Food Sustainability

The Factors, Choices, and Impact

Shopping for sustainable foods

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The concept of food sustainability has been the subject of research for several decades, and it's a topic that has increasingly occupied the public consciousness in recent years. But what is sustainability, and what does food sustainability mean?

What Is Sustainability?

Food sustainability means producing food in a way that protects the environment, makes efficient use of natural resources, ensures that farmers can support themselves, and enhances the quality of life in communities that produce food, including the animals as well as the people. This idea is the driving force behind a movement to address the fact that significantly more resources go into our global food system than come out of it.

Why Is It Important?

Food sustainability is important for a number of reasons, all of which are interrelated. But the primary reason is that it determines humankind's ability to produce enough food for everyone on the planet now, as well as for future generations. As things stand now, we are already unable to feed the world's population (9 percent of the world's population doesn't have enough food). And since the population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, food production would need to increase 60 to 70 percent by then to meet this additional demand. 

To accomplish this growth, hundreds of millions of hectares of forest would need to be converted to farmland, which would have a massively negative impact on the environment. Moreover, the agriculture industry currently produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry, including all road transport, aviation and shipping. Increasing the size of this industry by 60 to 70 percent would be devastating to the environment. It might not even be possible. Food production currently accounts for 70 percent of the planet's freshwater usage. Increasing that usage to keep up with the growing demand for food will put even greater pressure on already scarce resources.

Factors Of Food Sustainability

Food sustainability is about feeding the world today and in the future, not by making the world's agriculture system bigger, but by transforming it into something new. This effort faces significant challenges, as it's a multifaceted issue with many factors contributing to it. 

In addition to food security (being able to feed the current population without compromising the ability to feed future generations), other factors include nutrition and health, social justice, natural resources, and animal welfare. Farms need healthy soil to be able to grow healthy produce, and the way we deal with food waste (which is a massive problem) needs to become more sustainable as well. Additionally, sustainability includes ensuring that food systems benefit everyone equally, not just those in wealthy countries or urban areas. Creating a system where farmers can subsist above poverty is a big part of this.

Sustainable Food Organizations

There are many organizations worldwide that are working to promote food sustainability. Here a some of the best.

FoodTank, a nonprofit research group, pushes for food system change through education, advocacy, and building networks to support food sustainability while alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty.

Sustainable Food Trust focuses on leadership and advocacy, research and policy, and communications to influence and enhance the work of other organizations.

International Food Policy Research Institute has more than 600 employees in over 50 countries working to provide policy solutions to reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition in developing countries, all in a sustainable manner.

How To Make Sustainable Food Choices

One of the most powerful forces behind food sustainability is consumers making choices. Each time a consumer chooses one food product over another, or one type of food over another, they are effectively casting a vote for what sort of future they want to see. To that end, meeting the world's increased food demand by 2050 will require making substantial changes to our diets. Consumption of fruits, vegetable, nuts, and legumes will have to double, while consumption of red meat and sugar will have to be cut by at least half. So making sustainable food choices includes choosing plant-based foods over animal-based ones.

More Ways To Support Food Sustainability

Eating Local: If your food originates close to where you live, it requires less energy to transport it to you, and refrigerate it on its way. Traveling a shorter distance also means fewer emissions are produced.

Eat Seasonally: This goes hand in hand with eating locally, since what's in season locally will naturally match the season you're in. CSAs are a great tool to support eating locally and seasonally.

Eat More Variety: Increasing the diversity of what you eat promotes diversity in agriculture, which in turn is better for the environment. 

Reduce Waste: More than 40 percent of food in the U.S. ends up being thrown away, which means all the resources that went into producing that food are being thrown away with it.

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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