Sustainability, in relation to food and agriculture, refers to production and harvesting methods that meet the needs of eaters while avoiding the exploitation of the land.
Sustain Web (http://www.sustainweb.org/sustainablefood/) cites a list of seven criteria which identify sustainable produced food as well as sustainable consumption.
- Food that is locally grown and seasonally available. This isn’t always possible for people who live in urban areas or the North, where seasonal produce is very limited, but the more you can do to support your local growers, the better it will serve your economy. Also, when the late fall rolls around, that’s a great time to pick up storage produce (apples, potatoes, garlic, onions)… things that will keep in a cool, dry, dark place for several month. To me, it’s essential to get these in their most organic form as well, whenever possible. A really good organic storage potato, which costs a little more than its conventionally grown cousin, is totally worth it in terms of taste and texture.
- Food that is produced in a way that minimizes harm to the environment. Who really wants food to be grown in a way which strips the land of nutrients or pollutes the water? Nobody, and yet it happens more than you think, especially in cheap fresh imports. You get what you pay for in the marketplace; if it’s more expensive to eat sustainably, then simply eat less. We Americans, as a whole, could practice this more often anyway! Keep in mind, as well, the way that animals are raised; chickens, pigs, cattle and fish are all meant, by nature, to range free. They should have clean, natural, and pleasant living conditions. If that shrimp from China is on sale, be wary: it might have been raised on farms in pools treated with chemicals “to keep the water clean.”
- Meals that place a higher focal point on fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, rather than meats, dairy products and eggs. Sustain Web isn’t necessarily asking people to become vegetarian or vegan. It doesn’t hurt to try to “go meatless” every so often. When I say “meatless,” I mean that you simply center a couple of meals a week on an alternative form of protein (such as beans, tofu, nuts, and combinations of these with whole grains). Why is it sustainable to “go meatless?” Part of the problem with raising livestock has to do with its negative impact on the environment. If we all pulled back, even a little, on our meat-eating habits, the reduction in demand for meat and dairy could, over time, lead to a reduction in the negative environmental impacts caused by raising livestock for consumption.
- Fish and shellfish species which are grown or harvested sustainably. Okay, you may or may not have seen The Cove; the trailer was enough for me. The message is simple: some fishing industries in other parts of the world (and probably within US boundary waters) participate in harvesting practices which destroy a lot of species unnecessarily or which result in a product at the marketplace which may or may not be what it’s advertised to be. Overfishing is a big problem in the 21st century, not only for sushi lovers, but for the entire ecosystem: the oceanic food chain requires that big fish eat smaller fish which, in turn, eat even smaller fish… If we overfish, or fish recklessly (killing other random sea life in nets, for instance), we are stripping the entire sea of its web of life.
- Imported food products which are certified as Fair Trade to support hardworking producers in disadvantaged countries. Coffee growers, in example, make up a good amount of these food producers. By supporting Fair Trade products, we allow people all over the world to compete fairly and earn a living wage. We also help support the idea that sustaining the environment is a “best practice” because it means we’ll be able to nurture more food out of our agriculture landscape for a longer time. Huge food conglomerates have been known to treat their workers poorly, pay them less than their worth, and think only in terms of their own bottom line. Food is life, folks. It’s not just a commodity to be traded for shares on Wall Street. It’s what keeps us alive. Let’s help provide for those who are doing gentle, respectful work to keep the planet fed.
- Avoid bottled water for its chief detriment: packaging waste. I know, I know, it’s convenient, but so is a bottle you can wash out again and again. We used to know these are thermoses back in the old days, but the concept applies more than ever before today. A plastic bottle takes a long time to disintegrate. It does eventually break down into smaller pieces. Those smaller pieces are ingested by wildlife, and those species suffer a dangerous reduction in their populations as a result. We’re not talking about nuisance coyotes here; we’re talking all the way down the food chain to things like plankton. If enough plankton ingest microscopic particles of plastic and die from it, we’ll definitely not save the whales or any other beasts, great and small.
- Cooking and eating as organically as possible to remove artificial additives and excess fat, sugar, and salt from the diet. The American diet is riddled with excess, to be sure. It’s the compromise we make every time we eat fast food, processed mixes and refined products. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can steam fresh foods in the microwave or prepare foods in a pressure cooker to save time and seal in nutrients, textures and flavors. We can “put food by” through freezing and canning. We can make slowing down and taking time to eat with our families a bigger priority. We can grab whole foods for snacks instead of bakery items or candy bars. And we can try, even just once a week, to cook from scratch and store away delicious food to eat another day. When you eat whole foods grown without pesticides, you are eliminating an enormous number of additives and toxins from your family’s diet, and adding more fiber, flavor, and nutrition. It’s as simple as that.
You may or may not agree with the theories that support sustainability, but one thing all consumers need to be reminded of is this: if we have money in hand, we have choices. Earth Day might be a good time to start putting the consciousness of sustainability to work for you and your family. And if it works for you, just one day a year, I’m willing to bet it will keep working for you, every day thereafter.
Bio: Tamara Kaye Sellman is a creative writing coach and developmental editor living in Bainbridge Island, WA. She writes the blog, BuzzFood: Feed the Obsession (http://buzzfood.blogspot.com).