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What Are Sustainable Food Systems?

Nick Musica
Published Mar 15, 2021. Read time: 4 mins

Sustainable agriculture may have attracted a lot of the attention of the years as a way to help reduce food waste, bolster food security, and fight back against climate change -- and rightfully so. But in actuality, the concept is only one small piece of the sustainability puzzle.

Indeed, in order to more fully integrate the practices and philosophies of sustainable agriculture into our world, we must adopt an infrastructure that reaches far beyond the farm.

Sustainable Food Systems 101

The concept is called a sustainable food system - and as its name may indicate, it incorporates a number of moving parts.

The mechanics behind the concept are on the complicated side, as they hinge on the tricky balancing of several major considerations. It’s not just about how the food is grown or what type of food is grown, but how the food is shipped off the farm, where it goes to from there, and how farmers are compensated for their work.

But when they’re all singing in harmony, these factors work to produce food that, from seed to table, is developed in accordance with nature -- and delivered as humanely as possible.

There are countless details to manage when creating a sustainable food system, but the concept typically hinges on three major components, including:

Environment

This is probably the most obvious concern. In fact, many people might assume that a sustainable food system is only about preserving the environment.

But in this case, the idea of “environment” essentially boils down to the careful management of natural resources, including everything from soil to seed to water.

The general idea is to create a system that not only utilizes all the potential of nature’s regenerative and productive properties but also serves to minimize harmful impacts on the environment – both on the farm in question and on the land that lies beyond its borders.

Ultimately, this can look like anything from naturally replenishing soil with vital vitamins and minerals through crop rotation to reducing the use of toxic pesticides to ensuring a certain level of genetic diversity within a given agroecosystem – the term for any human-tended ecosystem.

Essentially, this principal of sustainable food systems asks farmers to think a little less like planning humans, and a little more like Mother Nature.

Society

But while helping promote the inherent regenerative nature of nature is one thing, supporting the human-run system that would allow such natural practices to flourish is another.

After all, any system can work, in concept; to truly become a part of the natural rhythms of the world, the system must be integrated into it, which is why another equally-important tenant of sustainable food systems is societal considerations.

Again, the term is a rather large catch-all. Indeed, of the three major tenets of sustainable food systems, “societal sustainability” has the loosest definition, roughly translating to any social apparatus that would serve to support sustainable agriculture.

In practice, that includes everything from the vast system of scientists working to identify potential problems and researchers working on new developments in the field to the schools that would promote education about sustainable farming, both to farmers themselves and consumers.

Economy

But, in the modern world, maintaining such societal and agricultural systems takes money – there needs to be funding in order for all the scientists and schools to continue doing their work, which means there needs to be even more effort put into outreach and education.

Perhaps just as importantly, farmers need to be fairly compensated for doing their work, as well, which is why the final equi-weighted tenant of sustainable food systems is a sustainable economy.

Many times, this looks like farmers banding together in either production, processing or marketing cooperatives to leverage their greater economic negotiating power. It can also look like networks of local partnerships, with schools using locally-grown food in their lunch plans, for example.

And it can even look like government policy, with economic development and tax policy on a grander scale working to help even the playing field for small farm operations.

In A Nutshell…

Unless you’re living on a pistachio farm, what we mean is: What are sustainable food systems all about, really?

Again, the concept generally provides equal weight to the roles environmental, societal and economic measures in creating a system that essentially gives back to itself as much energy as it takes – whether that be in the form of nutrients passed from soil to crop or the burning fossil fuels used to power delivery trucks.

At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to create – and maintain – a system that leaves things in a good working order for the next generation to inherit, and continue to benefit from.

It’s important to note that, if the concept sounds vague, it also remains extraordinarily fluid.

Scientific research is ongoing and continues to introduce refinements and entirely new concepts to the process. And, the varying types of environmental systems on the planet constitute different ideas of what should be considered “sustainable” to begin with – whether it’s the type of soil or amount of water required to keep crops healthy or how best to move food beyond the farm.

In all, the concept is best considered not as much a system as a continuum, with different approaches in different areas bearing differing degrees of sustainability or unsustainability.

But, regardless how it’s thought of, most scientists – and farmers – would agree that sustainable food systems truly are the way of the future.

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