What Exactly is Sustainable Food?

This trendy concept is a bit difficult to define.  Recently The Atlantic  devoted an entire article about the inability to officially define this increasingly popular idea.  But, there does seems to be a broad consensus among experts that sustainable food/eating is a system in which farmer/animal/food/consumer/environment/ are inextricably linked.  One always affects the other.  For better or worse.  Personally, I would like it to be for the better, and I’m sure you would too (you’re already reading this blog, aren’t you?).  And honestly, it seems simple enough to put into practice. Here are some of my simple rules that not only help me think about what I buy (because we, as consumers, have an extremely powerful vote every time we make a purchase) but, also, how it feeds my body and affects the environment:

1. Shop at your local farmers’ markets. (To me, this is the most important and fundamental idea to eating responsibly and healthily.)

Summer Corn at my Weekend Farmers Market

Choose to support your local farmer.  By shopping at farmers’ markets, instead of the big-box supermarket you support and contribute to independent family farms.  You are making the conscious decision, through your elective buying power, to buy and eat food that is picked at its peak of ripeness (more flavor! more nutrients!).  You are forced to eat seasonally—think tomatoes so juicy they burst with sweetness, tender asparagus that is just begging for a drizzle of good olive oil, winter squashes that make you think of curling up by the fire on a chilly autumn night.

Also, by putting yourself closer to the farmer you inevitably lessen the environmental impact that your food has on the world around you.  Less carbon dioxide from shipping, less soil erosion, less pesticides (chances are, the farmers at your local farmers’ market are small enough that their land is diversified.  Meaning, they are not a single crop operation.  A larger variety of crops means less pesticides, richer soil and more nutritious produce.)

2.  Try to Buy Organic Whenever Possible.

Spicy wild arugula

I say this with a caveat, however.  I urge you to seek out organic, because yes, when eating organic food you are getting more nutrients and eating a product that is not laden with chemical pesticides.  But, organic sodas, cakes and cookies do not count.  In fact, they hardly count as food.  Come on, who are you trying to fool?  Choose to buy organic whole foods:

Meat (poultry, beef—preferably pastured raised, meaning they lived on a diet of grass, not corn which is difficult for cows to digest.)

Fish (try to find sustainable fish, choose wild caught—not farmed—for the most nutritional benefit.  Also seek out fish that is lower on the food-chain, meaning, they’re the fish that other, bigger fish eat.  So, whenever possible choose smaller fish, such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, sardines.  Even better, try to find seafood that is MSC certified, meaning the Marine Stewardship Council has given their stamp of approval.

Eggs (again pasture-raised will offer the most nutrients.  Since the chickens eat a nutritious diet of grass, their diet directly affects the quality and nutrition of the egg.  If you cannot find eggs from pastured chickens, then at the very least, look for organic.

Produce (fruits and vegetables without the addition of chemical pesticides which can, over time, harm the body)

*A Side Note:

Although I say try to buy organic, in truth, many small independent family farms cannot afford to be certified organic by the US government.  This does not mean that they use chemical pesticides, or that their products aren’t treated with respect and care.  They may still operate on a system that takes the welfare of the animal into consideration and their produce production does not utilize harmful pesticides.  When buying from local farmers, talk to them, create a dialogue and learn about their products.  This side note, brings me back to Rule Number 1. Whenever possible, shop at your local farmers’ market.

Gorgeous Heirloom Tomatoes at my weekend Farmers  Market

3. Eat Less Meat

That’s it.  This rule is pretty straightforward.  By choosing to eat less meat your impact on the environment decreases.  The production of animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) produces 40% more pollution than all three methods of transportation combined.

There are many other “rules” I could include, but to me, these are the most basic.  But, perhaps the best “rule” I could give is the most time-honored and practical.  Educate yourself.  Learn about what you eat.  Because meat doesn’t come in Styrofoam packages and tomatoes don’t grow in winter.

Reference:

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. (New York: Penguin Books,  2008).

The Kindling Trust. August 29, 2011. http://kindling.org.uk/sustainable-food-definition

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