You've probably seen many restaurants and grocery stores tout sustainability on their menus and in product descriptions, but what is sustainable food really? And why does it matter? Here's a breakdown of the most important information you need to know to shop, cook and eat sustainable foods.
First, sustainability is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as, "the ability to maintain or improve standards of living without damaging or depleting natural resources for present and future generations." You can take this definition and apply it to your understanding of sustainable food: Think about sustainable food as the growth, production, distribution and consumption of food products that keep the environment in mind. It's important to remember that sustainability encompasses every aspect of the food system, not just buying organic produce or shopping at your farmers' market.
Why is food sustainability important?
The Food and Agriculture Organization (or FAO, for short) reports that typical food production practices can contribute to air pollution, create non-potable water and cause land erosion, among so many other consequences contributing to our global climate crisis. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the sustainable management of agriculture is key to maintaining and revitalizing our environment. Not only is it important to focus on sustainable modes of food production, like regenerative agriculture, to benefit the land that's being grown on, but if managed correctly, sustainable agriculture also benefits broader areas of land, as well as animals who live on the land and farm workers who manage the land. Long story short, adjusting your food shopping and dining habits to include sustainable food can help curb climate change.
How to incorporate sustainable food into your diet:
Purchase from local farmers who are implementing sustainable agriculture practices. If you have access, utilizing local farmers' markets or CSAs and purchasing organic produce directly from the source not only ensures you have great food to cook with, but it also provides financial support to the farmers that are taking the steps to benefit the environment.
Even if you can't access a farmer directly, shopping for seasonal crops in your local grocery store ensures less distance for produce to travel and a lower carbon footprint. Many grocery stores note when the fruits and vegetables they are selling are from local producers, so keep an eye out or ask your grocery store manager.
Something to consider: Local and fresh produce isn't accessible to everyone in the United States. Shopping for seasonal fruits and vegetables can only make a difference if consumers have access, but according to the USDA, 2.3 million people in the US live more than a mile from a grocery store. If you're interested in learning about expanding accessibility, check out The Food Empowerment Project's resource pages and reach out to your state representatives to urge them to take political action and making policy changes. The greater the reach of sustainable food, the greater the impact on our environment.
More ways to support food sustainability:
Also key? Cutting back on meat consumption. The livestock industry is the second-largest polluter globally, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2019. The same study also noted that farming livestock is the main reason for land clearing, leading to animal and plant endangerment and extinction.
Finally, be conscious of the food you're throwing away. According to the USDA, more than 130 billion pounds of food go to waste in the US annually, contributing to 8% of global emissions. The good news is that there are really easy ways to reduce your family's food waste, like shopping in your fridge and pantry to create delicious pantry recipes out of the ingredients you already have on hand. It's also a lot simpler to start composting at home — or turning your food scraps into organic material for your garden — than you may think.
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