What is Sustainable Food?
Sustainable food is food that is healthy for consumers and produced in an humane, ecologically benign, socially responsible and economically fair way. That’s a wide range of criteria, but true sustainability extends beyond merely reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
While climate change is one of the most visible concerns for proponents of sustainability, there are numerous other concerns that must be considered when advocating for a food system that can sustain us indefinitely. Wage inequity, the unethical treatment of animals and the destruction of the natural resources on which agriculture depends are all pressing issues that need to be addressed.
Everything from maintaining those finite natural resources to efficiently satisfying human needs to improving our communities must be taken into account in a truly “sustainable” model of the food industry. But what do those concerns mean in concrete terms?
A Tailored Approach to Sustainable Agriculture
The US Government has defined sustainable agriculture as:
“an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
This definition provides that there is no single universal model that addresses these needs—rather they must be “site-specific,” tailored to the particular situation and conditions of a food production operation. The needs and goals of any agricultural operation are, while somewhat similar, unique to its own set of circumstances.
For example, a cattle-raising operation may increase its sustainability by improving waste management facilities and procedures, while a farm that grows staple crops like corn and soy might do more good by avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Universal Sustainability Guidelines
Certainly, there are sustainability guidelines that can be more or less uniformly applied no matter the situation, such as paying living wages to employees, complying with FDA and EPA regulations, improving the efficiency of processes and applying energy conservation practices.
However, beyond some of those fundamental principles, site-specific measures are always going to be more effective than general standards. That’s why it’s important to have a flexible definition of sustainable food and agriculture–and why it’s important to be flexible when it comes to implementing more sustainable processes.