Sustainability has really grabbed the public’s attention over the last few years. There are several reasons for this including: greenhouse gas emissions, toxins in our foods, depletion of natural resources, and waste management, to name a few. Many of these issues have existed for many years, but in the last several years specifically, there has been a large boost in public awareness.
Today, it is not uncommon to see hybrid cars on the road or energy efficient windows and appliances being sold in stores. We’ve got greener cleaning products, energy, packaging and…just about anything else you can imagine. The goal of all of this is sustainability. Essentially, if something is sustainable, it can be balanced or maintained at a certain level or pace. In relationship to our earth, sustainability is concerned with conserving the earth’s ability to support life and avoiding the depletion of our natural resources.
So what does sustainability specifically have to do with our diets? Well, before we dive into that, lets take a look at the way our food system has changed over the last few centuries. This will give us the background we need to understand the issue more deeply:
Just a hundred years ago, the vast majority of the world was engaged in subsistence farming. This means, most families grew their own crops to take care of their food needs (with extra food being sold or traded). As for the farm itself, everything worked together on a small scale. Any livestock the farmers owned would simply graze in the fields or eat locally grown hay. In turn, the animal dung would be used to fertilize the crops. Excess or spoiled food was also composted and used as fertilizer. Farmers planted crops that the land could support, if there wasn’t much water available, they planted crops that only needed a little water. In addition, farmers used crop rotation or fallow fields to keep the nutrients in the soil from being exhausted and keep pests in check. Contrast this with our current situation:
Today, farms have become completely industrialized. We drain our rivers and reservoirs to irrigate fields that would otherwise lie unproductive. Crop diversity has basically disappeared. We have whole states that are more or less devoted to growing a single crop. A recent New York Times article joked that modern crop rotation—if you could call it that— “Includes only corn, soybeans, fertilizer and pesticides.” Even livestock aren’t allowed to roam the fields like they used to; today it’s more common to find them packed into massive barns.
But this is only the beginning… the simple system of growing your own food, or buying it from local farmers, has practically ceased to exist in western society. Today, one farmer grows corn and sells it to another farmer who feeds it to his cattle. The second farmer milks the cattle and sells the milk to the cheese maker. Then, the cheese maker turns the milk into cheese and ships the finished product across country (or around the world) to a large distribution center. From there, the cheese makes the journey to a local supermarket and eventually ends up in someone’s sandwich or casserole. The leftovers have a pretty good chance of ending up in the garbage, which someone then has to take away and dump in a landfill.
Is it hard to see how our current food system is not sustainable? There is a huge disparity between the amount of energy put into producing, packaging, shipping, and cooking our foods and the actual amount of energy they provide us when we eat them. This squandering of energy and natural resources cannot continue indefinitely. If we do not deal with it, our lives and societies will suffer severe consequences.
When we stop to take it all in it can be a bit overwhelming—depressing actually—but there is hope. We need to remember that we still have the choice to follow a sustainable diet within an unsustainable system. We have a choice in what we buy. Unlike many other things, the food that we eat is something that is under our direct control. Every time we go to the store to buy something we vote. Each dollar we spend is like a ballot. Are we voting for sustainable products or not?
In future articles we will be looking at the specifics of what sustainable diets are. But more importantly, we will focus on ways that we can begin to live and eat in a more sustainable manner. Hopefully, by understanding the situation more, we can begin to change our lives and habits for the better.