“You know that what you eat you are.” ~The Beatles
“The shorter the chain between raw food and fork, the fresher it is and the more transparent the system is.” ~Joel Salatin
“There is real power in our forks, I’ve discovered. There is hope here. We see it once we see ourselves connected to people creating food systems that are nourishing – nourishing for us and the earth. And we feel this connection in one of the most simple acts we perform every day: eating.” ~Anna Lappe
Food. Now there’s a topic that interests everybody. And there is a lot more to it besides we like to eat: nutritional value; obesity; persistent hunger and malnutrition; food security for all; the economics and politics of food; the social, physical and economic wellbeing of food workers; the transparency and long-term viability of food systems; impacts of climate change; pollution; waste generation; water and energy use; skyrocketing populations to be fed; broad social and environmental impacts of food systems; resource conservation, and more.
As with all topics, when it comes to food and food systems, sustainability demands that we step back and take a fresh, comprehensive look at the current food system and its outcomes. We must examine the full body of evidence from all vantage points, examine our most basic assumptions and behaviors as individuals and as a society, and evaluate all that against the principles and practices that define sustainable.
Working our way around the Sustainability Compass, that means creating food systems that protect biodiversity and restore Nature rather than degrade it; food systems that support viable and inclusive Economic outcomes; food systems that are culturally appropriate and nurture vibrant Social conditions in communities around the world; and food systems that nourish individual health and Wellbeing for all.
Measuring current practices and outcomes according to the principles and desired outcomes of a sustainable food system, much of what we do today needs to change. What might that change look like? What are we aiming for? What are the metrics that define sustainable food systems?
In 2013, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development published a report by more than sixty international experts entitled “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate.” From the report’s press release:
“The Trade and Environment Report recommends a rapid and significant shift away from “conventional, monoculture-based… industrial production” of food that depends heavily on external inputs such as fertilizer, agro-chemicals, and concentrate . Instead, it says that the goal should be “mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers and foster rural development”. The report stresses that governments must find ways to factor in and reward farmers for currently unpaid public goods they provide – such as clean water, soil and landscape preservation, protection of biodiversity, and recreation.”
Other organizations and groups of experts have also developed sets of recommendations and that more or less reflect the same kinds of ideas, such as the compiled and endorsed by a 2010 collaboration among the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Nurses Association, American Planning Association, and American Public Health Association:
We support socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable food systems that promote health — the current and future health of individuals, communities, and the natural environment.
A healthy, sustainable food system is:
* Supports the physical and mental health of all farmers, workers, and eaters
* Accounts for the public health impacts across the entire lifecycle of how food is produced, processed, packaged, labeled, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed
* Conserves, protects, and regenerates natural resources, landscapes, and biodiversity
* Meets our current food and nutrition needs without compromising the ability of the system to meet the needs of future generations
* Thrives in the face of challenges, such as unpredictable climate, increased pest resistance, and declining, increasingly expensive water and energy supplies
* Size and scale — includes a diverse range of food production, transformation, distribution, marketing, consumption, and disposal practices, occurring at diverse scales, from local and regional to national and global
* Geography — considers geographic differences in natural resources, climate, customs, and heritage
* Culture — appreciates and supports a diversity of cultures, socio-demographics, and lifestyles
* Choice — provides a variety of health-promoting food choices for all
* Supports fair and just communities and conditions for all farmers, workers, and eaters
* Provides equitable physical access to affordable food that is health promoting and culturally appropriate
* Provides economic opportunities that are balanced across geographic regions of the country and at different scales of activity, from local to global, for a diverse range of food system stakeholders
* Affords farmers and workers in all sectors of the system a living wage
* Provides opportunities for farmers, workers, and eaters to gain the knowledge necessary to understand how food is produced, transformed, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed
* Empowers farmers, workers and eaters to actively participate in decision making in all sectors of the system
A healthy, sustainable food system emphasizes, strengthens, and makes visible the interdependent and inseparable relationships between individual sectors (from production to waste disposal) and characteristics (health-promoting, sustainable, resilient, diverse, fair, economically balanced, and transparent) of the system.
Another resource, the Sustainable Food Lab, defines a sustainable food system this way: “We define a sustainable food and agriculture system as one in which the fertility of our soil is maintained and improved; the availability and quality of water are protected and enhanced; our biodiversity is protected; farmers, farm workers, and all other actors in value chains have livable incomes; the food we eat is affordable and promotes our health; sustainable businesses can thrive; and the flow of energy and the discharge of waste, including greenhouse gas emissions, are within the capacity of the earth to absorb forever.”
There is a lot behind these principles, and to achieve a sustainable food system will require active citizen engagement and participation in two key areas: food policy advocacy, and food purchasing decisions. Citizen advocacy is and will be necessary to ensure that food policies and laws protect the public interest above all else. And as Joel Salatin says, “You, as a food buyer, have the distinct privilege of proactively participating in shaping the world your children will inherit.” Where we choose to spend our food dollars speaks volumes and will help drive the food system in the right direction.
Aside from exercising our rights and responsibilities as citizen advocates for enlightened food policy and production, what specific steps can individuals and families take to provide the most nourishing food and support an improved food system? For a few tips, check out the Good Food Choices poster in the October, 2014 .
Also, it is helpful to inform ourselves about nutrition and other food issues. A good place to start is right here at Auburn. The Auburn University Food Systems Institute (AUFSI) was established in 2013. Directed by Dr. Patricia Curtis, Professor of Poultry Science, AUFSI exists to “provide an infrastructure for promoting interdisciplinary research, outreach, teaching, and training opportunities relating to food systems among faculty in academia, personnel in industry, decision-makers in government, and consumers in the general public….”
And this year, the Auburn University Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development published Auburn Speaks: On Food Systems. You will find copies in the library and in the campus bookstore.
George Bernard Shaw wrote: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” I expect his conviction is rooted in the many human pleasures associated with eating good food in good company, and in acknowledgement of the fundamental and obvious truth that food is essential for life.
How important then that we do all we can to achieve the conditions required for a truly sustainable food system. Like all things sustainability, this aspiration is rooted in our most deeply held values about how we want to take care of ourselves, meet the needs of others, and protect the life-giving systems of Earth that enable us and future generations to ensure health and wellbeing.
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“… food systems that protect biodiversity and restore Nature …” There is a serious question that we probably cannot answer: is humanity not already too populous to achieve satisfying its nutritional needs through using more and more land, even if it tries to do so “sustainably” (which I take to mean e.g. reduce or reverse loss of top soil, leaching phosphorous into rivers and lakes and stop curtailing the habitat of all kinds of species)? Seeing that “technology” (if we can call it that) like aquaponics allows up to eight times the yield “per acre” that traditional farming, even conventional greenhouses allow, seeing that such installations can bring food production close to urban sprawl and thus reduce the need for transportation plus allow more freshness in the process, I think humankind, if it intends to even grow in numbers,may need to say good-bye to traditional intensive and extensive farming and think more in terms of closed-loop food production like it would necessarily do if e.g. it went to colonize Mars.