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Sustainable food is more than just buying ‘organic’ stuff

Subir Ghosh
28th Apr 2015
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Organic Food

Whenever one hears of ‘sustainable food’, the mind invariably conjures up images of heavily-priced, smartly-packaged organic stuff at swanky departmental stores. Or maybe, ritzy stand-alone stores that sell health foods.In many ways, this image trivialises the issue since sustainable food is more than just a health fad.One cannot have an idea about sustainable food without having a world vision. The world’s agricultural system is, today, facing a tricky balancing act that it must address. By 2050, this system must “simultaneously produce far more food for a population expected to reach about 9.6 billion, provide economic opportunities for the hundreds of millions of rural poor who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and reduce environmental impacts, including ecosystem degradation and high greenhouse gas emissions,” the World Resources Institute (WRI)says in a report (PDF).

The Earth’s climate, natural resources, and ecosystems are under phenomenal pressure to rise up to this task. We now live in an epoch called Anthropocene. It is a proposed geologic chronological term to denote an epoch that begins when human activities have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. The logic is this: there are cycles of biology, chemistry, and geology by which elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea, and atmosphere. These have been disrupted.

Today, all ecosystems on Earth bear the indelible marks left by human footprints. It wasn’t so when the current geological period, called Holocene, began roughly 10,000 years ago. Scientists now believe that we are in a new age: the Anthropocene, a term coined by biologist Eugene Stoermer, and popularisedsubsequently by Nobel-winning chemist Paul Crutzen. The start point of the Anthropocene is disputed (some argue that it began with the Industrial Revolution, while others contend that it should date back 8,000 years to the establishment of farming cultures), but the effects are not.

It is in this dismal and a wee-bit scary backdrop that one needs to look at the issue of sustainable food. Do we eat too much? Do we eat all the wrong things? Where will our food come from tomorrow, if agriculture becomes a dead occupation? Will there be an acute shortage of food? Will famines ravage the Earth? What kind of a bearing does agriculture have on deforestation? Will forests disappear?

These are not scare-mongering half-truths, but grave issues that scientists and policymakers are already grappling with. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food globally in the same period (by 2050). At the same time, roughly one-third of food produced – 1.3 billion tonnes per year – is lost or wasted globally throughout the supply chain, with enormous financial and environmental costs.”

The FAO does provide a much-needed definition (PDF): “A sustainable food system is a food system that ensures food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition of future generations are not compromised.”

If a definition is in place, the next thing to expect would be standards – there are none as of now. A workshop of the FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2014 concluded (PDF):

There is a multiplication of voluntary standards in the food sector. Most of the voluntary standards labelled as ‘sustainability standards’ include onlysome aspects of sustainability. There is a need to assess food chains more holistically.There is also a need to better understand and assess impacts of a specific voluntarystandard in a specific context. The implementation of a specific voluntary standard hasoften other impacts, both positive and negative, than the one it is explicitly aiming for.

Things are definitely complex. Our food system is driven by many economic, cultural, and environmental factors; and most are unsustainable. Four years ago the EU Standing Committee on Agriculture Research (SCAR) had remarked in a report (PDF): “Many of today´s food production systems compromise the capacity of Earth to produce food in the future. Globally, and in many regions including Europe, food production is exceeding environmental limits or is close to doing so. Nitrogen synthesis exceeds the planetary boundary by factor of four and phosphorus use has reached the planetary boundary. Land use change and land degradation, and the dependence on fossil energy contribute about one-fourth of greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture, including fisheries, is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss. Regionally, water extracted by irrigation exceeds the replenishment of the resource.”

The SCAR comment more than sums up the issue at hand.There are other institutions in Europe that have understood the problem well. FoodDrinkEurope, a confederation of the food industry in the European Union, in its ‘Environmental Sustainability Vision Towards 2030’ explains why(PDF) the industry is putting sustainable growth at the heart of its business model: “It does so not only because it makes good business sense but also because of the unique relationship that industry has with the environment, on which it relies for a continuous, adequate supply of safe, high quality raw materials from which to make world-renowned food and drink products.”

It is not without reason that FoodDrinkEurope has been laying considerable emphasis on sustainability. A 2006 study titled, ‘Environmental Impact of Products (EIPRO) – Analysis of the life cycle environmental impacts related to the final consumption of the EU-25, had found that(PDF) food and drink cause 20-30 per cent of the various environmental impacts of private consumption. Within this consumption area, meat and meat products were the most important, followed by dairy products.

So, what do ordinary people do in such a situation? Sustain, a UK-based alliance of around 100 public interest organisations, offers seven principles of healthy and sustainable food:

  • Aiming to be waste-free:Reducing food waste (and packaging) saves the energy, effort and natural resources used to produce and dispose of it, as well as money.
  • Eating better, and less meat and dairy:Consuming more vegetables and fruit, grains and pulses, and smaller amounts of animal products produced to high-welfare and environmental standards helps reduce health risks and greenhouse gases.
  • Buying local, seasonal and environmentally friendly food:This benefits wildlife and the countryside, minimises the energy used in food production, transport and storage, and helps protect the local economy.
  • Choosing Fairtrade-certified products:This scheme for food and drinks imported from poorer countries ensures a fair deal for disadvantaged producers.
  • Selecting fish only from sustainable sources:Future generations will be able to eat fish and seafood if we act now to protect our rivers and seas and the creatures living there.
  • Getting the balance right:We need to cut down on sugar, salt and fat, and most of us want to avoid questionable ingredients and processes such as genetic modification (GM) and some additives.
  • Growing our own, and buying the rest from a wide range of outlets:Fresh out of the garden or allotment is unbeatable, and a vibrant mix of local markets, small shops and cafés, and other retailers provides choice, variety and good livelihoods.

 

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