What Is Sustainable Food?

What Is Sustainable Food?

In today’s day and age, striving to live a more sustainable life is becoming increasingly important. Food production accounts for 26 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, representing over a quarter of these intensely damaging substances. Of course, we all need to eat. There is also absolutely no reason that we shouldn’t enjoy what we eat. Our planet should just enjoy it too.

As a result, we are left with a clear path: to eat more sustainable food. But what exactly is sustainable food? What makes a meal good for our bodies, good for our minds, and good for our environment? How can we utilize sustainable food systems to stop contributing to and possibly even combat climate change? 

This may seem like many factors to consider, but luckily many of the healthiest foods for us are also made free of pesticides and with natural resources. Eating well and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, more often than not, they might just go together.

What Is Sustainability?

“Sustainability” can be a somewhat loaded term, and as such, it can have a variety of meanings. At its very essence, though, sustainability is all about living in a way that does not harm our environment and preserves the wellbeing of future generations

For something to be sustainable, it has to be made with multiple priorities in mind. A sustainable item understands that the earth’s resources are not neverending and must be kept safe. At the same time, sustainable products should be made to prioritize the wellness of both workers and customers alike.

Sustainability is entirely focused on preserving and securing our future by making reasonable and necessary “sacrifices” in the present. We put the term “sacrifices” in quotes because it is all relative. Often, the changes that we must make in the name of sustainability are actually better quality options for us now. While this is true in many different kinds of products, it is perhaps never clearer than in the case of sustainable food.

What Is a Sustainable Food Source?

A sustainable food source is one that, again, understands that our current and future wellbeing are crucial, and we must take steps to ensure both now before it is too late. This definition can be a bit broad, so let’s get into what a food system and supply chain needs to do to be considered sustainable.

  • Use finite resources sparingly
  • Not contribute to overfarming and deforestation
  • Treat animals ethically
  • Focus on lowering greenhouse gas emission
  • Provide food options that are good for humans, animals, and the planet

Considering that food production and consumption is such a tremendous contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, we need to find ways to improve the systems currently in place. By using sustainable farming practices, utilizing local produce, and implementing sustainable development goals, we can certainly ensure delicious and healthy diets today that will lead to us still having enough food tomorrow.

How Does Sustainable Food Relate to Sustainable Agriculture?

Sustainable food and sustainable agriculture are inextricably linked. Our most natural and most healthy food is the result of agriculture and farming. After all, nearly all of us could use more fruits and vegetables in our diet. For food to be sustainable, it has to have been produced by sustainable means. 

Sustainable agriculture applies to both produce and animals. Animal agriculture is one of our largest contributors to climate change and carbon dioxide emissions. The demand for red meat, chickens, and other protein sources is not only not necessarily the healthiest choice for our diets, but it also has a devastating impact on our agricultural land and carbon footprint

According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 38 percent of the world’s land is taken up by agricultural efforts. Only one-third of this land is used for crops, while the other two-thirds are used for livestock and grazing. This means that plants take up only half of the space required when farming with livestock and are a much more economical option.

At every stage of the supply chain, animal farming is less sustainable than crops alone. This is not to say we should all go entirely vegan (yet), but cutting down on our meat consumption would make large ethical waves in terms of the treatment of animals and help out the environment to a huge degree.

Now that we know we should be eating more plants, how do we determine what classifications of plants we should be eating?

Are All Organic Foods Sustainable?

Whether or not all organic foods are sustainable depends on your definition of the term itself. Sustainability just means that something does not put the availability and safety of necessary resources in jeopardy for future generations. Still, there are many ways we can get to that result. For many, this means that our current products are made without harmful chemicals and cut down on our use of plastic.

In utilizing fewer toxic and dangerous chemicals, organic foods are absolutely more sustainable than their counterparts. Organic foods can only be classified as such if they were produced without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. 

By default, this makes them better for the environment. That said, the repelling of bugs is still a necessary part of the production and eventual delivery to your grocery store, so they have to look for other alternatives. Fertilizers and pesticides degrade the quality of the soil and make the soil dependent on chemicals. Good quality soil is important for nutrients etc., but also for capturing carbon from the atmosphere, helping offset carbon emissions.

Large amounts of plastic are often draped over crops to keep weeds and insects at bay, but this creates a lot of plastic waste. If this material is not biodegradable or recyclable, we are simply changing the face of the issue rather than eliminating the issue entirely. We have to cut down on our plastic use, which applies to how much we use within our kitchens.

Food transportation is a massive industry and creates ludicrous carbon emissions. To combat this, it is integral that we pursue more local options to find our organic produce. 

Farmers’ markets (especially a local farmers market), local food systems, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are all great ways to get only the freshest produce full of flavor and nutrients while not contributing to the immense carbon footprint of long-haul shipping. This starts locally, so looking into nearby sustainable farmers and ranchers rather than patronizing massive retailers is worth the effort if you’re in a position to do so.

What Are Some Examples of Sustainable Food?

Luckily, many delicious options utilize sustainable food production. These options are better for the planet and our minds, as sustainable foods tend to have a much better sense of transparency regarding their practices as opposed to other sources.

Home-Grown Foods

Undoubtedly, one of the absolute best ways to know what is in your food and where it’s coming from is to grow it yourself. You can start small with an herb garden or some small, easy-to-care-for vegetables. Gardening is an immensely rewarding endeavor, but growing food products can quickly turn a passion into something delicious.

Local Foods

If you maybe aren’t ready to jump into the wide world of gardening just yet, or if you simply would like to supplement your fridge with other options, shopping local is the way to go. Look into local farmers’ markets and initiatives near you with a mission targeted toward the highest quality food that will also sustain us for generations to come.

Seasonal Foods

The demand for certain kinds of produce year-round contributes to exorbitant shipping emissions and interrupts our natural ecosystem. Instead, try to eat only foods that are currently in season. Not only is this better for the environment, but this is when produce is at its best and is its most flavorful and nutritious.

Plant-Based Foods

Plant-based foods are a fantastic option for those of us who want to eat things other than only fruits and vegetables. Foods like grains, beans, peas, legumes, and lentils can all easily transform into foods that we grew up eating, but now in a more grown-up package.

Instead of purchasing processed foods, purchasing plant-based foods is a more sustainable option not only for your health, but for the environment as well.

How Does Sustainable Food Help the Environment?

Sustainable food helps the environment in so many ways, but we will detail just a few below.

Helps Prevent Biodiversity Loss

Due to the significantly smaller amount of land and resources required to produce crops rather than continue animal agriculture. Not only do we have more land to work with that can then recover, but we also do not need to feed the animals so much of our crop.

Helps Conserve Energy

Foods created through a sustainability program are made more simply and naturally. Conventional manufacturing and other industrial processes can largely contribute to environmental harm through emissions and energy use, while sustainable practices aim to conserve resources and protect the planet. With sustainability programs, more energy is conserved in order to maintain a safe and healthy environment. 


It is important that the food we produce is sustainable and that we are mindful of how we use it. Food loss and food waste are everywhere, both in the United States and worldwide. 

Through both personal responsibility and the implementation of public policies focused on global low environmental impacts, we can ensure a rewarding and necessary transition into sustainability occurs.



Environmental Impacts of Food Production | Our World In Data

What Is Sustainability? | UCLA

Land Use in Agriculture by the Numbers | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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