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Serving Sustainability: How Sustainable Foods Impact The Environment

“Sustainable foods,” in a nutshell, refers to growing enough food to support human life without causing unnecessary harm to the environment. Food sustainability also addresses the economic and nutritional concerns of food production on a global scale. It’s a multifaceted issue, but one that is also critical to the long-term survival of humanity.

People need food to live, and the foods we choose to eat can have a significant impact on our physical health. Those food choices, however, and how different types of food are produced, also have a significant impact on the health of the environment. Food production can contribute to climate change, eutrophication (the excessive buildup of nutrients in water), acid rain, and even a lack of biodiversity.

Sustainable Foods and Their Impact

Traditional styles of industrial agriculture can negatively influence the environment. According to Harvard’s School for Public Health, agriculture is the “largest cause of global environmental change,” speaking in terms of man-made activities. It’s responsible for “approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.” What’s more, agriculture uses considerable amounts of land and resources, putting a drain on the ecosystem and the stability of the global environment.

Sustainable food practices, however, can limit the impacts of traditional agriculture, maximizing productivity while also preserving resources. Here are a few ways in which sustainable practices can benefit food production and the environment.

Limiting Monoculture

One of the goals of sustainable agriculture is to limit monoculture, the practice of planting large fields with only a single type of crop. Monoculture farming is harmful, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, because growing the same type of plant in the same spot year after year depletes the soil of nutrients and leaves it more vulnerable to erosion. Beyond that, runoff from fertilizers and herbicides used in industrial monoculture farming increase greenhouse emissions and harm wildlife, leading to decreasing numbers of important birds, insects and fish.

Topping this off is the vulnerability that single crops have to diseases. One disease has the potential to wipe out an entire crop, impacting both the yields and the prices of that crop down the line. Sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, promotes farming methods that embrace diverse crops. This allows farmers to make better use of available land, increasing their farm’s resilience to disease and droughts, and eliminating their reliance on just a few crops for sustainable income.

Conserving Energy

Traditional agriculture uses a large amount of resources. Most notably, standard agricultural practices take a lot of fossil fuels, which are used to transport foods cross country and contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Contrast sustainable practices, which emphasize farming methods that take advantage of alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar, waste vegetable oil and more. It also focuses on reducing pollution and optimizing efficiency to use less water, fuel and land.

Reducing Harm to Humans and Animals

In many cases, traditional agriculture emphasizes profit over everything. This can lead to improper treatment of animals and the possibility of antibiotic resistance in harmful bacteria due to the overuse of antibiotics in the meat farming industry. Antibiotic resistance, in turn, can lead to difficulties in the treatment of infectious disease for both animals and humans, making conventional farming a less-than-ideal scenario. The World Health Organization said:

“Over-use and misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans is contributing to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance. Some types of bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most or all of the available treatments, and there are very few promising options in the research pipeline.”

Sustainable farming practices, on the other hand, deemphasize the use of antibiotics and inhumane livestock farming practices, instead focusing on quality living for animals by providing greater amounts of space and integrating livestock cultivation into a plant-based farm environment. This, in turn, creates more humane conditions for animals and leads to improved resilience against disease and environmental shifts.

Additional Benefits

Beyond the environmental effects, sustainable food practices come with additional benefits, like the support of local communities. Since the focus of many sustainable practices are at a micro-level, they help reinvest in the local community, increasing profitable farm incomes and enhancing the quality of life for farming communities. What’s more, the decentralized nature of sustainable agriculture limits the negative outcomes if a single farm runs into trouble, stabilizing the food supply for a greater number of people and saving money in the process.

Notable Sustainable Food Options

Sustainable foods satisfy human nutritional needs while limiting impacts on the environment. Generally, this means favoring vegetables over meat, locally-produced options over those that are transported from far away, and selecting foods that help enhance the environment during their production.

Specific examples of sustainable food choices include:

  • Beans and lentils: Both part of the legume family, these foods are cheap, use little water in their production and have a low carbon footprint. Legume crops don’t require nitrogen-based fertilizers to grow, and many are nitrogen-fixers, meaning they take gases from the atmosphere and use them to fortify the soil with nutrients.
  • Peas: Peas are an exemplary choice, requiring less fertilizer and enriching the soil similar to beans and lentils.
  • Tomatoes: Tomatoes have a low carbon footprint, and their deep root systems allow them to grab moisture where other plants might not, limiting the need for extra watering.
  • Broccoli: Broccoli and vegetables like it are naturally pest resistant, eliminating the need for excess chemicals in their production.

Of course, these aren’t the only sustainable food options in existence. Any organic, seasonal and locally grown produce helps contribute to sustainability.

Meat eaters looking to improve the sustainability of their diets should opt for chicken and fish over beef and lamb. The latter options have high carbon footprints and use excessive amounts of water in their production. Chicken and fish are more efficiently produced by comparison. If you opt for local, seasonal fish, it allows for those populations to replenish themselves naturally, which combats the effects of overfishing and makes fishing a viable option in the long term.

A common thread linking these sustainable choices is the concept of farm-to-table, the emphasis on using locally grown food and skipping the grocery store by purchasing from farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture programs. This helps to limit environmental impacts, improve sustainability and combat the problem of food waste.

The Effects of Food Waste

Food waste refers to food that is grown or produced and then discarded without being eaten. A recent paper from the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine has estimated that “of the 200 million metric tons of food produced annually in the U.S., 60 million metric tons go to waste.” This translates to billions of dollars lost, in addition to time, energy, resources and the food itself, which could have gone to feed hungry populations.

Food waste also puts a strain on the environment. The Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that food waste contributes to roughly 8% of global, man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and that nearly 30% of the world’s agricultural lands are wasted on food that is produced and uneaten. Countering food waste, therefore, would go a long way in improving global food sustainability, and groups like the FAO work at both macro and micro levels to reduce waste.

At the macro level, addressing inefficiencies in the way food is produced and implementing sound governmental policies is key to correcting the current systems that contribute to waste. Individual consumer choices play a role in food waste solutions as well, though, and for its part, the FAO works to educate individuals on best practices in regards to food handling and proper food storage to prevent waste. A few of the individual actions that people can take to reduce waste include:

  • Meal planning and purchasing only what is needed.
  • Eating leftovers.
  • Composting inedible food.
  • Being less picky about the appearance of fruits and vegetables.
  • Donating excess foodstuffs.

Food waste is a complex issue, but changing personal habits is a strong first step that can help raise awareness and turn the tide toward a more sustainable future.

Food sustainability is an important topic for everyone and will take action from governments, food producers, and individuals alike to address properly. Individuals who want to learn more about how food choices affect the environment and want to become more involved in the process of change should consider earning an online environmental studies degree. These programs are the first step to entering the field and offer a broad foundation of knowledge in key areas like science, economics and how humans fit into the natural world.

The online Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies at Virginia Wesleyan University provides a well-rounded education to complement your passion for the issues facing our environment. By studying topics that emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the field, you will be able to apply what you learn in the workplace. Our online bachelor’s program emphasizes real-world skill development along with flexibility, so you can complete your education in a format that works for you.