4 reasons to care about sustainable food

When I tell people I write about sustainable food, they often look puzzled. Do I mean organic food, they ask? A 100-mile diet where you can’t eat oranges or drink coffee? A fad for hipster foodies?

 Explaining what sustainable food is and why it’s important can be challenging because food itself touches on so many other issues, from energy consumption to health to social and political issues. That said, there’s general agreement that a sustainable system is one that produces food on a smaller, less invasive scale than the industrial system most of us grew up with.  Sustainable food is produced closer to home, without using genetically modified seeds or crops, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or — in the case of animals — antibiotics and synthetic hormones.  Increasingly, a sustainable system is also viewed as one in which everyone has access to a stable, adequate supply of nutritious food (food security) and all participants are treated fairly (food justice).

 There’s growing demand for food produced this way. Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. The food tastes better.

Because locally produced foods haven’t travelled thousands of miles to reach you, they keep their basic flavours better. In addition, varieties of local produce, meat and poultry are more likely to have been grown or bred for their taste rather than for characteristics such as uniform appearance or long shelf life.

  1. It helps protect the environment.

Producing and transporting food accounts for about 30% of the world’s fossil fuel production and 20% of its greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a heck of a carbon footprint. Much of the food we eat is grown with petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, processed in factories that run on non-renewable fuels, and then trucked or flown an average of 1,500 miles (2,414 km) to consumers.  Producing food closer to home reduces the distance from farm to table, cuts greenhouse gas emissions, and keeps toxins out of soil and water.

  1. It strengthens the local economy.

How? By supporting endangered family farms and creating opportunities for new businesses. In Ottawa, as demand for local has food risen, new family farms have sprung up, farmers markets and small-scale food retailers have multiplied, and area chefs have kicked culinary tourism up a notch by building their menus around fresh local ingredients.

  1. It’s better for your health.

Despite the recent kerfuffle about whether organic food is better for you than conventional, it’s clear that eating whole, unprocessed, chemical-free foods is a healthier choice. Conventionally produced food tends to be highly processed, and contains more salt and sugar than we need, not to mention additives and artificial flavours. Our convenience-food diets and sedentary lifestyles have contributed to record levels of obesity and type II diabetes among adults and children, and are also implicated in heart disease and certain cancers.

 What problems do you see in our food system? How do you think they could be solved?

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