Sustainable food: why you should care and what you can do

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It is not always easy to find a product that really deserves your time and money. What do I mean by that? Well, using your purchases to reflect your values is a powerful tool, but the purchases that reflect your values do not necessarily jump out at you. Sustainable food, for instance, can be a challenge, especially for university students with university-student budgets. Finding food without plastic packaging, eating seasonal, local, or organic produce – I have tried to do all this in the past – and like I said, it isn’t always easy. It is, however, important, and here is why.

First, it is important to note there is no one definition of ‘sustainable’. Sustainability is a broad term that encompasses the ecological, social, cultural, and economic endurance of global systems and processes. In a perfect world, all food would meet the standards of these four pillars of sustainability. In our imperfect world, buying food which meets the criteria of at least one of the sustainability components is usually the best option available. The best way to eat sustainably is finding the definition that fits best with your values and means. Sustainable food, therefore, looks different to each person. It may be food that represents a reduction in plastic or use of chemicals, that is locally produced or fairly traded, or that is farmed ethically and responsibly.

Industrial agriculture is the contemporary model to supply food to the world’s growing population, however, industrial agricultural methods are chemically-intensive and arguably unsustainable. In this now conventional model, synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides produce chemical run-off from farms; damage water and soil quality; have fatal impacts on native insects, such as bees; and lead to a chemical resistance to common synthetic products. The ecological impacts of industrial agriculture are one of the foremost threats to the environment and sustainability.

Organic food, on the other hand, is often considered to be the height of sustainability. Organic agriculture aims to produce food in an environmentally friendly manner through avoiding all synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. By doing so, organic agricultural practices offer an alternative to industrial agriculture.

Sounds great? Perhaps, but organic shouldn’t be considered the superman of sustainability. Organic farming can often involve less sustainable methods, such as burning crop residues and using mined limestone to balance pH acidity levels in soil. More topical for our uni-student wallets is that the certifications required, and reductions in yield realised by organic agriculture, means organic produce is almost always more expensive.

The good news is that there are many ways for you to make sustainable choices. One option is locally grown and produced food. If you consider food miles (the distance food travels from farm to plate) and factor in the energy used to transport, store and care for food during its journey from field to plate, the local product may be just as, if not more, sustainable that the organic counterpart. Though the produce may not be certified as organic, local farms may use less chemically-intensive methods than industrial agriculture. Other sustainable options might include cutting down on plastic packaging (easily done at many farmers’ markets) and growing your own food where possible.

Sustainable food may look different to each person, but everyone can support it somehow. Here are a few simple steps to help you determine what sustainable food means to you.

First, be aware of what you buy and where you buy it. Taking an interest in the alternative food network is a great first step to becoming more sustainable.

Second, understand how to find products and produce that suit your economic, social, cultural, and ecological values. This may seem complicated, but it can be easily overcome with the use of resources such as the ‘Fair Food Forger,’ which lists sustainable food sources across Australia. Alternatively, try exploring a local farmers’ market or the Food Co-op located on the ANU Campus, and investigate what options are best for you.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, educate yourself and be aware of how your food choices impact the world around you. Learn how to make the most out of the food you buy to reduce your waste and carbon footprint. This may seem complex, but it can be surprisingly easy and achievable, even for a university student.

Image from http://www.cambridgesustainablefood.org/cambridge-sustainable-food-hub-vision/