While agriculture is one of the biggest industries in the world, food sustainability is in crisis.
Simply put, the current global system of food production simply isn’t sustainable. Reaping far more than it sows, our modern-day agricultural techniques degrade the land, leading to less production and lower quality food, coupled with exploitative processes for both people and animals.
The icing on the cake? Our picking, packing, and transporting methods are only compounding the issues with huge carbon footprints and pillage of local economies.
But how can sustainable food systems change all this? And what do they even look like?
What is Food Sustainability?
True food sustainability extends far beyond simply the agricultural methods we’re using. Real sustainable food systems encompass and tackle the ethical and environmental concerns that come as a fallout of our current poor agricultural processes and policies.
The current food production system works in a linear pattern, extracting from the land, exploiting and using up the products, polluting the world in the process, and then laying them to waste at the end of their life.
Sustainable food systems look different – they’re circular in pattern as they’re regenerative. Seeking to conserve and cycle energy and resources, sustainable food systems use practices that aim to improve the environment and ecosystem that they work within.
In today’s world, our mass agricultural systems employ a technique called monocropping, whereby fields are lined with rows and rows of one particular crop.
Not only does this mean that farmers need monsterous heavy-duty hydrocarbon-fuelled farm machinery to deal with the yields – this monocultural process is a huge problem to natural systems which need biodiversity to regenerate.
Effectively, hundreds of one species of plant all take the same nutrients from the soil, without other diverse species being present to replace those nutrients – something we’d usually see in a forest, which can regenerate itself.
Due to this, monocultures turn our fields to dust, and nothing grows in a desert. This is known as desertification and is happening worldwide on unprecedented scales.
To prevent this, industrial farmers coat their fields in fertilizers in an attempt to give the plants the nutrients they’re no longer getting from the soil. Problem solved, right? WRONG.
Fertilizer has really high amounts of nitrogen, which invites the weeds and the bugs to join the party. This means that farmers now need to deal with those pests by using copious quantities of herbicide and pesticide. Aside from the possible carcinogenic effects of these products, these chemicals kill everything that isn’t genetically programmed to withstand it.
When we talk about sustainable farming practices, we’re looking to maintain a viable output and yield while increasing the environmental benefits but regenerating the Earth from which we take our products. We do this to create a sustainable farming business, as well as to create a sustainable host for our food systems.
This means planting biodiverse food production systems, such as the companion planting and forest gardening techniques often seen in permaculture. These methods not only help to increase biodiversity and disease reliance, they also help with integrated pest management and soil regeneration.
You’ll also find that sustainable farms tend to reduce their use of heavy machinery, in favor of hand labor. Equally, the large-scale wasteful processes seen in industrial farming – such as slash-and-burn – are tossed out to make way for biological waste recycling and energy cycling systems.
Animals play a huge part in our food systems – unfortunately, our industrial animal processing practices are appalling.
Confined animals suffer in terrible conditions where disease runs rife. Eating very basic diets – usually singular types of grain – not only diminishes their immune systems, it also reduces the ultimate quality of the meat and animals products. To prevent disease, animals are stuffed full of antibiotics, while excessive amounts of hormones are given to increase growth. These processes increase the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant strains of disease, while excessive hormones wreak havoc with human health.
Sustainable food systems treat animals very differently. Animals are free to roam, often used in the cycle of agricultural practices.
Pigs, for example, help to till the land in fallow paddocks during crop rotation, while their manure acts are an incredible fertilizer. When tilling, pigs eat a diverse diet of bugs and vegetation, heightening their immune system – protecting them from disease – and producing higher quality meat with better protein levels. Equally, the animals don’t have to live in pain and fear.
Mass agribusiness uses unbridaled amounts of energy to power their farms and machinery – not to mention the food miles that pile up from compartmentalized processing and distribution.
Sustainable food systems have energy conservation at the heart of them. From rainwater harvesting techniques to energy cycling methods, sustainable food systems recycle energy through the system to reduce their reliance on carbon-based forms of energy. This can be seen through the use of renewable energy sources such as solar or wind – or through the implementation of gravity-fed rainwater systems and the recycling of biological waste for composting, mulch, and hugelkultur systems.
As noted above, the widespread use of hormones and chemicals is out of hand in our agricultural industry. With pesticides and herbicides poisoning our waterways and coating our food, we’re being exposed to high levels of toxins every time we eat and drink. Equally the monoculture nature of our systems is degrading the quality of the food, as fertilizer only consists of 3 minerals (potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus), where plants need many more to thrive.
Sustainable food systems don’t deplete public health, but enhance it. Organic food is free of chemicals, as the regenerative practices harness the power of integrated pest management systems, biodiversity, and natural soil enhancement to grow higher yields. The higher quality of the soil due to biodiversity produces more nutritious food filled with the whole spectrum of vitamins and minerals we need to flourish.
Mass agricultural isn’t only environmentally extractive – it does the same to humans who work within the system. Farm workers and distributors often work for very low wages, in unsafe conditions, for unfair hours. These exploitative practices result in unhealthy humans – both physically and mentally.
Sustainable food production systems are dedicated to better employment practices in order to regenerate and invigorate the humans that work within the system. You’ll find that organic farms and regenerative agricultural establishments pay fair living wages, operate with more appropriate hours, and provide better working conditions.
Large-scale agribusiness strips local economies of their resources – both physical and financial assets. These huge companies take all the profits out of the local area, usually lining the pockets of a few very rich people, at the expense of whole living communities.
Sustainable food production means providing regenerative means for people to live. Sustainable food systems tend to work using local-friendly practices, using local producers and suppliers, as well as employing local workforces. Moreover, most sustainable food producers tend to favor local distribution to reduce their carbon footprints – such as CSA programs – while opening up local routes to access healthy, sustainable food – such as farmer’s markets.
Not only do these systems create local jobs, they keep the dollars within the community, while providing centerpoints of education to keep these moments flowing into future generations.
Our current agricultural systems are designed to turn over huge amounts of profit without measuring the true cost of the resources being depleted in the process.
Truly sustainable food systems work in a cyclical manner to reinvest the means back into the process to regenerate the resources used to provide food.
By reducing carbon footprints, conserving resources, and cycling energies, sustainable food systems inherently regenerate the land, the animals, and the people that work together to form integrative systems. The holistic systems used in sustainable food production work to build, instead of destroy, the very the ecosystem we need to survive. Only by preserving, maintaining, and improving our ecosystem can we truly remain sustainable.