Myth: Sustainable food is only a greenie’s issue.
Fact: Sustainable food should be on everyone’s shopping list if we want quality of life for our children and grandchildren. World population is exploding and we’re starting to run out of the raw materials to grow food: land, soil, water, fossil fuel and fertiliser.
Farming We’ve done a great job in producing more food and quite cheaply, but we failed miserably in feeding everyone and feeding ourselves in a healthy way: just look at the dual-scourges of hunger and over-nutrition. We have also done terrible damage to the environment while doing it. Our food systems have simply failed to account for the environmental costs of deforestation, soil erosion, salinity, residues of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, rivers drained for irrigation and severe losses of biodiversity: an awful case of short term-ism that is now starting to bite, and hard. We only have a small amount of arable land and fertile soil which we are losing at such a rate there are new terms to describe these dual disasters: ‘peak land’ and ‘peak soil’: Some experts say we only have 60 years of topsoil left.
Climate change is the big fat blow-fly in the ointment, adding further pressure to a system already under extreme stress. Changes in temperature, rainfall, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and increased extreme weather events all add uncertainty and variability to growing food the way we always have. Water is another precious resource to grow food, yet our rampant over-use, inefficiency and waste is compromising future food supplies: you can add ‘peak water’ to the list. Innovative sustainable agriculture is our best hope, but many governments around the world are complacent and not funding the research needed.
People The global food system is under pressure from exploding population growth and the ‘nutrition transition’ whereby people emerging from poverty start to eat a more Western (higher protein) diet. We will have more mouths to feed, and more of them will want meat. And why shouldn’t they? Iron deficiency anaemia is one the most common childhood illnesses in the developing world and eating a little meat will fix it. And yet here we are ordering 500g (1lb 2oz) steaks in restaurants for lunch or dinner (enough meat for others for a whole week).
Choices We are lucky enough to be able to choose what we eat. Many people are already choosing better for a more equitable and sustainable food system. But there are also folks who don’t know where to start to make an impact on such huge complex problems. Here are my small but positive steps you can take to ensure you’re eating a fair share of the earth’s bounty, and moving our food system toward sustainability:
There are those who will read this and say I’m simplifying and moralising. Maybe they’re right. I have fallen into the abyss of over-thinking and despair but have climbed out the other side clasping at the thought that doing something is better than doing nothing. My hope is you do the same.
- Respect and appreciate your food: it is precious and life-giving – you are lucky to have it
- Base your meals on plant foods and use meat as a nutritious garnish: meats from smaller animals and eggs are nutritious and have a smaller environmental impact
- Choose local, seasonal, organic produce and ‘fair trade’ when you can
- Try not to overeat, and eat less highly processed ‘junk’ food
- Teach your children where food comes from and how to cook healthy meals
- Grow whatever vegetables, fruit and herbs you can (in a window-box if necessary)
- Avoid food waste by only buying what you need and managing leftovers wisely
- Recycle food packaging and compost green waste (or get a worm farm)
Want to know more? If you are interested in finding out more, hop over to my website – www.nicolesenior.com.au – for further reading tips.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, nutrition consultant, author and food enthusiast with an interest in food and environment issues. She believes healthy food need not cost the earth.