Sustainability in our Food System;

Why it is Important and How you can Support it

*Sustainability Defined *Making a difference at the grocery store *Understanding your foodprint *Be food waste conscious *Eat local, more produce *Eat less ultra-processed food

Photo by Amy Wagner

Curiosity regarding the word sustainability in our food system is generally piqued after walking into the grocery store. We see stamps and labels everywhere such as locally grown, organic, non-GMO, and the afore mentioned, sustainably sourced or farmed. But what does sustainable really mean and why does it matter? How can we help?

Sustainability defined

To truly help the planet and ourselves we need to understand what sustainability means. In short the brief definition is that we are actively meeting our food needs in the present while also enabling future generations the ability to meet their food needs as well. However sustainability in the food system encompasses much more (The Nutrition Source). It is a whole systems concept with the understanding that the food system is multidimensional not linear. The image below from Food and Agriculture depicts how much the sectors overlap.

(Food andAgriculture, 2019).

In detail sustainability in our food systems means,

1. Treat the planet with a healthy respect mitigating environmental impacts

a) Reduce carbon outputs from farming (Food and Agriculture).

b) Improve soil health by increasing microbes that benefit both the soil and our own microbiome with biodiverse farming practices (Bertola, 2021). Avoid over usage of pesticides that can harm plants and pollinators.

c) Conserve water by using reclaimed water (Food and Agriculture).

d) Practice composting and recycling to minimize landfills greenhouse gas emissions (Food and Agriculture).

e) Consider the welfare of animals, sea life and soil. Farmers are required to have space emulating that of their animal’s natural environment. Reducing compact areas of high CO2 found in factory farms. Sustainable seafood minimizes damage done to our ocean and the fish population (Palmer, 2022).

2) It is not just about the food. Social impacts throughout the food chain are vast.

a) Equality in the farming culture towards BIPOC and reducing gender biases. Currently these problems are not addressed in our food system leading to gross inequalities (Food and Agriculture).

b) Respect cultural food tradition, understanding what was lost in the colonization of land around the world. Food is power and indigenous populations need to have the ability to get back that power again (Food Empowerment Process).

c) Serving underserved communities healthy food options (Food and Agriculture).

d) Fair treatment of farm workers with livable wages (Food and Agriculture).

3) Understand economics are a critical factor in our food system to create stability. (Food and Agriculture).

a) Generating wealth from a stable, sustainable food system can contribute to poverty reduction by putting more money into the system (Food and Agriculture).

b) Paying farming employees, a livable wage will increase spending in the economy and create a more stable food chain system (Food and Agriculture).

c) Need to generate profits and incorporate taxes into this holistic system in order to be successful (Food and Agriculture).

As you can see our food system is very complex, reliant on many different factors in order to be stable. Supporting sustainability with our personal choices will create a financial trail in which the decision makers may take notice.

Understanding how you can make a difference in the grocery store

Supporting sustainability is something you can do now in the grocery store looking for stamps on your packaging that relate to sustainability. Try purchasing food that align with what is important to you and the environment.

This is the gold standard label. It is both organic and sustainable and has the interest of the farm worker and animal welfare at the heart of it (foodprint).

Animal products under this label are treated kindly and humanely (Palmer, S).

Farm workers are treated fairly with healthcare, a safe work environment and fair wages. They are heavily involved in making a better life for farmers and their families. GMOs are prohibited and soil health is monitored (Palmer, S).

Products with this stamp are produced with sustainable measures and all the farmers and workers have been treated fairly. It supports people, the economy and the environment (Palmer S).

No pesticides or chemicals are used in foods with this stamp. You can be guaranteed your food is free of chemicals all the way to the grocery store. It is overseen by the USDA.

Understanding your own foodprint and it’s impact on the planet;

Sustainability can also be supported outside of the market as well. Being aware of your own foodprint is important because our current food systems contribute to almost a quarter of the human made greenhouse gas emissions (Sokoloski, 2019). Investigate Harvard’s FoodPrint calculator and to see how your diet effects the planet.

Making changes to your overall diet can bring down your environmental impact. Even something as simple as focusing one day a week on grains, legumes, fruit, and veggies can make an impact. You can save 133 gallons of water for each meatless day you participate in, reduce your carbon footprint dramatically and probably lower your food bills (Conzachi, 2021).

The table below is from Our World in Data. It depicts greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food.

Be food waste conscious

Be aware of your food and packaging wastes, contributing less to landfills in our country is another big way to help the environment. Methane from food waste in landfills is a powerful contributor in greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that each year the amount of food waste in our landfills is equal to running 42 coal fired plants. If you are curious that equals 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (Buzby). GHG emissions is directly linked to climate change which is responsible for dramatic weather events that severely affect our food system at the agricultural and supply chain level (Buzby).

You can make changes in your food waste footprint by shopping consciously. Take a few extra minutes to write a list and only buy what you need, cook at home more often and bring home leftovers from restaurants to eat the next day. If you are ambitious, start composting at home. The compost is excellent fertilizer for gardens. There are a lot of easy set ups available on amazon that are delivered to your front door for under $80.00.

Eat local foods, especially fruits, vegetables and legumes.

As a general guideline, if it is healthy for you to eat, it is probably healthy for the environment. Eating seasonal, local fruit and vegetables, grains, legumes, and a limited amount of sustainably sourced protein rather than ultra-processed foods you can both aid in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improve your health. Consuming vegetarian-based meals is much easier on our planet (Kozoki).

Metabolic diseases such as obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are serious threats to our health leading to costly treatments and even death. Specifically consuming red meat has been linked to an increased risk of premature death (Hemler).

Since 1963 the intake of meat as increased by 62% globally (Hemler). This is due to the increasing population and increasing wealth. Unfortunately, that increase in meat consumption is wearing on our planet using 11 times more fossil fuels then plant-based foods (Hemler). Our planet simply cannot keep up with these demands especially as our population multiplies. Unless the situation changes our planet’s resources will not be able to keep up with the population any longer (Hemler).

Eat less processed foods

Research has shown that eating more ultra-processed calories per day increases greenhouse gas emissions by increasing plastic waste in our landfills (BBC, 2019). What’s more, ultra-processed foods containing palm oil or soy oils have an extremely negative impact on our environment due to the environmental impacts of producing those oils (IUCN, 2018).  Consuming minimally processed vegetarian foods or locally sourced fruits and vegetables has the least impact on our Environment (BBC). One study showed that consuming ultra-processed foods often leads to overeating on average 500 calories per day (BBC). This increase in calories leads to increase weight gain, something to keep in mind with obesity and metabolic diseases a leading cause in premature death (Hemler).

To Summerize:

Sustainability encompasses the health and stability of our food system environment by considering fair treatment of farm laborers, equality in the food system, respecting cultural traditions, the health of our planet and the proper humane way to treat farm animals and our soil health.

  1. Be a conscious shopper.
  2. Understand your own foodprint on the environment.
  3. Be food waste conscious, recycle and even start your own compost bin.
  4. Increase your produce intake and decrease red meat intake.
  5. Reduce or eliminate ultra-processed non-nutrient dense food

We all want what is best for our planet and our future generations. It is time to start thinking about the implications of our dietary patterns now. We can all make an impact by living sustainably. Start small and attempt one step at a time, soon it will become second nature and you will be on the path to sustainable living.

Photo taken from Sustainable Solutions.


Food and Agriculture of the United Nations. (2019). Sustainable Food Systems Concept and Framework.

Palmer, S. (2022, Oct 23). Sustainable Food Labels: What do They Mean? The Plant Powered  Dietician.

Conzachi, K.(2021). Meatless Monday: “Less Meat, Less Heat!”  University of Colorado Boulder Environmental center.,Meatless%20Monday%20you%20participate%20in

Buzby, J. (2022, Jan 24). Food Waste and its Links to Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change.,even%20more%20potent%20greenhouse%20gas.

Hemler, E., Hu, F. (2019 Nov 15). Plant based Diets for Personal Population, and Planetary Health. Advanced Nutrition.

Brown, J. (2021, June 17). The Truth About Processed Foods Environmental Impact. BBC.

IUCN (2018, June). Palm Oil and Biodiversity. Issues Brief.,smoke%20haze%20and%20water%20pollution.

The Nutrition Source. (n.d) Sustainability.

Bertola, M., Ferrarini, A., Visioli, G. (2021, July 9). Improvement of Soil Microbial Diversity through Sustainable Agricultural Practices and Its Evaluation by -Omics Approaches: A Perspective for the Environment, Food Quality and Human Safety.  Microorganisms.

Food Empowerment Process. (n.d.) Colonization, Food and the Practice of Eating.

HC Sustainability Project. (n.d) Sustainable Solutions.

Ritchie, H. (2020, Jan 24). You Want to Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Your Food? Focus on What you Eat, not Wether Your Food is Local. Our World in Data

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