Guide: What is sustainable food?

Dietary choices are a heated topic when it comes to zero waste and sustainability. Vegans blame farmers for slaughtering cows and farmers blame vegans for eating avocados. Both commonly use sustainability as an argument. Food is personal, emotional, and cultural, and changing your dietary habits is arguably one of the most difficult things you can do to make your life more sustainable. But what exactly is sustainable food? What makes something sustainable?

By definition sustainable food refers to food that takes into consideration the environmental, economic, and social systems surrounding food, whilst also providing healthy food for people to eat. There’s however a twist. Healthy food doesn’t automatically mean that it’s sustainably produced, and food being sustainable doesn’t necessarily make it ethical.

Sounds complicated? Unfortunately, it can be. 


What makes food sustainable?

When we talk about sustainable food we have to take into consideration the whole cycle of food: production, distribution, packaging, and waste. It involves elements such as environmentally friendly farming practices, economic justice for food producers, water and land resource efficiency, animal rights, and health concerns related to chemicals and pesticides. And that’s just during the production phase.

For an individual, it can be very hard to wrap your idea around all these concepts. In fact, in many cases, it’s not even possible to access all the information above to be able to evaluate how ethically a single product has been produced. And let’s get real – nobody is going to spend five hours grocery shopping evaluating all individuals items in the light of those questions.

What’s there to do then? Luckily, even though we can’t evaluate every single aspect of sustainability when it comes to grocery shopping, there are some general rules to follow. By following these guidelines, you should be able to make your diet a lot more sustainable! I recognize that not all of us are in a place (economically, geographically, or socially) to follow all these guidelines but remember: little goes a long way if everyone does it.

What is sustainable food?

1. Plant-based food

Plant-based food is more sustainable than consuming animal products and there’s nothing to argue about it. Even if you’d be importing your avocados from other continents (see point 5), your food choices as a vegan would still, be more sustainable in comparison to omnivores - no matter how local and organic their meat and dairy would be. This is a fact, not an opinion.

A plant-based diet is more sustainable simply because it uses a lot less natural resources such as land and water in the production phase. Do you know how many liters it takes to produce 1kg of beef? 15 500 liters. In comparison, producing pulses requires 4000 liters per kilogram. Calorie wise it is ten times more efficient to produce pulses than beef in terms of water usage! The trends are similar in land use as, believe it or not, the majority of the land that is suitable for agriculture is used for either as a grazing ground or for growing crops to feed animals. Did you hear about the Amazon burning last year? That’s because the world is obsessed with meat.

Cutting animal products out of your diet, even partly, is the biggest step you can take towards a sustainable diet. If you’re an omnivore, try going vegetarian. If you’re veggie, try implementing more vegan food to your diet. There’s so much room to grow.

2. Local food

Eating local food is important as it drastically cuts the carbon footprint of food during the distribution phase. If you stroll through the fruit and vegetable section in your local supermarket I bet that majority of the products are not produced in your county – or even your country! Transporting food across the continent, especially when plenty of resources are available locally, is a waste of energy and resources.

An easy way to increase local food in your diet is to take advantage of farmers' markets. If the markets are not regular, you can also check if your local farms offer veggie box services. These practices aren’t only environmental but they also help you to give money back to your community, rather than handing it out to big corporations.

Your geographical location will obviously set some limitations to what extent you can take advantage of local produce. I’ve lived most of my life in Northern Europe and unfortunately, very little grows in there all around the year. The key is to figure out what you can buy locally, and what things in your diet you can substitute with local produce.

3. Seasonal food

Local food often goes hand in hand with seasonal food – at least if you’re buying your produce from small farmers that don’t rely on greenhouses and energy-inefficient production methods. The same rules apply: check out your local farmer’s market and what options you have to, for instance, get vegetables delivered to your home.

Unfortunately, similar geographical limitations apply to seasonal food as well. What grows in Finland during winter? Absolutely nothing. If you live in a geographically challenging area (like I’ve done most of my life), a good idea can be to start your local food journey during the summer period when a lot more seasonal produce is available.

Remember that seasonal food (just like local food) is not limited to what you can buy! Foraging food such as mushrooms and berries is a great way to get cheap access to goods and reconnect with nature!

4. Food that is less resource-intensive to grow

Vegans shouldn’t eat avocados because their farming is so water intense. Here’s the argument that every omnivore uses to attack vegans on social media. Yes, the argument is factually right in a sense that growing avocados does consume a lot of water resources and that is something that we should take into consideration when making dietary choices. It is however, a poor argument coming from people consuming animal products as producing meat and dairy wastes lot more resources in comparison.

What I’m trying to say here is that even if you’re living plant-based, there are still plenty of options you can make to make your diet more sustainable. Just like avocados, products like nuts and seeds are fairly resource-intensive to produce in comparison to other vegan options. If you compare plant-based milk, for example, you will see that there’s a huge difference in terms of water and land use between rice, oat, and almond milk! If you’re new into sustainable food this might seem like nitpicking, but if you know your way around local and seasonal plant-based food, this is a great next step to take.

5. Organic food

The food that we eat is full of toxins and chemicals. Intensive farming practices require heavy use of pesticides and other chemicals that you’d in no other context put anywhere near your mouth. Chemicals are also heavily polluting and therefore very bad for the environment. The chemicals don’t only pollute the soil in which the crops grow, but they eventually end up in the water chain, polluting our seas and oceans.

Organic food is grown by only using natural fertilizers. This farming method maintains healthy soil, supports pollinators, and it’s more nutrient-rich which makes them more beneficial for your health. If you consume animal products, organic choices also prevent harmful products such as antibiotics and growth hormones entering your body. It might sound crazy but around 80% of all antibiotics are used for farming livestock. The health benefits can, therefore, also be massive in an organic diet!

In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to be seeking products with organic labels, but the non-organic ones would be labeled as potential hazards for health and environment. I hope we get to see that one day!

6. Sustainably packed food

Food packaging doesn’t make or break a sustainable food product but it contributes to it. If you have to choose between unsustainable packed vegetables and zero waste beef, go for the vegetables. If you, however, can choose between two somewhat equal options, go for the one with more sustainable packaging.

I have previously written a general guide on how to shop food zero waste and a more specific guide for zero waste shopping in supermarkets for those who don’t have access to other sources. In general, prefer the package-free good over reusables, reusables over recyclables, and if you have to buy recyclables by those with higher recycling rates (aluminium), or compostable packaging. If you have to buy plastic, try to buy in bulk to minimize the impacts of packaging.

7. Fair Trade

My last point doesn’t have as much to do with the environmental aspect of sustainable food, but the production ethics. Almost 100 million children still work in the field of agriculture and a huge amount of world’s food is produced by those, who can barely afford to feed themselves. 60-80% of the world's food is also produced by women, who get little to no benefits from their labor. The list goes on.

Fair Trade has been criticized by its feel-good factor; making the consumers feel like they’re living ethical lives whilst the workers still remain as victims of neoliberalism, just with few more pennies in their pockets. In a world where completely ethical consumption isn’t possible, I do however think that it matters to buy products that are more ethical than others.

Besides the human rights aspect, Fair Trade helps to make an environmental impact. Fair Trade has environmental standards regarding, for example, soil and water quality, use of chemicals, waste management and biodiversity protection. In addition, they help farmers become more climate resilient and provide training and information regarding environmental issues.

What steps have you taken to make your diet more sustainable? What are you planning on doing next? Let me know in the comments!

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