While the word ‘sustainability’ is becoming increasingly popular, its meaning is often unclear and varies depending on a person’s beliefs or lifestyle.
This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Spending 2013.
Literally, sustainability is the capacity of conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. When it comes to food, it is clear that we do not simply take what we need from the natural world anymore. Instead, we are buying products that require a huge amount of water, land and energy in order to arrive on the supermarket shelf.
According to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, “greenhouse gases are an inevitable consequence of food production”. If emissions are an inevitable consequence of the industry, food waste collateral damage. Around 18m tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) are produced each year from avoidable food waste.
In order to better understand how our food can or cannot be sustainable and what this means exactly, Blue & Green Tomorrow spoke to Patrick Holden, founder and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust.
How would you define sustainable food?
Sustainable food can be described as food that causes minimal damage to the environment and benefits the health and wellbeing of local people.
When is food unsustainable?
Food is unsustainable when its production is dependent on non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and nitrate-based fertilisers. Unsustainable foods systems are often farmed in an intensive manner putting pressure on natural resources, an example is the overexploitation of the land resulting a reduction in soil fertility. They also often have long supply chains where food is exported internationally therefore providing little benefit to the local people and area where the food was originally farmed.
What are the main issues related to food to which consumers should pay attention?
Consumers have an immense power to make a difference. It is incredibly important therefore that people ensure they know where the food they buy comes from and how it was produced. Buying locally produced food can re-connect the consumer with our food production system, as it allows them to feel like they are making a difference in boosting their local economy and benefiting the local environment.
An example would be buying organically produced milk. Although it can cost a few pence extra, this small difference contributes hugely to the quality of life of dairy cows and helps organic producers break through into the mainstream market.
Which are the most unsustainable products that are consumed more often?
An example of an unsustainable food product that is often bought is cheap meat. The Sustainable Food Trust encourages consumers to eat less meat, and when they do eat meat to buy a better quality product, for example pasture fed or organically produced. This therefore means that consumers don’t spend any more on meat than they would usually, but just eat it less regularly, consequently benefiting farmers producing high quality sustainable products.
Why do you think people should pay attention to the way food is produced?
At present, the impact our current food production system is having on our physical environment and public health is in no way factored into the price of our food. We need to make the public aware of these distortions in the economic food market and empower them to help make a difference.
However, it is a common perception that if we ensure the true-cost of food is paid for, the price of food will consequently rise. But with global demand for food ever increasing, the price of food is rising already. This is something Philip Clarke, CEO of Tesco, admitted earlier this year and the UN has now predicted a 40% rise in the cost of food over the next decade.
Therefore, with the pressure on food production increasing, against the backdrop of climate change and the rising cost of fossil fuels, it is important to push for changes in our food system that will prevent prices rising as much as they might otherwise do.
Do you think that recent food scandals such as horsemeat have somehow impacted people’s shopping decisions?
Yes. Food scares such as the horsemeat scandal will make many people question the quality and even the physical content of the food they buy in the supermarkets. We hope that it will encourage people to ensure they know exactly where their meat has come from and whether it has been produced in a sustainable manner.
By losing consumer trust, the large supermarket chains may in fact be doing sustainable farmers a favour by converting customers into buying locally produced food from a known and trusted source.
What would you say to people who want to shop and spend ethically and sustainably?
First, by paying attention to the details on food labels in supermarkets, consumers can find out where their food is sourced and other information such as whether the product was fairly traded.
Farmers’ markets and farm shops are a great way to buy good quality, locally produced food, and buying food direct from supplies through a local co-operative initiative can be a good way to buy dry goods such as rice and beans in bulk and then divide them out between members.
Most importantly consumers need to remember that their choices can make a significant difference and have a huge impact in our global food system.
In our current climate, moving towards a more globally sustainable food production system is critically important. Our current food system privileges unsustainable farming practices by redistributing the costs of their damaging impacts from the private sector to the public sector.
The Sustainable Food Trust’s main area of work is in the development of a true-cost accounting system that ensures the impacts our current industrialised food production have on the natural environment and public health are factored into the price of our food. By implementing this true-cost system we can make visible the real cost of food by putting a price on the natural ‘capital’ we use. This is especially important considering we are continuously nearing the tipping points of climate change, ecosystem collapse and increasing health issues such as diabetes and obesity.
If we could place a clear monetary value on the ‘externalities’ or impacts, this would enable the introduction of a range of taxes and incentives that could potentially ensure, that in the future, farmers and food producers who cause damage to the environment and human health would be penalised, whilst those who protect the environment and promote human health would be properly rewarded for these beneficial outcomes. This would rebalance our food system and ensure that sustainable food production is more economically viable than its unsustainable counterpart.
Patrick Holden is founder and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust.