Food is a necessary part of life. Usually made of plant or animal materials (but sometimes fungi, algae, and inorganic compounds like salt), it sustains our life, provides energy, and promotes growth and healing.
The way that we produce and collect our food can significantly affect the planet’s biosphere by means of:
If we can’t get away from the fact that we need to eat, we need to take a careful look at how we can do it well.
What defines good eating?
How does one eat well? By choosing healthy foods? By experimenting with delicious, gourmet foods? By insisting on organic, sustainably farmed, locally sourced food? Perhaps the most sustainable way of feeding all humans would be a carefully rationed, nutrient dense paste. If I were about to suggest that though, I wouldn’t blame you if stopped reading now and left. What we need to find is a meeting place of delicious, healthy, and sustainably produced food.
I couldn’t imagine being asked to give up the experience of carefully picking out fresh ingredients, smelling, squeezing, and testing the weight of it in my hand. There is so much pleasure to be had from food, from experimenting with flavour combinations, to filling the house with the delicious aromas of cooking and baking. I would hate for any action that we take to improve our food supply to take away from being able to enjoy the sensuous nature of eating. Fortunately, sustainably farmed, local, organic, clean foods can often be quite delicious and healthy for us.
The actual contents of a plate of sustainable food will look different depending on where you are in the world, the time of year, and the amount of money that you have available to you. You can find good food at farmers markets, in your own garden, and even grocery stores if you shop with discretion. Once you have found a delicious fresh ingredient, you can extend it’s lifespan by drying, freezing or preserving it. Making pies for the freezer and preserves like jam, chutney, and salsa are some of my favourite things to do with freshly picked local fruit.
Sustainably gathering and producing food
Harvesting natural resources such as wild fish can be an excellent food source. The way to assure a continuous supply of food from these natural sources is to collect it at a rate less than or equal to the rate at which it is able to replenish itself. Harvesting areas tend to be shared spaces, and without monitoring and set limitations, individual harvesters will tend to continue filling their buckets until there is nothing left. Monitoring of the health, reproduction, and population of food resources is essential.
Sustainable food farming requires a change in thinking from linear, factory-based production to more nature-based cyclical patterns, where waste from one system provides input for another. Sustainable farm systems attempt to mimic healthy natural ecosystems. They strive to produce food in such a way that soil, water, air, plants, animals, climate, biodiversity, and people are not compromised or contaminated.
Organic farming is different from regular farming in that it strictly limits or excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified organisms, and human sewage sludge. It aims to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Sometimes organic farms will use natural insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides. Keep in mind though that organic does not necessarily mean sustainable. They are not interchangeable terms.
To confuse matters further, in the jungle of the grocery store natural and environmentally friendly does not mean organic. Organic doesn’t even necessarily mean organic, unless it has been certified by a reputable agency. Then it may be organic, at least according that agency’s particular criteria. Aside from the higher cost, a major deterrent for many consumers when facing the decision of whether or not to purchase organic food is the suspicion that the label organic is a marketing ploy aimed at uninformed but well-intentioned shoppers.
When it comes to selecting food, the problem is that many of us can’t definitively say what is best for us. We aren’t dietitians, or scientists equipped to run our own experiments and lab tests. With so much information and mixed study results it’s hard to tell which sources to trust. The debate is still on about whether organically grown food is healthier for you.
I have yet to find a comprehensive comparison study between organically and non-organically grown food that includes the environmental differences, sustainability of practices, efficiency of production, crop yields, nutrient comparisons, and pesticide residues that can conclusively say whether organic is best. My gut says yes, but I just can’t say so for sure.
The geographic distance encompassed by the term local is somewhat variable and often left up to the discretion of the consumer. Although technically the word local only means that a food was produced close to where it is sold, many people have come to associate the term with smaller, fresher, sustainable farming. This is not necessarily a correct assumption to make. If you happen to live near a large factory farm, its products would also be considered local to you.
An excellent place to find local food is at a farmers market. To find the location of a farmer’s market near you try asking around or searching online. It is worth asking the retailers about the sustainability of their farming practices, as not all practice sustainable farming. Some grocery stores may also carry local foods.
An especially interesting take on local sourcing of food are the communities that have resolved to create public gardens of food where all of the produce is free for the taking. The Incredible Edible Project in Todmorden, UK is an excellent example of such a town. Here there are plum trees and rhubarb patches at the church, potatoes and leeks at the train station, fresh herbs at the library, cherries at the police station, and orchards being planted at the high school, just to name a few!
Another inspiring project is Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest. A food forest attempts to mimic woodland ecology, but using edible plants. The Beacon Food forest has berry bushes, nut and fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables that anyone in the community can help themselves to.
Finally, an excellent way to have very local food source is to grow some of your own fresh food in your yard. If you don’t own a yard, you can still grow herbs on window sills, vegetables in planters, and small indoor fruit trees.
A love for meat
This is a difficult subject for me because I really like the taste of a variety of meats. You can certainly get sustainably raised meat. The problem is that eating meat is not an efficient use of resources. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the meat industry is presently responsible for about 14.5% of man-made greenhouse gases. If all meat production in the world were to suddenly shift over to comply with best-practice farming standards using, among other things, better feed and manure management, these emissions could potentially be reduced by about 30%. Unfortunately the number of people eating meat is expected to substantially increase in the next couple decades. Even if we managed to reduce emissions by the maximum 30%, the problem remaining would be the shear number of animals being raised for consumption, the amount of land required to raise them, and the emissions that would continue to be generated.
Because we are in a situation where the population of human beings who want to eat meat regularly is so high, we have to come to the realization that we simply can’t afford to continue consuming it at the rate that we have been. Although eating small amounts of meat can be the easiest way to get nutrients like iron, iodine, and vitamin B12 – you can enjoy a fully satisfying and nutritionally complete diet without ever eating meat.
Much of what you choose to eat is a result of what you are familiar with, often as a result of how you were fed during your childhood, combined with what you see around you. It’s no easy task to step out of habits and to change what you are used to. Often you have to relearn how to eat. It’s difficult, but certainly not impossible, and it’s absolutely worth the effort.
Some may easily be able to eat vegetarian or vegan, but for others the idea of going without meat may seem tortuous. Either they crave it, love it, don’t know how to cook without it, or they feel entitled to it. If you fall into these last categories, perhaps your first step is to occasionally switch out meat dishes for vegetarian dishes so that you can discover foods that are delicious and fully satisfying to you. Over time, thru trial and error, you will grow a whole new repertoire of recipes that you love.
Resisting processed and fast food
If you are among the fortunate who have the luxury of a multitude of food available to you, you have a special opportunity to carefully select what you are putting into your mouth. It is critical for your health to know what you taking into the sacred space of your body. If you can, you should certainly be choosy. After all, these are the actual particles that will be used piece by piece to make, repair, and support you. They will be absorbed into your blood and spread by your circulatory system to touch every part of you.
For a long time a large portion of a human’s day was spent hunting, gathering, and preparing food. Even in modern times, selective shopping and food preparation can take a good deal of time. A contributing factor to the dependance on fast and processed food is the time crunch that most of us face. Why would we want to resist food that is specifically designed to save us this most precious asset of time? When it comes to these foods it’s hard to say exactly what is in them, or how they were produced. Often they are full of unhealthy salt, sugar, fat, chemical dyes and preservatives. They also come wrapped in copious amounts of packaging and the lengthy process of their production has created a large amount environmental damage. There are probably better ways to save time, than by potentially risking yours and the planet’s health.
Another factor encouraging the dependance on fast and processed food is an overall loss of culinary skills. Culinary skills take time and effort to develop. Often passed from generation to generation they greatly enhance a person’s ability to create a large variety of fresh, from-scratch, home-cooked meals. Unfortunately, unless someone is getting paid for it, these skills are becoming undervalued and forgotten in our modern society.
Food packaging and waste
Something that is often not considered by food consumers is that fact that when you buy food that is packaged, you are buying both the food and the packaging. Once you have paid for it, you are responsible for what will happen to this packaging. Will it be recycled, composted, or thrown out onto the land? The easiest way to reduce the amount of waste that you create is to prevent it from coming into your life in the first place.
There are various reasons why a food manufacturer might choose to reduce food packaging including consumer or retailer pressure, government regulation, and cost-saving measures. The problem of excessive packaging could be reduced if we insisted on packaging that is biodegradable or made from the minimum necessary amount of recyclable or reusable materials.
Aside from the garbage created by food packaging, much of the food produced for consumption can also end up in a landfill. According to The Institution of Mechanical Engineers somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of food produced worldwide is wasted. The reasons behind food wasting include spoilage, pest infestation, severe weather, inefficient harvesting, contamination, and damage during transportation. In first world countries food can also be lost when expiry dates have been reached (despite the food still being edible), from overproduction, high standards of quality and appearance, over purchasing, and simply throwing out good food such as in the case of leftovers.
Obviously the best course of action is to do everything in our power to avoid food waste from happening, but when food does end up slotted for waste, the best thing that we can do is to recycle its nutrients by composting it.
A shout out to supporters of breastfeeding
As I wrap up, I thought I would share the fact that I wrote a good portion of this blog post while simultaneously breastfeeding my youngest son. This is when I get an opportunity to sit down for a bit. While reading over the content, I was amused to realize that: You can’t get a more local, organic, and sustainable food source than breastmilk!