Eat less meat (especially beef), eat a plant-based diet, and focus on plant proteins. These are the pillars of sustainable food. Awareness and concern for the environmental impact of our food choices has been booming in recent years. Article after article details the benefits that come from making these dietary changes to decrease your carbon footprint, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and decrease use of resources such as land and water; and they’re absolutely right. However, there is something important missing; a paradigm shift is needed to take the next and much larger step towards a real sustainable food system.
Imagine you are building a house on the edge of a cliff. Many considerations will need to be made to prevent the house from falling off the edge of the cliff: extra supports, careful attention to the foundation, and perhaps something to add stability to the ground itself. There could be many great interventions to make the house more stable and prevent a tragic fall, but a far more logical course of action would be to build the house away from the cliff. This is the current state of the sustainable food movement. There are many popular interventions that make legitimate improvements, but they are making improvements to a failed system. The current focus of sustainability efforts is on individual foods: limiting beef intake, increasing plant food intake, and other similar recommendations. The focus needs to be changed, and it needs to be placed entirely on agriculture – how foods are produced.
The emphasis should be on agriculture because the same food can have a positive impact or a negative impact on the environment depending on the type of agricultural system it is produced in. Plant foods are usually considered sustainable; however, a few plants provide a perfect example of how production of plants can be absolutely terrible for the environment. Perhaps no plant can top the destruction that has been caused by the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis. Literally millions of acres of lush rainforest have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. This is especially concerning as this is some of the most biodiverse habitat on the planet, with many species such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and rhinos on the brink of extinction. Not only that, traditional cultures that have lived on this land for centuries have lost their homes, their traditions, and their ability to make a living, and have little choice but to submit to working on the palm oil plantations. A very similar story could be told about the deforestation in the Amazon to clear pasture for grazing cattle. However, the oil palm trees and the cattle are not the problem. These very same food sources can be produced in a way that not only avoids the destruction of the environment, but actually improves the environment.
At the very apex of sustainable food production is permaculture. If you are not familiar with permaculture, you need to be. As dietitians, we should be at the forefront and cutting edge of food issues and be able to provide proper guidance to others. Permaculture is the future of food production. Though difficult to describe with words, permaculture at its core is a set of design principles and ethics. Some important concepts in permaculture design include water harvesting, working with nature rather than against it, valuing diversity, and aiming for integration rather than segregation. One component of mature permaculture systems can be described as a food forest. This area is designed much like a natural forest, but includes numerous edible plants or fruit trees along with various other elements. In the common industrialized agriculture, hundreds of acres will be occupied by a single crop such as corn. Other plants are seen as weeds that should be killed with chemical herbicides; insects are seen as pests that need to be killed with chemical insecticides. Fertilizers are a staple in this agricultural system to maintain fertility and production.
Bill Mollison, one of the co-creators of permaculture, gave a perfect illustration of the difference in perspective and methodology between industrialized agriculture and permaculture when he said “you don’t have a slug (snail) problem, you have a duck deficiency.” Instead of viewing slugs as a detrimental pest that needs to be killed by spraying chemicals, they are viewed as an element that can be used to our advantage. Ducks love to eat slugs; by introducing ducks into a system with too many snails, you change snails from a potentially detrimental element to a positive element – a free, nutrient rich food source for ducks. Having the ducks in your system adds value with the production of eggs, meat, and the natural fertilizer they produce. A second perfect example of the difference in methodology between the two systems has been called “the three sisters.” Referring to maize, beans, and squash, these three plants have been grown together for centuries because they complement each other so well. The maize provides a structure for the beans to grown on, the beans provide nitrogen to the soil that benefits the other plants, and the squash provides ground cover that reduces evaporation, weeds, and can help deter pests. Growing these three plants together improves their productivity and reduces the need for other inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and structural supports. This is what working with nature by planned diversity can accomplish.
Another important distinction between industrialized food production and permaculture is the impact on soil. With industrialized production there is a significant loss of topsoil over time along with a decrease in soil fertility. The large volumes of chemicals that are typically added to industrialized farms to control weeds and pests also impact the microorganisms that live in the soil, further decreasing the diversity and fertility. A permaculture system actually creates topsoil and avoids the use of harsh chemicals. Of course, these are the norms for industrialized agriculture and permaculture, but either system could be done well or done poorly. The best way to be certain that a particular farm is using methods that are sustainable is to establish a relationship with the farmer and visit the farm yourself.
If incorporated into a diverse permaculture system, can animals, including cows, be a positive element that contributes to the sustainability of the farm? Absolutely! Large herds of cattle have been used to repair land that has been gradually losing its fertility and vegetation. The key difference from the environmentally destructive herds of cattle is in the grazing; overgrazing can be one of the most destructive practices in agriculture that will strip the vegetation from the land, removing the ground cover and increasing water loss, which further decreases the fertility. Confining the animals to feedlots and shipping grains to them to eat may be even worse. Proper management of the grazing can lead to dramatically different results, as cattle will bring vital nutrients and a disturbance that will lead to long-term growth. If cattle are on a portion of land for a small amount of time, then remain off that land for a long enough period for the vegetation to grow back, it will increase the amount and diversity of vegetation present. The Savory Institute is one organization that has been promoting this type of grazing and has produced dramatic results in many different parts of the world, with before and after photos showing significant improvement in the landscape. Other animals can be used in a similar manner. The most productive and diverse habitats on the planet are populated by large numbers of both plants and animals. Food production systems should be no different.
The current paradigm of sustainable food has significant flaws, but there are some components that are absolutely beneficial and should be promoted. One of the most important is the relatively recent focus on reducing food waste. The amount of food wasted in the USA has been estimated to be as high as 40% of the food produced. This can come from losses on the farm, harvesting, packaging, processing, distribution, at the retail level, during foodservice, and in the home. Another aspect is the focus on local foods. This will always be true, as the farther food travels from its production site to its consumption site, the more energy will be needed for transportation and for maintaining the proper temperature. The solution to reduce food waste and food miles is the same: grow it yourself. Backyard gardens and community gardens are an ideal solution as they minimize the energy use for transportation and maintaining temperature of foods, and they also minimize the waste that comes from each step in the production process.
Significant improvements can be made on the current methods to improve food sustainability. The focus needs to be changed from individual foods to the agricultural system that foods are produced in. The most sustainable food will be produced in smaller scale permaculture farms that can be a part of community gardens or even backyard gardens. A continued focus on reducing food waste and food miles is also important. The next step is increasing awareness, so share these ideas with your family, friends, coworkers, and especially your representatives in government.