By Naume Guveya

With each passing day, it’s becoming clearer that saving our planet is crucial.

It’s simple really – we only have one planet. If we don’t do something to protect it, we are screwed big time, no question about that.

As concern for the environment grows, people are turning towards more sustainable options. Food is now part of the conversation and for over 33% of the global population, sustainability has become an important factor when deciding which food to buy.

People would like to see more sustainable food options, but what exactly is sustainable food?

What is sustainable food?

Sustainable food is food produced in an ethical, economically sound, ecologically friendly, and socially responsible way that protects human health and livelihoods, planet health, and animal welfare. Sustainable food is produced through sustainable food systems that deliver nutrition and food security.

For many, the idea of sustainable food revolves around methods and practices that safeguard the health of the planet, especially by reducing greenhouse emissions. It’s easy to see why; greenhouse emissions are the climate change supervillain.  

Speaking of food and greenhouse emissions…

Agriculture contributes up to 12% of our current greenhouse gas emissions and most of these emissions are from livestock. The animals raised for food contribute significantly to the increase in methane, one of the largest contributors to greenhouse emissions.

Tweet by Frederic Leroy saying “Cow farts cause more climate change than cars.” Is sustainable food the answer?

A single cow can produce up to 120kg of methane annually. Multiply that by the number of animals raised for food and this number runs upwards of 70 billion kilograms.

To top it all, methane has a negative effect 23x more than that of carbon dioxide. It’s bad.

A graphic showing the strength of three greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

While sustainable food does seek to lower greenhouse gas emissions, it is much more than that. It extends beyond the environment and emissions. This leads to the all-important question, what makes food sustainable?

What Makes Food Sustainable?

What makes food sustainable is how it’s produced and what it does. The following are some important factors that make food sustainable. Sustainable food:

  1. promotes and maintains good human health
  2. helps maintain biodiversity
  3. promotes ethical animal welfare
  4. helps with the issue of increasing food demand
  5. promotes zero waste
  6. helps curb overproduction
  7. improves livelihoods
  8. promotes ethical and equitable labour practices
  9. protects water quality and supply
  10. addresses renewable energy production and consumption issues.

Let’s take a look at each of these factors in turn.

1. Promoting and maintaining good human health

One of the fundamentals that make food sustainable is the ability to promote and protect health.

A diet consisting of sustainable food contributes positively to human health. This is done by providing wholesome nutrition that protects a person from diet-related problems such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and diabetes is among the top 10 leading causes. Sustainable food has a crucial role to play in curbing both diseases.

  World Health Organisation (WHO)

The Western Diet Problem

A person in Buddha pose surrounded by unhealthy and unsustainable junk food. Sustainable food promotes health.

The Western diet has spread across the world. This diet generally consists of high sugar and salt content, high-fat dairy products, refined grains, pre-packaged foods, lots of deep-fried foods, and heavily processed foods (hello hot dogs, pizza, and a good ol’ cheeseburger!)

The Western-style diet tends to taste good and it can be quite hard to resist. But it’s making us sick. Really sick.

Not only is it responsible for around 33% of the world’s heart attack deaths, but it also increases the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes significantly.

The diet is largely responsible for our obesity epidemic. Although obesity is preventable, the WHO has noted that worldwide obesity has almost tripled since 1975. Over 650 million adults are obese, over 340 million children aged 5-19 are obese or overweight, and over 40 million children under 5 years are obese or overweight.   

To top it all off, an increasing number of studies have shown that the western diet harms the immune system and negatively affects gut health. This is bad news for overall health and changing our diet can save us a whole lot of health woes.

How does sustainable food help maintain health?

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3: Good Health and Well-being

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

A sustainable food diet encourages a balance between the consumption of plant-based and animal-based foods.

Some people interpret this to mean going vegan, but this is incorrect. With sustainable food, you lean more towards plant-based food but that doesn’t mean you completely eliminate all animal products from your diet.

Proponents of veganism may argue that a sustainable diet eliminates meat because keeping livestock for food leads to the emission of greenhouse gases. But the same can be said about unsustainable farming practices. For instance, deforestation and soil erosion can contribute to carbon emissions.

A plant-based diet does have its perks. For instance, research suggests that people who eat a mainly plant-based diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) and lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

But research has also found that people who eat vegetarian or vegan diets have a higher risk of strokes. It looks like vegans and vegetarians may have a lower intake of certain essential nutrients compared to meat-eaters.

With sustainable food, it’s about finding a balance that will protect both human and planet health.

This means you can eat plenty of sustainably-grown and wholesome vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts with the occasional helping of meat, fish, and dairy products.

Sustainable food says you can have your meat, but cutting it out of your meals a couple of times every week will do you and the planet some good. 

2. Helping to maintain biodiversity

The farming methods used to produce sustainable food do not encroach with biodiversity. Sustainable farming, and consequently sustainable food, stops the destruction of natural resources and animal habitats – there’s no pollution, erosion, or diversion of water.  

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15: Life on Land

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

One of the biggest threats stemming from poor biodiversity management is irregular predation. This type of predation occurs when there’s an imbalance in the ecosystem due to not maintaining biodiversity and destroying animal habitats.

Irregular predation leads to poor pest management which can get out of control and damage crops.

Already, we have seen a massive locust infestation that’s threatening our already-vulnerable food supply system. Can we afford to take on more?

In addition to pest management, maintaining biodiversity will aid us in minimising or even eliminating the damage we have done to our ecosystems.

By opting for sustainable food you know that you’re supporting biodiversity health – something that has significant benefits.

3. Promoting ethical animal welfare

In an ideal world, we would all stop eating meat and eliminate all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from livestock farming.

The reality is that meat consumption will likely increase as the world population continues to increase.

Instead of waiting for the day the entire world decides to stop consuming meat, sustainable food production practices ensure that we minimise the negative impact of livestock farming on the planet and we protect the welfare of animals.

Poor animal welfare is a top element of unsustainable livestock production.

An unsustainable system for animal rearing normally concentrates on producing enough meat to meet demand, with complete disregard for animal welfare and the health of the environment.

For example, such a system can include close confinement of animals and the use of animal management and housing systems that do not meet the required standards. The system will disregard the consequences of excessive livestock numbers on environmental resources like soil and water.

There’s also the issue of animal welfare on pasture and in feedlots.

Although it’s been discovered that the welfare of animals in feedlots is often worse than that of livestock on pasture, animals kept on pasture-only systems can suffer from heat-stress, infectious disease, and low nutrient availability because of increased competition for food.

Sustainable livestock production is about undertaking and managing livestock production in a way that’s ethical and doesn’t put a strain on the environment and its resources. This includes providing safe and secure animal housing.

Producing livestock sustainably also includes adopting an approach that combines both pasture and feedlot animal management systems while taking steps to protect resources from depletion.

4. Helping with the issue of increasing food demand

A whopping 40% of available global land is already being used for growing crops and providing pastures for livestock. However, as the global population continues to increase, there’s an increasing demand for food. 

If only our planet expanded with the growing population.

There’s only so much land to go around and so much livestock that can be produced.  Already, wild spaces are being converted to land for food production; driving biodiversity loss and increasing pressure on nature.

Some farmers have resorted to using fertilisers, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics to protect and maximise their output on the limited space they have. They are also using hormones and antibiotics to boost growth while cutting down on feed requirements.

Where does it all go wrong?

Unfortunately, pesticides have polluted much of the world’s soil, air, and water. The worst part is that, in many cases, the pesticides end up in the wrong places. For example, up to 98% of crop spray will bounce right off a plant and accumulate in the soil, eventually making its way into waterways. 

At the end of the line are some serious concerns over human health.

A graphic showing the hazards of pesticides on the human body

For instance, glyphosate, one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, has been categorised as a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Although not yet conclusive, it’s also believed that the pesticide may affect kidney, liver, and reproductive function.

Also, some of the cheaper and older pesticides can remain in the soil and water for many years.

While these cheaper pesticides are no longer a big problem in developed nations, they are still widely used in developing nations where they are exposing people to some serious health risks.

The more people consume the residues of pesticides, animal hormones, and antibiotics, the greater the potential risk.

Sustainable solutions

Farmers have relied on pesticides for many decades because they’re affordable, relatively easy to use, and effective to a large extent. It may seem like discontinuing pesticide use will affect productivity and profitability, but this is untrue.

There are several sustainable options.

On a simple level, crop rotation is one of the oldest methods of preventing pests. Certain insects will die without a constant host plant and so rotating crops can make the insect issue go away.

Farmers are also adopting several methods to minimise the adverse effect of conventional pesticides while maintaining or even increasing their yields to meet food demand:

  • Bees are efficient and accurate crop sprayers. They are being deployed to spread organic pesticides on crops. This way, crops yields are protected and the use of bees as sprayers is helping to curb the decline in bee populations.

  • Research is going into devising ways to get more pesticide on target, significantly reducing pollution.

  • Farmers are embracing several forms of indoor agriculture to produce more food with only a fraction of the space used by conventional farming. Doing this means winning on two fronts – working towards meeting food demand while reducing the number of pesticides used at any given time.

Each year, farmers in the US alone use around $15 billion on pesticides.

What if these resources are channelled towards new sustainable food production practices that rethink the fundamentals of farming?

Sustainable food production aims to protect crops and meet the increasing food demand while protecting nature and our health. 

5. Promoting zero waste

Over 800 million people in the world don’t have enough food to lead a healthy active life yet a third of the food produced globally is wasted.

Wasted food is responsible for roughly 8% of global emissions – if food waste were a country, it would have the third-largest emissions in the world.

United Nations

Sustainable food encourages the reduction and even elimination of waste in many ways. For instance:

Sustainable food practices promote the consumption of ‘ugly’ produce.

By consuming the not-so-great-looking produce you win on two fronts – you reduce food waste and the much-unneeded emissions (food that ends up in landfills contributes to greenhouse emissions.)

Sustainable food practices look at the big picture.

40% of all the grain produced worldwide is used to feed livestock. However, animals are inefficient food converters; they consume more food than they produce. Only about 12% of the feed calories produced by most livestock contributes directly to the human diet.

If the grain given to livestock is redirected to feeding people directly, it could feed close to 800 million people. This is about the same number of people suffering from hunger.

The reality, however, is that a lot of grains are still fed to livestock. This is where sustainable food practices come in.

The practices support sustainable livestock production that exploits resources better. Focus goes to animals that eat food humans can’t eat. For example, producing herbivores that eat forage plants, e.g. sheep, cows, and goats, is better than producing poultry and pigs, which compete with humans for food.

Similarly, farming herbivorous fish like tilapia is preferable over farming fish that eat other fish e.g. salmon and tuna. Fish like anchovies and herring are being fished to the brink of extinction to support fish farms, making the system unsustainable.

Sustainable food systems reduce waste, improve food security, and combat hunger.  

6. Helping to curb overproduction

The ‘buy ugly produce’ movement is in full swing.

Entire business models have been built around promoting the consumption of ugly produce. However, it’s important to realise that we have excessive produce in the first place because of overproduction.

Sustainable food practices may support the consumption of ugly produce, but more importantly, they seek to create food systems where excess food isn’t produced in the first place. By curbing overproduction, food goes where it is needed and waste is reduced.

7. Improving livelihoods

Improved livelihoods may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of food, but they are one of the elements that make food sustainable.

For instance, organic food may be all the buzz but it doesn’t address the issue of feeding people equitably, or at least, acceptably. Sustainable food does.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1: No Poverty

End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

Organic food tends to be on the expensive side of things. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that organically-produced food costs anywhere between 10% to 30% more than mass-produced conventional food.

One of the main ideas behind sustainable food production is to make food affordable and more accessible to everyone despite their economic status. This contributes to the sustainability of communities that would otherwise have to rely extensively on food aid. 

Developing rural communities are an especially important consideration when it comes to the role sustainable food plays in improving livelihoods. Many of these communities are affected by high rates of unemployment and they also lack access to adequate healthcare and education.

Sustainable agriculture can help the communities address the socio-economic issues they face, by providing both food and work. This way, the communities can thrive and secure their futures. 

8. Promoting ethical and equitable labour practices

Sustainable food is produced in a way that protects the lives of people who produce it. For example, people who face the greatest health risk from exposure to pesticides are those who come into contact with them as they work.

Sustainable food production practices eliminate exposure to toxins and harsh chemicals that can affect health. They also provide safe working conditions for people in the production system.

Sustainable food production is also hinged on providing social and economic equity.

Unfair labour practices are commonplace in the world of agriculture. When you make sustainable food choices this means that the people behind your food production are not subjected to exploitation in their working environment and they get fair compensation for their work.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

9. Protecting water quality and supply

A key element of sustainable food production is maintaining water quality and supply.

By keeping harmful contaminants such as nitrates and pesticides out of the water, crops grow better and land remains arable. Human and animal health is also protected as toxic residues are eliminated or minimised in water systems.

Water consumption management is also important, especially in arid climates that are drought-prone. Sustainable agriculture practices develop low-volume irrigation systems and water conservation measures that ensure that limited surface water supplies are not overdrawn.

According to the WHO, 785 million people lack even basic drinking water while contaminated water causes an estimated 485,000 diarrhoeal deaths annually.

What’s more, 50% of the world’s population is expected to be living in water-stressed areas by 2025.

An infographic depicting water scarcity issues. Sustainable food production can help with water conservation.

Sustainable food production plays a big role in improving both food and water supply on an ecological and maintainable basis.

10. Addressing renewable energy production and consumption issues

Many agricultural operations depend on non-renewable energy like petroleum-based fuels and coal. These resources are not renewable and they contribute to carbon emissions.

Sustainable agricultural operations are promoting the use of renewable energy sources in food production. Renewable energy sources include solar and wind.

Less non-renewable energy sources mean less negative impact on planet health.

Now that we have a better understanding of what makes food sustainable, let’s take a look at another element of sustainable food – sustainable food systems.

Sustainable food and sustainable food systems

Let’s start with the obvious question; what is a sustainable food system?

A sustainable food system (SFS) is one that ensures that everyone gets nutrition and food security in a way that’s economic, socially acceptable, and environmentally sound. A sustainable food system also ensures that the nutrition and food security of future generations is not compromised.

A venn diagram showing the overlap between economic, social, and environmental impacts in sustainable food systems

Although not yet fully functional because of their complex nature and the required interconnectedness of actions on a global level, sustainable food systems aim to end hunger, improve nutrition, and ultimately, achieve food security.

The idea is to achieve all this in a way that’s inclusive of poor and marginalised populations.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2: Zero Hunger

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Why do we need sustainable food systems?

Sustainable food systems allow for better feedback and collaboration when it comes to improving nutrition and food security and curbing hunger. They make it easier to accomplish multiple objectives simultaneously; for example, providing nutritious food and improving the livelihoods of those in the system.

Sustainable food systems take a holistic approach to food production. They take into account all the elements affecting the system (how the elements are interlinked and their effect on the system).

For example, a sustainable food system will not consider food production in isolation. It looks at how production activities fit into the complete value chain. Each process is viewed as part of the entire whole. This allows the system to address the limitations of traditional approaches to improving nutrition and food security.

For instance, even though farmers are responsible for producing the food we eat, a lot of them suffer from seasonal hunger. It doesn’t make sense that the person who produces food goes hungry, but this is the reality. Two of the primary reasons for this problem are the low pay and unfair labour practices that the farmers are subjected to.

A sustainable food system seeks to address this issue. This is done by not only looking at the food that the farmers produce, but at the compensation the farmers receive as well. By receiving fair wages, farmers can ensure their own food security. 

We need sustainable food systems because they allow us to see the bigger picture. Seeing the bigger picture allows for more targeted action. It also increases the efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness of the food system.

A robust sustainable food system is important in the building of a global system that addresses both current and future food needs. 

A flow chart showing the food system development paradigm by FAO

Sustainable food. Check.

Sustainable food systems. Check.

Let’s move on to some questions, misconceptions, and debates that surround sustainable food.

While we’re at it, we’ll also look at how you can start making sustainable food choices, where we are in the sustainable food journey, and what the future may hold.

Is organic food sustainable?

Living sustainably and protecting the environment are top concerns for many people. As many as 77% of people want to learn how to live more sustainably.

In this quest for knowledge, one of the frequently asked questions is “is organic food sustainable?”

Here’s what organic farming entails:

  • It’s not reliant on the regular pesticides and non-renewable oil-based fertilizers. Organic farming uses organic pest control and fertilisers.

  • It ensures that no harmful chemicals get into the water system and that soil health is rebuilt. This maintains biodiversity and protects ecosystems.

  • It results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Organic agriculture systems have been shown to produce 48-66% less carbon dioxide emissions per hectare compared to conventional systems.

Organic food does seem sustainable, but is it?

For one, organic farming tends to have significantly lower crop yields. In most cases, organic farming yields about 40% or less of what’s produced using conventional farming methods. This is very limiting.  

Feeding billions of people on organic food would require vast amounts of additional land for agriculture. Much of that land would have to be taken from free spaces like forests and this would impact the environment negatively (think deforestation).

Going all organic may, in fact, have a bigger negative impact on the climate. It’s been suggested that emissions may rise by around 21% with organic farming compared to conventional farming.

From this, it’s clear that organic food and sustainable food are not the same thing. However, compared to food produced using traditional farming methods that disregard human and planet health, organic food is a more sustainable choice.

Local food ≠ sustainable food

Eat fresh, local, and organic!

How many times have you heard that statement?

Just like organic food, local food has grown in popularity. It has many benefits which include:

  • Support for local farmers. Buying local supports local farms and creates employment for people in the local farming, food processing, and distribution systems.

  • Boosting the local economy. Money spent at local farms and food producers stays in the local economy, supporting local economic growth.

  • Less time in transit. Local food travels smaller distances to market. This means that less fuel is used to transport the food and fewer emissions are generated. Less travel time between farm and plate also means food is fresher and loses fewer nutrients.

  • Less waste. Local food incurs less spoilage because of the shorter distribution chain. This is good for minimising food waste.

  • Diversifying local agriculture. Demand for local food reduces monoculture – farmers start growing multiple crops to cater to different consumer needs and this diversification promotes soil health.

  • Building communities that are better connected. Local food production allows consumers and farmers to meet and connect. This can create more vibrant communities.

These are all great attributes but local food is not necessarily sustainable.

For instance, the local farmer may use chemicals that harm human health and the environment. Local farmworkers may be exploited and not compensated fairly. The farming methods used may harm the land and water systems.

You get the picture, right?

Although local food has many advantages compared to food that’s not locally produced, local can still be unsustainable.

One common question and misconception down, let’s look at one of the biggest debates surrounding food and sustainability.

Sustainable food and the GMO debacle

The issue of food and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continues to be a topic of hot debate and it’s easy to see why.  

There’s lots of confusion and a lack of education when it comes to genetically modified (GM) food. In fact, over 55% of consumers don’t know whether GM food is good or bad for them. There are also lots of issues surrounding transparency – 84% of consumers want companies to disclose information and educate them on the GMOs in their food.

In pursuit of “sustainability,” many shoppers have decided to ditch anything with GMOs for organic food or at least GMO-free food. This is all great, but the thing is if we want true sustainability, we may actually have to consider GM food instead.

The benefits of GM food

• GMOs and pesticides

Pests, viruses, and fungi can decrease crop quantity and quality. Farmers often use pesticides and other chemicals to control these pests, fungi, and viruses. However, these are the same pesticides and chemicals that can harm human health and end up polluting the environment.

On the other hand, scientists can alter the DNA of certain crops to minimize destruction by pests, fungi, and viruses, thereby reducing chemical use. For example, crops with Bt, a built-in organic pesticide, have reduced insecticide use, and in some cases, they have even reduced pest population.

A graph showing the correlation between Bt corn uptake and insecticide use in U.S. cornfields

This modification approach has been used to save the Hawaiian papaya. It’s also being used to ensure the continued growth of the cacao plants and the preservation of bananas from the severe productivity constraints brought about by disease and pests.

• Dealing with climate change using GMOs

Our water supply is dwindling and climate change is making thing worse.

While other areas are drying up, others are getting floods with increased intensity.

We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.
– Thomas Fuller

Scientists are turning to genetic modification in response to this double-edged problem. They have created several GMO crop varieties that can survive and thrive in dry areas. These crop varieties make a great choice for reducing irrigation and water use.

There are also solutions for areas experiencing unprecedented flooding. For example, scientists have engineered rice that can be grown in overly flooded areas. From these examples, it looks like GM foods are a viable avenue to feed the growing global population in a world that’s now characterised by water problems and extreme climate conditions.

• New pests and genetic modification

As the earth warms up, farmers are beginning to migrate to higher lands that are more humid and have cooler air.

But with this move to higher altitudes, crops are encountering new species of pests, bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Fortunately, genetic modification is one of the solutions being used to minimize crop devastation and waste.

• Increased yield with genetic engineering

Scientists have developed GM crops with a better yield than their non-GM counterparts.

For instance, by altering a single DNA sequence, scientists have developed tomato plants that sprout additional branches. This results in more tomatoes that don’t fall off the branch prematurely.

This development has aided farmers to increase their yields and reduce waste by minimising the number of tomatoes that fall to the ground and decay before being picked.

So what’s the problem with GM foods?

Are GM foods healthy or not? That is the big question.

Among the commonly expressed concerns are:

  • the unwanted nutritional content changes in GM foods
  • the potential toxic effect of GM foods on bodily organs
  • the creation of allergens

Close to 67% of consumers believe that GM foods are unsafe BUT almost 90% of scientists believe that GMOs are not hazardous. Many genetic experiments have been conducted to support this and some of the scientists’ views have even been endorsed by the WHO.

The fear of GM foods is still theoretical and establishing any long-term safety will take many years of study. However, GM foods are great from a sustainability perspective, especially considering all the climate change.

So how do we move forward from the paralysis of pro- and anti-GMO movements?

There’s no clear-cut solution, but it may be beneficial to identify the merits and drawbacks of GM foods and balance them out with some sustainable food production practices. Our health and well-being and that of future generations likely hinges on a combination of conventional practices, sustainable ones, and some genetic modification.  

Ultimately, food producers’ transparency will make or break GM food acceptance. If GMOs are safe, at least for now, what’s there to hide? It’s important to outline any genetic engineering that has taken place and to educate consumers on what that means for their health.

We all want sustainability (well at least most of us anyway). Cooperation, compromise, and mutual trust are what will help us get there.

Let’s now take a look at how you can start making sustainable food choices.

How to make sustainable food choices

According to the annual Food and Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, consumers struggle with recognising environmentally sustainable food sources.

For example, in the U.S., environmental sustainability has remained the lowest food purchase driver over the past decade and beyond. Although the number of people considering environmental sustainability when purchasing food seems to be on the rise, we can’t be certain that this growth will continue.  

Charts showing the drivers of food purchases over the past 10 years.

It’s highly likely that environmental sustainability is not a big consideration because many people lack knowledge on issues of sustainability. 6 in 10 consumers can’t determine whether their food choices are sustainable and 63% of them say sustainability would influence their choices more if it were easier to identify.

How to identify sustainable food

While there is no universal way of identifying sustainable food, you can use the following methods to help you consume sustainable food:

1. Eat local

Sustainable eating requires proactive involvement in your foods’ journey. It’s advisable to foster relationships with your food producers as this makes it easier for you to know how your food is produced.

Do workers always complain of exploitation? Is the farmer notorious for dousing crops in pesticides?

When you know who is producing your food and how they are producing it, it’s easier to make wise choices. For example, you can boycott a farmer who practices unsustainable livestock farming and opt for one who offers better protein choices.

Eating local is also a great way to eat food that’s in season and readily available. This reduces the impact of transporting food over great distances. Wherever possible, buy directly from the source.

2. Go for natural, organic, free-range…

You can go sustainable by opting for free-range, natural, eco-friendly, or organic produce.

But beware of greenwashing and deceit!

A label with “Organic” or “Natural” isn’t enough. Sometimes, the only thing natural about a product is the deception.

Some dodgy brands have taken it upon themselves to ride the sustainability wave without actually making an effort to produce truly sustainable food.

Go for trusted brands. Take the time to do a bit of research to appreciate what the brands behind your food are all about and to understand their values and their take on sustainability.

Also look for certification that’s accredited by legit institutions like the USDA, Ecocert, FREPA, or the Marine Stewardship Council.

3. Look out for palm oil

Palm oil is present in many foods and products. The big problem is that ecosystems and tropical rainforests are being destroyed to create room for palm oil plantations.

Fires used for clearing the spaces are polluting the air and large amounts of greenhouse gases are being emitted. Many animals including elephants and orangutans are also losing their lives or their food sources as space is created for palm plantations. Ultimately, this is affecting biodiversity.

Try to go for products containing no palm oil or those with ethically sourced palm oil.

Also, keep in mind that palm oil is listed in several ways on ingredients lists. Some common names for palm oil include vegetable fat, vegetable oil, glyceryl, stearic acid, and emulsifier 471.

Ethical Consumer provides a great resource for identifying brands to avoid when it comes to palm oil.

4. Don’t forget the packaging

The food is only as good as the packaging it comes in. There’s no point in looking for sustainable food when all its benefits are easily countered by the packaging it comes in.

Packaging production uses lots of resources including energy and water. Packaging waste also pollutes the soil, water, and air. Total packaging waste exceeds 86.7 million tonnes annually and so it’s important to go for packaging that can be reduced, reused, or recycled.

In an ideal world, we’d make all the plastic disappear. Regrettably, this is just impossible right now. The best thing to do is to avoid plastic packaging as much possible, especially if it’s single-use.

If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.
– Pete Seeger

Some better packaging alternatives include cardboard, paper, biodegradable plastic, and recycled glass.

Tip: The bag you use to carry your food from the store is just as important as the packaging the food comes in. While paper bags may be a better option compared to plastic bags, reusable bags are better.

5. Grow your own food

Not only does growing your own food mean you know exactly what’s in it, but it also reduces the number of processes it takes to get food to your plate. Growing your own food also enriches your immediate environment with plants that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Better yet, when you garden, you get some physical activity. There’s even evidence that gardeners are less stressed and they live longer. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a win-win scenario for you. Imagine how rewarding and satisfying it is to enjoy the food you have grown yourself.  

Besides these five methods, you can also enhance your sustainability efforts by asking the following questions.

The questions

  • Do I need it?

Don’t buy food for no particular reason. Asking this question will help you to save money and avoid unnecessary waste.

  • Is the food locally produced or made?

Local food has fewer ‘food miles’, which are a measure of the energy used and the pollution caused when moving food from farm to home. It’s also easier to trace the production process of locally produced food plus the food supports the local economy.

  • Is the produce in season?

Food that’s in season is fresh without any unnecessary food miles.

  • Does the food come with any certification?

Opting for food with certification means you are encouraging food production that cares for your health and that of the environment and animals.

  • How is the food packaged?

Avoid unnecessary packaging. For instance, it’s unnecessary to buy fruit packaged in single-use plastic bags when you can just pack the fruit in a reusable shopping bag.

  • If there’s any waste, do I know what to do with it?

Having a waste management plan will make reducing, reusing, and recycling way easier. Also remember not to overlook composting, which is easier than you think and can be done regardless of where you live.

With time and a bit of diligence, it should become easier to identify sustainable food. Sustainable food will always come with some nutritional, ethical, environmentally friendly, and affordability dimensions to it.

This has been a pretty long post, even if I should say so myself. So let’s start wrapping it up.

Where are we with adopting sustainable food?

People are increasingly aware of the importance of making sustainable food choices, but adoption is still very low.

We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.
– Terry Swearingen

Taste and price remain the consumers’ key drivers of food purchasing – older generations prefer taste over everything else and younger generations are more concerned with price and saving on purchases.

Chart showing the drivers of food purchases between 2018 and 2020

It’s interesting to note that healthfulness remains a top purchase driver meaning there’s room for healthy, sustainable food to drive purchases. Increasing interest in sustainable food choices likely comes down to being able to provide sustainable food that’s also affordable and tasty.

Who is leading the sustainable food movement?

While only 34% of Baby Boomers are concerned with the impact of their food choices, the younger generations are making a mark in the sustainable food space.

The younger generations…

Close to 75% of millennials are changing their buying habits to prioritise ethics and sustainability. They are increasingly interested in wholesome, natural, and ethical food over fast food.

90% of millennials choose to eat healthy, only ever indulging in the not-so-healthy food occasionally. 50% of all organic food consumption also belongs to this group. That’s how serious millennials are about going healthy and being sustainable.

Gen Z is also ‘doing the most’ and deserves a special mention.

Gen Z’s, who are expected to make up close to a third of the world’s population by 2021, already have deeply formed views about products that are sustainable and eco-friendly. They want to see more of them and food is no exception – it accounts for up to 25% of their spending.

Gen Z’s want healthier food. Already, they are championing partial or complete veganism – 75% are cutting down meat consumption and 65% are seeing the appeal of plant-based food. This is big and will undeniably disrupt the food industry since Gen Z’s have high buying power.

In the US, it’s estimated that Gen Z accounts for up to $143 billion in direct spending and $600 billion in indirect spending. Globally, the generation’s buying power is estimated to be $3.4 trillion, an amount that exceeds the GDP of all but 11 countries in the world.

The younger generations are willing to pay more for products with ingredients that are sustainable, organic, natural, socially responsible, and environmentally friendly. They are interested in how their food is sourced and grown and how their choices affect their carbon footprint.

…and the ladies

Women are also taking a serious stance on food issues. They are shopping with sustainability in mind.

Although men are also doing this, women tend to be more thoughtful and empathetic, wanting sustainability for more selfless reasons. Studies have shown that 50% of women are likely to consider sustainability when buying food. This is considerable since only 36% of men are likely to consider sustainability.

Women and younger generations are leading the adoption of sustainable food. However, it’s also true that more people outside these two groups are starting to appreciate how healthy and sustainable food choices can support their health and that of the planet.

Where should we be with the adoption of sustainable food?

At some point, we had 12 years to save our beautiful earth.

Right now, we are kinda running out of time. But we can’t just let our planet die.

We have to work with what we have and the time to act is now.

Plate full of fruit and vegetables.

The definition of sustainability is broad and there’s no single universal model that can address all the components of that definition. If we are going to make progress on the sustainable food front, action will have to be tailored to particular situations and conditions.

For example, it’s not very prudent to advocate stopping livestock production when we know that not everyone is open to eliminating meat from their diet. The way forward is to take a practical approach to achieving sustainability, one unique scenario at a time.

For instance, an operation specialising in livestock production may increase sustainability by improving its waste management procedures and facilities. Similarly, a farm growing crops may become more sustainable by avoiding synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and opting for organic solutions.

Universal sustainability guidelines

Several universal sustainability guidelines exist and it’s time we start applying them to our different food production situations. These guidelines include applying energy conservation practices, paying living wages to employees, and complying with environmental protection and food safety regulations.

The guidelines are generic and act as a great starting point towards building sustainable food systems. However, site-specific measures are more effective. This is why it’s important to adopt a flexible approach to implementing more sustainable processes.

Ultimately, the success of our efforts will ride on our ability to balance sustainable food production and consumption, ensuring that everything, or at least almost everything, is done responsibly with a focus on actually making a positive change.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.


Final Thoughts

For us and future generations.

That’s what sustainability is all about.

Sustainable food is a crucial element of sustainability and it’s very important for our survival. The question is, are you making an effort to consume sustainable food?

The worst thing is to assume that someone else will step in to save our planet. Saving our planet and living sustainably begins with you and me.

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.
– Robert Swan



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