When we think about the food on our plate, we don’t give a ton of thought to where that food comes from beyond the grocery store or perhaps the farmer who grew it. But our food is part of a food system, whether we realize it or not. Here’s how to recognize the food system you’re participating in and make sure it’s a sustainable one.
What is a Food System?
“When we think about a food system, it’s sort of zooming out and thinking about every single step along the chain. That starts with the seed. Where did the seed come from?” says Lisa Held, a freelance journalist who writes about food systems and hosts “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network.
There are many different checkpoints along the chain in a food system. After the seed, there’s planting, harvesting, processing, transportation, distribution, and then all the points after that, such as the grocery store, market, or restaurant you get your food from.
“At each one of those steps, there are a lot of different impacts and questions that can be asked. At every step…there are environmental impacts. How is this oil being taken care of? How much water is being used? Are there greenhouse gas emissions?
There are economic questions like, can the farmer make money? Are they able to make it work as a business and therefore sustain it?
And [for social] justice, there’s questions like who are the workers? Where do they come from? Are they paid well? Are they exploited? As you can imagine, it’s, it gets, there’s a lot there,” says Lisa.
Food systems have rapidly taken shape over the past 150 years or so. Before, people grew and prepared their food or bartered with neighbors. Now, the distance between us and our food is much greater.
Even in urban areas, you might never see the animals that farmers raise because of the farming operations’ scale. Lisa says, “it can be hard to understand what’s going on in that barn or what it’s like. The disconnect is really layered and deep in the country.”
How Our Food Systems Might Change in the Next Four Years
With President Biden now in office, we can expect some changes to how the U.S. government considers food systems and addresses the issues within them.
President Biden “has already signaled and put down on paper that thinking about agriculture, and how it’s linked to climate change, and, you know, the environmental impacts of how we produce food is important. And just the acknowledgment of that is a huge change,” says Lisa.
Lisa believes that Congress might expand the conservation programs in the Farm Bill in the next few years. These conservation programs pay farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices, such as planting cover crops or conserving portions of farmlands as grasslands, wetlands, and forests.
Many farmers don’t participate right now because of the added cost of the labor and seed’s added cost needed to follow these practices. They also lose revenue from not farming a portion of their land. The Farm Bill conservation programs help cover that cost for farmers to the benefit of the environment.
One champion for food system reform is Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. In September 2020, he said, “Everybody is losing in this system – except for the massive corporations that have taken over the American food system.”
Senator Booker has introduced several bills related to food justice and food policy over the past few years. These include bills to stop the building of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), increase equity for black farmers, and prevent agricultural consolidation.
Examples of Sustainable Food Systems
It can be challenging to find a food system that is sustainable from start to finish. Profitability is a key sustainability factor for farmers, distributors, and vendors. Still, large-scale operations make it very difficult for them to profit against the larger companies’ low prices.
Lisa says, “There are examples all over the country of small farms that are organic or [have] diversified production, where they’re growing vegetables, maybe they have some animals. They’re not using chemicals, they’re building healthy soil, sequestering carbon, and then they’re selling their food directly to people in their communities…
One of the trickiest things is it’s very hard to make that model economically viable [because] these big companies make everything so cheap.”
One example of a sustainable food system is egg producers Handsome Brook Farms and Vital Farms. Both companies work with small farmers who pasture-raise their chickens to distribute fresh eggs. They’re now available in grocery stores throughout the United States. Even though they’re more expensive than a regular egg, the way the company operates is sustainable for farmers and the environment.
How You Can Participate in Sustainable Food Systems
Although there isn’t an entirely sustainable food system yet, there are ways for consumers to help build them.
1. Shop Local
Shopping local is an awesome first step if it’s available to you. Local food from smaller producers can be a little more expensive, but even just buying a portion of your groceries from local farmers will make an impact.
2. Ask Questions
Once you’ve identified some local producers, ask them how they are growing your food. Look for sustainable practices such as planting cover crops, avoiding pesticides, integrating livestock and crops, integrated pest management, and crop rotation. You can also ask about their labor practices and ensure that you support producers that pay fair wages.
3. Look for Certifications for Products Grown Far From Home
4. Join a CSA
Lisa also recommends joining a community supported agriculture group, or CSA. It’s a fun way to receive a diverse selection of local, fresh, and potentially organic produce each week—all while supporting local agriculture.
“It’s exciting every week to see what you’re going to get. And it supports the farmer because you’re giving them economic stability by saying I’m going to support you through the whole season,” says Lisa.
5. Learn to Compost
Another way to support sustainable food systems is by learning how to compost. “One of the biggest issues in the food system as it relates to environmental impact is food waste.
Not only are all the resources that went into growing that food going into the trash, but there that food is then also going to a landfill where it’s generating methane—even if it’s an organic product. When it’s in a landfill, it generates methane, which is an extremely potent greenhouse gas,” Lisa explains.
6. Work Towards a Zero Food Waste Home
Lastly, you can work towards not wasting any food at all. Utilizing your pantry and freezer, along with learning to compost, goes a long way to building a better food future.