As we enter a new decade, many communities and consumers are rethinking the way we produce and use resources. We may see increasing focus on how factors like land degradation, overfishing and declining soil fertility are impacting the environment’s ability to meet our current needs. The United Nations reports that if the global population reaches 9.6 billion by 2050, we’ll require almost three planets’ worth of resources to live the way we do today.
No wonder the sustainability movement is building momentum. And as it does, education among consumers is crucial. What qualifies as sustainable food? What changes can we make as individuals to improve environmental stability and help protect our planet for generations to come?
The Three Pillars Of Environmental Sustainability
“Sustainable food is produced in a way that will allow you to keep producing it over time,” says Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. “That means it will not deplete the soil, pollute the air or destroy the waters around it.”
What exactly is the definition of sustainability? According to the advocacy group Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming, sustainable food typically describes food that is produced, processed, distributed and disposed of in ways that:
- Contribute to the economy
- Protect biodiversity of plants and animals
- Ensure environmental health by maintaining healthy soil; managing water wisely; and minimizing air, water and climate pollution
- Provide social benefits and educational opportunities
Together, these environmental, economic and social pillars provide a robust foundation for producing and consuming food in eco-friendly ways that are safe for the land and its billions of inhabitants.
Why Should We Care?
As the UN describes it, the global impact of nonsustainable practices is alarming. Its website reports that less than 3% of the world’s water is drinkable; humans are polluting water in rivers and lakes faster than nature can purify; and the food sector accounts for about 30% of global energy consumption, and 22% of greenhouse gas emissions.
(Farming) Practice Makes Perfect
The good news is that sustainable farming practices can offset some of the damage being done to the planet. One example is crop rotation—or planting a variety of crops. According to Hanson, many “agricultural programs really encourage the growing of corn all the time, anywhere it can be grown.” That’s a mistake, he says, as crop rotation is critical to improving pest control, preventing the spread of disease and protecting soil fertility for future food production.
Another farm sustainability practice entails reducing or eliminating tillage. The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that by reducing reliance on traditional plowing (tillage) techniques, which often lead to significant soil loss, and inserting seeds directly into the soil, farmers can minimize erosion and enhance soil fertility.
A growing body of research shows that animal welfare also plays a key role in more sustainable agricultural development. For example, many farmers are adopting innovative grazing management strategies, such as alternating periods of grazing, matching animal numbers to predicted forage supply and ensuring plant diversity, reports the Beef Cattle Research Council. These practices not only prevent overgrazing, but also ensure productive pastures and greater animal health and productivity.
You Have The Power To Make Change
Farmers aren’t the only ones responsible for supporting the sustainability movement. Those outside of the agriculture industry also have the power to embrace social responsibility and work toward creating a more sustainable future.
“One of the things people can do is support their local farmers market,” says Hanson. That’s getting easier to do. According to the Farmers Market Coalition, there are now more than 8,600 farmers markets—up from nearly 2,000 in 1994.
What food you buy is just as important as where you buy it—which means it’s time to support organic farming. Hanson recommends buying organic produce when possible. And when it comes to fish, consider opting out of farm-raised options: “If you have a choice between a farm salmon or a wild salmon, take the wild one. It costs more, but it’s worth it.” Other strategies include cutting back on processed foods and heavily packaged products.
And finally, buy only as much as you’ll consume. According to the UN, we produce 1.3 billion tons of food waste each year. However, by spreading awareness around environmental issues and educating consumers about food production, we can improve social responsibility and create an environmentally sustainable future.
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