Sustainability within our food system, which means meeting our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, is incredibly important for the health of the earth and the people. Many changes need to be made at both consumer and corporate levels in order to achieve this so that we can create a better present and future for all. This may seem like a daunting task since the food system is made up of so many elements, but there are many steps that can be taken to raise awareness and work to increase sustainability every day. Both consumers and corporations have the ability to make big changes for the better - we just have to seize the opportunity and take that initiative.
One change both consumers and companies need to make is to eat more seasonally and grow produce during its normal season instead of all year round. This offers a myriad of benefits, including diversifying diets by encouraging consumers to try new produce each season. It also reduces the energy and resource costs of growing food, since it is easiest to grow produce in its natural season. When it is grown out of season, farmers may need more water, fertilizer, and sometimes heat (through the use of greenhouses) to achieve the high yields they desire, but that puts more stress on the earth and its resources. Eating seasonally also allows for more consumption of locally grown foods, since local foods will be grown when the season allows for it. This will reduce transportation costs and its resulting environmental impacts, since foods will not need to travel as far.
Produce at a farmers’ market in London
Secondly, farmers need to diversify their farms to raise a wider variety of crops and animals on one farm. Current monoculture cropping (the practice of growing only one crop continuously on the same land) contributes to erosion, nutrient depletion in the soil, and an increased need for pesticides and herbicides to combat pests and weeds that feed on the crops when they are continuously grown in the same space. Growing multiple crops enables farmers to rotate crops each year to bring nutrients back into the soil and provide a higher availability of a wider range of crops for consumers and companies to enjoy and use. It will also increase biodiversity within that area, creating a healthier ecosystem that is more representative of the diversity found in nature.
Monoculture corn crop
Thirdly, there needs to be more emphasis on eating foods with lower environmental footprints, such as more plants and less livestock and red meat. Livestock, and especially cows, produce large amounts of greenhouse gasses, consume high quantities of water and grain, and are the largest users of land in the world. Because of this, it is important for consumers to be more aware of the impact their food has on the earth. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America states that beef uses ten times more resources (land, water, and feed) than other livestock products like poultry, pork, dairy, and eggs. Plant foods like beans, legumes, grains, and produce have a much lower environmental footprint and many nutritional benefits and should be eaten in larger quantities.
Some delicious fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans that are nutritious and more environmentally friendly
Fourthly, ensuring safe and fair working conditions for all involved in the food system, especially for the poorer farm laborers, is essential to ensuring social sustainability. Oftentimes, produce and other crops like coffee and chocolate are produced with the labor of migrant workers, ethnic minorities, or poorer farmers who do not always have fair or safe working conditions. Companies aim to grow their crops as cheaply as possible so that they can be sold for a high price to ensure maximum profit, but this means that workers’ wages may be reduced to lower production costs. They may also have long hours doing hard physical labor, and have a hard time making enough money to support a family. Providing quality conditions and wages for laborers will allow for social sustainability and equity and provide opportunities to live a better life.
Migrant farm workers in a strawberry field
Finally, consumers, cities, and corporations should work to reduce the amount of food they waste each day, since decomposing food in landfills releases large amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane gas is a greenhouse gas that holds 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide, so it is important to reduce methane emissions as much as possible. Educational materials for consumers should be widely publicized to inform people about the problems of food waste and to share tips on how to utilize leftover food. Cities should invest in composting services for all their citizens so that food scraps stay out of landfills, and corporations should find organizations to donate extra food to so that it does not end up in a landfill.
This graphic shows the proportion of food lost and wasted per continent. Globally, 1/3 of all food produced is lost or wasted.
Overall, there are many changes that need to be made to achieve sustainability within the food system. It’s important for all people and companies to work together to reach this goal through both small, everyday actions and sweeping changes to current elements of the system. These impacts may not be seen overnight on a large scale, but every effort helps!
Olivia Olson - Foodbank Việt Nam