in background

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