All About Sustainable Food

September 27, 2021
Arlene Icon
Alexander Schimmeck / Unsplash

You may have come across the term “sustainably sourced” when purchasing groceries or eating out, but what exactly does sustainable food mean? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as “the ability to maintain or improve standards of living without damaging or depleting natural resources for present and future generations.” Take this idea and apply it to the entire food production process – from farming to packaging to logistics, distribution, sales and consumption – and you’ll be able to find out whether or not your food is sustainable.

 Though organic and fair trade products frequently fall under the umbrella of sustainable foods, unlike these two categories, there isn’t a formal definition or certification system for sustainable food. That’s because sustainability encompasses a much broader range of ethical practices that come into play in the different stages of food manufacturing.

 According to Marion Nestle, former professor at New York University’s department of nutrition, food studies and public health and author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition & Health”, at its core, sustainable food is “regenerative”, because it returns to the soil or community what it had taken out. “The idea of sustainable food is built on principles that further the ecological, social and economic values of a community as a whole,” writes Nestle.

So what exactly is sustainable food production? Why is food sustainability important? And what should you look out for when choosing sustainable foods?

 Here are some important things to consider:


How was it grown

The long-term health of the environment is important to farmers of sustainable fruits, grains and vegetables. This often means that sustainable farmers avoid monoculture – growing just one crop on their land – which depletes essential nutrients from the soil. Instead, they use environmentally-friendly agricultural methods such as crop rotation and raising crops alongside livestock. They also use organic rather than chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Sustainable farmers make efforts to preserve local biodiversity, maintain or improve soil fertility for future generations, and reduce carbon emission during food production. Though there aren’t any labels of certification for sustainability, USDA Organic or Demeter Certified Biodynamic are examples of labels that certify  if a food item was produced in line with sustainable agricultural standards.


How was it reared

Sustainable farmers are conscious of the health and wellbeing of their livestock. They do their best to avoid inhumane animal rearing practices and reduce the pain and suffering animals experience in meat, poultry, or seafood production. Sustainable livestock farmers employ free-range and cage-free farming techniques rather than keep animals in tightly packed cages or pens. They also avoid the use of growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. To support cruelty-free meat, dairy and poultry production, look out for labels like Certified Grassfed by AGW for beef, Non-GMO Project Verified, or Animal Welfare Approved on your meat, poultry and dairy products.


What is the health and economic impact

A conscious effort to prioritize health and safety is another factor that sets sustainable food apart from its non-sustainable counterparts. Sustainable foods are not genetically modified and are produced without non-essential antibiotics or supplements that can be bad for your health. They are also  free from harmful chemicals and pesticides. Those who choose sustainable foods prefer items with fewer processed ingredients like sodium nitrites which are found in most cured meats and fish, and tend to include more plant-based rather than animal-based products in their diets. Organic, pesticide-free and non-GMO labels can give you some idea about the health and safety component of the food you buy. Another important thing to consider is whether or not the farm and factory workers who produce your food are fairly paid and provided with safe and hygienic working conditions. If you want to help decrease exploitation of farm and factory workers in developing countries, select sustainable food items with fair trade and responsibly grown labels.


What’s the environmental impact

Meat products, in particular lamb, beef and cheese emit almost 40 times more carbon than vegetables and fruit, so one of the most impactful ways to reduce your carbon footprint is by becoming a vegetarian, or becoming a flexitarian and eating more plant-based rather than meat-based foods. Sustainable, plant-based cuisine brand Arlene can help you make the switch from meat to vegetables so you can do your part to protect the environment without ever having to compromise on taste or nutrition. You can learn more about the environmental benefits of plant-based food production here. 

While beef and lamb farms are responsible for a large portion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, airfreight and the use of non-biodegradable packaging materials also play a part in increasing the amount of food-generated carbon and waste. Consider these three factors when grocery shopping, and remember: locally-grown fruit and vegetables sold loose at your neighborhood market is more sustainable than pre-packed imported lamb or cheeses sold at the supermarket.


Doing your part

It’s not just farmers and producers who need to think about sustainability. As consumers, we can all do our part to protect our planet, our health and our communities by making ethical food choices. Here are some simple ways you can shop and eat more sustainably:

  • Switch to a vegetarian or flexitarian diet to reduce your carbon footprint.
  • To reduce the amount of air miles on your food, choose locally-grown and seasonal over imported produce.
  • Reduce your food waste and the amount of plastic you use. Plan your meals wisely so you don’t end up throwing away food, and bring your own bag when you grocery shop so you use less plastic. It also helps to bring your own reusable takeaway containers with you when you dine out, just in case you can’t finish you meal.
  • Grow your own fruit and vegetables. You can even plant a bee friendly garden to support wildlife.

Choose products with fair trade, cruelty-free, organic, non-GMO, pesticide free and responsibly grown labels, and recyclable over non-recyclable packaging.