We need food to stay alive. We want it not only to be nutritious, but tasty and satisfying. Food sustainability looks beyond nutrition. After all, it requires energy and water to grow and transport food.
What’s more, our world has a food distribution problem. Not everyone has enough to eat.
Contrary to what environmental alarmists say, the “population explosion” doesn’t cause widespread malnutrition. In fact, there were three times as many people living on earth in 2000 as there were in 1900. At the same time, world hunger has drastically decreased. Never in history have so few people struggled to feed themselves.
That said, more than 800 million people risk starvation. If that number is less than what it used to be, it’s still 800 million too many. We need to practice food sustainability for their sake as much as our own.
Apart from mass starvation, many poor people suffer from various kinds of food insecurity. For example, many American cities have neighborhoods called food deserts. People there can find fast food or buy limited groceries from convenience stores. They just have to travel long distances to get to a grocery store. Food sustainability requires locating better grocery options in these neighborhoods.
Sustainability rests on three pillars: environmental, economic, and social. Food sustainability is at least as much a part of social sustainability as environmental or economic.
From farm to market
It takes water, fertilizer, pesticides, and energy to grow food. Manure makes the best and most sustainable fertilizer. Fertilizer from petrochemicals is easier to apply and has a better distribution system. Not to mention all the marketing corporations can do.
We have a choice between food grown on conventional or organic farms. Conventional farming uses all the latest chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It requires more energy than organic farming.
Organic farming, on the other hand, requires more land to produce the same amount of food. And if organic farmers overuse or misapply them, organic pesticides aren’t any healthier for humans than petrochemicals.
Where food is grown may make more of a difference for food sustainability than how. Your food probably travels more than you do. Whatever is out of season where you live—or whatever doesn’t grow there at all––travels a long distance.
In other words, the best choice you can make for food sustainability isn’t between conventional and organic farming. It’s between locally-grown and shipped in from elsewhere.
Here’s what’s odd. The food you get from a distance doesn’t necessarily come from a distance directly to your area. Norwegian fishing vessels send their catch to China for filleting. Then China ships the processed fish back to Norway! Meat from a cattle ranch near you may be shipped somewhere else and the meat sold in your stores may come from Brazil!
It’s hard to know where food in the grocery store came from. You can know that what a farmers’ market offers hasn’t traveled very far.
Packaging also matters for food sustainability
When it comes to packaging, food sustainability has much in common with sustainability in general. In this case, we don’t necessarily save food, but we produce less trash and all the resources used to manufacture and transport it.
Why buy two green peppers in a Styrofoam tray wrapped in a plastic film? You’re just taking trash home.
Buy two green peppers in bulk. If you don’t want to put them loose in your shopping cart, take reusable produce bags to the store with you. If a store doesn’t sell peppers in bulk, get them at a store that does.
We like the convenience of having work done for us, but convenience requires more packaging. You can get meals where all you have to do is empty the contents of a plastic bag into a skillet—along with the sauce that comes in a separate plastic bag.
Those prepared foods probably contain too much salt, fat, or added sugar. And in some cases, you can make the same dishes from scratch with little more time and effort.
For things like nuts, cereal, grains, flour, or coffee, many stores offer them in bulk. And they also provide plastic containers to take them home in. Most stores, however, will allow you to take in your own container. So take in a jar from home and have it weighed at the store. Then fill it and take it home. When you’ve used it up, wash the jar and take it back to the store for something else.
To your plate and beyond
The earth is capable of producing enough food for everyone to feed everyone in the world. With innovations like vertical or hydroponic farming, growing food requires less space than ever before. So how come we still have 800 million people facing starvation?
Food waste is a big part of the problem.
I remember being told to eat all the food on my plate because of all the starving children in China. Now, whether I ate that food or Mom had to throw it in the garbage, it wouldn’t have made any difference to the starving children in China. But it’s quite true that what we waste, someone else could have eaten.
Households can’t solve food waste any more than we can solve any other environmental problem. But we can avoid contributing to it.
- Buy only enough perishables that they won’t spoil before you can eat them.
- Eat leftovers before they spoil.
- Be willing to buy “ugly” produce.
Sustainability basically means practices we can continue forever without causing any harm. Wasting food, along with the water, energy, and other materials used to produce and transport it, causes harm. Tackling food sustainability challenges is everyone’s opportunity.
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American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) / Jonathan Bloom
Waste Not: How To Get The Most From Your Food / James Beard Foundation