Sustainable Food Systems: What, Why, & How?
To take a bite out of inequality, health crises, climate change, and ecological destruction, we need sustainable food systems.
Humans have never produced or, given the global population increase, consumed as much food as we currently do.
But—and this is a BIG but—the way in which our modern food systems operate is killing us and our planet.
Modern agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and over the last 100 years, we’ve lost the diversity of more than 90% of traditional crops and 50% of animals formerly bred for food all while polluting innumerable rivers and aquifers.
All to waste a staggering 30% of the food we produce in the US along with the water used to produce it.
Even more shockingly, the UN estimates that 50% of all fruit and vegetables produced globally are wasted each year.
Much of that which isn’t wasted proceeds to fill our bodies with antibiotics and pesticide residues.
Sustainable food systems work to improve the social, environmental, and human health sustainability of all aspects of food—from seed to spoon.
Let’s take a look at how sustainable food systems work and why they’re so important.
QUICK LINKS TO SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
1. SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS DEFINITION
What exactly is a sustainable food system?
The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations offers an in-depth analysis in an effort to answer this very question, but here’s the long and short of it:
Sustainable food systems promote food and nutrition security for all.
They do so in a way that safeguards the ecological, social, cultural, and economic bases upon which food security depends—ensuring their availability for future generations.
This requires both minimizing negative environmental impacts and fostering socio-economic welfare.
To accomplish this, sustainable food systems must protect and respect—rather than exploit—ecosystems, biodiversity, social equity, and human well-being.
They’re centered around fair, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate, healthy foods that conserve natural resources and local and Indigenous knowledge.
It’s important that environmental, social, and economic sustainability are promoted throughout all aspects of the supply chain: production, aggregation, processing, distribution, retail, consumption, and disposal.
2. HOW SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS CAN SOLVE CURRENT PROBLEMS
Like the sustainable food systems themselves, the corresponding framework takes a diverse approach to correcting the many social and environmental problems associated with the modern food system.
Problem #1: Modern agriculture contributes to climate change.
Current food systems are responsible for at least 19-29% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe)
Sustainable food systems curb this impact by:
- Using practices that keep more carbon in the soil (cover crops, no-till farming, regenerative grazing)
- Requiring less fossil fuel-based inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.)
- Encouraging a shift to lower-impact local, seasonal food
- Intensifying production on current land to minimize land-cover changes
Problem #2: We produce enough food; we don’t distribute it equitably.
Enough food is produced to feed everyone on our planet—yet hunger is on the rise around the globe. More than 821 million people are “chronically undernourished”.
Sustainable food systems require us to bridge this gap, ensuring that everyone receives sufficient food.
This means promoting gender equality.
Around the globe, and particularly in rural areas, women are a key piece in the puzzle of fighting malnutrition and hunger, and making food systems more sustainable and productive.
Already, women are known to play an important role in ensuring more diverse diets, utilizing more sustainable farming practices, and reducing food losses.
If provided with the same access to resources, finance, knowledge, and support as men—and free of economic and social discrimination—women will continue to further sustainable food initiatives.
Problem #3: Monocultures are killing biodiversity.
Three-fourths of our food comes from just 12 plants and 5 animal species.
Our reliance on a limited number of genetically uniform crops has meant that our food systems are the primary driver of global biodiversity loss—responsible for the threat of 86% of global plant and animal species (used for food or not).
Diversity is key in sustainable food systems, not just to support health but also to promote resilience against pests, disease, and climate-related stressors.
Problem #4: Modern food is killing us.
Between obesity and “hidden hunger”, what we eat is contributing to disease and death at higher rates than alcohol or tobacco.
More food is being “grown” in a lab and genetically modified, rendering it less nutritious than it was decades ago.
Many of our meals are of the “convenience” variety, often consumed while scrolling on screens or rushing to get back to work.
Not only do sustainable food systems encourage the use of nutrient-rich heirloom/native plant varieties and diverse planting systems, but they promote the consumption of real, whole foods.
More importantly, sustainable farming systems work to support locally varied production systems, and the sharing of Indigenous, traditional, and local knowledge.
In doing so, they foster a deeper sense of respect and reverence for food and those involved in its journey from farm to table—and an appreciation for real nourishment.
Problem #5: We increasingly don’t know how to grow, source, or prepare food.
With the advent of junk food delivery services like Doordash, grocery delivery services like Instacart, and food replacements like Soylent, we’re more divorced from food than ever before.
Not only do many people not know how to read nutrition labels, but they often don’t care about the differences between enriched white bread with 40 unpronounceable ingredients on the list and whole-grain bread with 10 recognizable ones.
And in a free-falling economy where pinching pennies increasingly matters, it’s hardly a wonder people choose the former when the latter costs 5-10x as much.
Sustainable farming systems aim to do away with this class barrier between processed and healthy foods, partly by educating people and encouraging them to take part in local food cultivation.
We learn best by doing, after all.
3. EXAMPLES OF SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
There’s no hard and fast definition of a sustainable food system.
That said, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Often, sustainable food systems are adapted to local resources and needs and encompass action and innovation at various stages of the supply chain—especially production.
Agroecology first emerged in the early 1980s and has since become a key feature of sustainable food systems.
Over time, the definition evolved from being one that focused on improvements at the farm level (i.e. substitution of chemicals with organic inputs) to one that recognizes the ecology of the entire food system.
It takes a holistic, systems-based approach toward understanding food system sustainability, while directly confronting the political and economic power structures embodied in the current industrial food system.
Agroecology is at once a science, practice, and social movement.
Put simply, it’s driven by the need for farming systems that work with—instead of against—nature (crazy idea, huh?).
Organic agriculture promotes healthy soils, people, and ecosystems. Reliant on biodiversity, ecological processes, and cycles adapted to local conditions, it avoids the use of chemical inputs known to have negative effects.
Like many of these other types of alternative agricultural systems, organic agriculture falls under the agroecology umbrella…in theory.
Unfortunately, most of the organic food we see in the grocery store is hardly from a system that respects ecology.
Like their conventional counterparts, many organic systems are large-scale, monocropped systems purely focused on yields ($$$).
Agroforestry is the incorporation of trees and shrubs into farming systems.
Trees provide grazing animals with fodder (food) and shelter and, in return, animals’ manure enriches the soil.
The diversified agricultural approach can also help to improve soil structure, minimize erosion, improve carbon sequestration, enhance yields, and benefit farmer livelihoods.
Used for the production of food and fiber, regenerative agriculture entails grazing and farming practices that rebuild organic matter in soil, helping it to capture and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Going beyond a “do no harm” approach, regenerative agriculture revitalizes soils and the environment by incorporating holistic, organic, and permaculture farming practices (i.e. cover crops, composting, mobile animal shelters, and conservation tillage).
Instead of stripping the soil of nutrients like monocrop, nonrotating farms, these practices actively replenish the soil so that it may continue to produce healthy yields in coming years.
Developed by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture views farms as living organisms—an interconnected whole—like a wilderness forest.
It was the first alternative agriculture system to arise in response to specialized agriculture and the use of commercial fertilizers.
Some common biodynamic principles and practices include:
- The complementary use of both plants and animals.
- Use of composting, crop rotation, and cover cropping to generate on-farm soil fertility.
- Developing intimate relationships with farm organisms by observing, sensing, and listening to the land.
- Use of non-GMO, open-pollinated, and heirloom seeds and heritage breeds of animals—those that are locally adapted, when possible.
- Treating animals in ways that support their health, well-being, and the full expression of their nature (free-range foraging, no debeaking or cow horn removal, never fed animal by-products, no growth hormones).
- Contributing to the local community ecologically, socially, economically, and spiritually.
- Planting in a way that cultivates biodiversity (combining annual and perennial herbs, vegetables, berries, fruits, flowers, grains, nuts (the basis of many sustainable milk alternatives), pasture, native plants, forage, and pollinator plants).
- Enhancing compost with biodynamic preparations (fermented extracts of mineral, plant, or animal manure).
- Working in rhythm with Earth and the cosmos (sun, stars, moon, and planets).
Co-founded by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, permaculture is the conscious design of productive systems that mimic natural ecosystems in their stability, diversity, and resilience.
It’s based on three main ethics—Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share—that incorporate not just farming systems, but also homes and communities.
Again based on working with nature, permaculture is often understood through 12 holistic principles:
- Observe and Interact: Engage with nature to design solutions for a particular situation/area.
- Catch and store energy: When abundant, resources (sun, water, manure, compost) should be collected to be used in times of need.
- Obtain a yield: Create systems that are useful.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Accept the results of our actions, appreciate criticism, and avoid inappropriate behaviors and actions.
- Use and value renewable resources and services: Reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources.
- Produce no waste: Value and make use of ALL available resources.
- Design from patterns to details: After observing patterns in nature and society, start with the large picture—fill in details as we go.
- Integrate rather than segregate: Encourage symbiotic relationships and overlaps.
- Use small and slow solutions: Small-scale systems are easier to maintain and use local resources than larger ones.
- Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerabilities.
- Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between elements (lawn and forest, river and garden, sidewalk and nature strip, etc.) is where interesting things happen, and often the most diverse and productive element in the system.
- Creatively use and respond to change: Be adaptable and receptive to inevitable changes.
4. ALTERNATIVE SUSTAINABLE FOOD MARKETS & NETWORKS
It isn’t just the way we produce food that’s in need of an overhaul.
How we consume it is just as important.
Fortunately, many alternative food markets have become increasingly popular:
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): A prepaid, often-subscription based share of a farmer(s) weekly harvest
- Farmers’ Markets: A market selling produce, meat, cheese, and bakery items of local farmers
- Pick-Your-Own Farms: Farms that allow customers to pick their own fruit, vegetables, pumpkins, and more, cutting harvesting labor costs for farmers
- Box Schemes: A mixture of fruits and vegetables to encourage diverse consumption (and minimize food waste)
- Solidarity Purchasing Groups: Collective purchasing to meet the consumption/nutrition requirements of a group
- Farm Shops/Stands: A retail outlet selling produce directly from a farm
- Direct-Trade: A fair, transparent purchasing method that sources food (coffee, seafood, etc.) directly from the producer
- Upcycled (“Ugly” or “Imperfect”) Food Enterprises: A market scheme to reduce food waste by selling oddly-sized or otherwise irregular produce, or upcycling it into a processed food
- Co-Ops: An independent, community-owned grocery store
Slow Food International
Slow Food is an organization working to counteract the rise of fast-food culture.
Similar to slow fashion, the movement encourages people to take their time in sourcing and preparing quality ingredients to make meals in accordance with local culinary traditions.
Since 1989, the global network of local communities has been working to promote good, clean, fair food.
They also recognize the need for a move towards diversified agroecological food systems.
5. HOW CAN YOU CONTRIBUTE TO SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS?
In the US, the foods on our dinner plate travel an average of 1,500 miles from the farm.
More than 90% of Americans have pesticides or byproducts of them in their bodies.
Farmer suicides have become increasingly common, taking the lives of 30 each day in India.
From an environmental, social, health, and economic perspective, sustainable food systems can help to curb some of these statistics.
The problems sound daunting but the solutions don’t have to be. Here’s what we can do—right from our very own communities—to encourage the development of sustainable food systems:
- Shop local and buy directly from farmers if you can
- Learn how to cook
- Eat seasonal produce
- Support farmers who avoid chemicals, practice no-till farming, and/or use crop rotations (buy organic, biodynamic, or regeneratively produced foods)
- Minimize food waste (and use sustainable food packaging)
- Support fair trade or direct trade
- Buy through alternative markets/networks, or from sustainable food brands
- Grow your own, either at home or by joining a community garden for extra support and neighborly know-how
- Learn what foods are sustainable and adopt a more plant-based diet
- Learn what wild plants can be safely (and legally) foraged in your area (i.e berries, mushrooms, etc.)
- Realize that convenience and sustainability are often polar opposites
- Share and learn food knowledge (recipes, growing techniques, nutrition facts, local food knowledge)
- Save and share seeds
6. SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS BOOKS
Even with an empty fridge, you can still play a role in sustainable food systems simply by learning more about them.
As a topic that’s become popularized in recent years, there are many sustainability books out there focused on food.
Here are a few sustainable food systems books to get you started:
- A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism (Eric Holt-Giminéz): A critique of the capitalist mode of food production, and how it contributes to environmental, social, and economic crises
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Michael Pollan): How we can escape the Western diet and return to “real” food.
- Introduction to Permaculture (Bill Mollison): A detailed, step-by-step guide to permaculture concepts and design strategies.
- One Straw Revolution (Masanobu Fukuoka): Written in 1975 by a Japanese farmer who deviated from his training as a scientist to adopt a “do-nothing” farming technique.
- Who Really Feeds the World? The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology (Vandana Shiva): A manifesto calling for alternatives to industrial agriculture that promote justice and genuine sustainability.
If you’re more of a visual learner, there are plenty of environmental films that tell stories of problems of industrial farming and successful sustainable food systems.
Here are some of our favorites:
- The Biggest Little Farm: When John and Molly give up their LA lives to revive a failed 200-acre farm, they learn the challenges and magic that comes with sustainably farming through synchronization with nature.
- King Corn: The story of the biggest monoculture crop in America and how it had invaded all aspects of the agricultural system.
- Seed: The Untold Story: Tackles the issue of loss of seed diversity and the devastating impacts that will have on the future of farming.
- Slow Food also provides a list of free YouTube documentaries related to the slow food movement.
7. SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS RESEARCH
Science is speaking out against industrial agriculture!
Fortunately, there are many ways even non-academics can access their work.
A paradigm shift is necessary to move from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems
No surprise here, but the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) produced one of the cornerstone pieces of research for the movement, a 2016 Report titled From Uniformity to Diversity.
They, along with many other scholars, argue that agroecological systems are necessary.
In nearly 100 pages, the report shows agroecological systems are capable of producing yields consistent with—or better than—industrial agriculture, especially in the face of droughts, floods, and other stressors.
Climate change is already impacting food security and will continue to threaten many crops, especially fruits and vegetables that are key to healthy diets.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading body when it comes to climate change implications and risks.
Their Executive Summary on Food Security highlights the inadequacies of our current food system in dealing with our changing climate, as well as how shifts towards sustainable food systems can help.
Some recommendations include empowering women, creating rights-based approaches, using better grazing land management, and promoting of Indigenous and local knowledge.
- Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems is an excellent source for open-source and rigorously peer-reviewed research on how to sustainably achieve global food security.
- Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems has several open access articles that highlight alternative food systems and agroecological approaches that promote food security and conservation.
- The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) list of Future 50 Foods lists the most sustainable, resilient foods a population of nearly 10 billion might eat by 2050.
- Project Drawdown has backed the potential carbon dioxide savings of improvements in: Food, Agriculture, and Land Use; Reduced Food Waste; and Plant-Rich Diets.
- The World Resources Institute’s World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future investigates ways we can feed 10 billion people by 2050 without exacerbating poverty, fueling deforestation, or increasing emissions.
- Highlighting the challenges a growing, increasingly affluent world population will have on our food systems—and how they can be navigated sustainably—there are many open access research articles in IOP Science’s Focus on Sustainable Food Systems collection.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
Ultimately, we can all do better at recognizing food’s “true cost”—the impact each bite has on people and the planet.
Each of us can better understand the impact of our food and, in line with our personal preferences and financial abilities, change our consumer habits and curb our food waste.
Even without the means to shop at the weekly farmers’ market or buy 100% organic food, we can become advocates for sustainable food systems by learning more about the systemic factors that play a role in modern food inequalities and environmental damage.
We encourage you to chew the fat on sustainable food systems by sharing this article with friends and family or bringing it up during dinner table discussions.