In the presence of climate change and unhealthy practices, how do we make our food system sustainable? Here are four paths to sustainable innovation.
The vision of a sustainable food system inspires many people in our society. The idea that we could provide nutritious food, maintain the environment, and support all populations equitably is a striking testament to our progressive thinking. Unfortunately, the current food systems pollute and deplete the environment while producing unhealthy food for exploited workers. It accelerates climate change and does nothing to help the people most vulnerable to its effects.
Luckily, the will to reform agribusiness-as-usual is growing. Sustainable innovations in method, tech, and policy could enhance our systems and provide both for the planet and people. This article will outline the four paradigm shifts that could pave the way to a sustainable global food system.
Always Target Nutrient Density
We are great at providing calories. The U.N. estimates that the food system currently produces a 20% caloric surplus per annum. But unfortunately, the methods we have developed to reach this surplus damage the environment, damage health, and degrade society. If every member of the food production and consumption chain were to target nutrient-dense (instead of calorie-rich) foods, certain problems would solve themselves.
For example, farms should eliminate monocropping. It leeches nutrients out of the soil faster than they can regenerate. Producers compensate by using synthetic fertilizers tailored to replace the specific nutrients required by their single crop. Unfortunately, these fertilizers increase carbon emissions and damage waterways.
Crop rotation swaps in new nutrient profiles every season, evening out the consumption. A more regularized consumption requires less time to regenerate and can use natural fertilizers like manure and compost. Furthermore, a locale that produces several crops will provide varied (i.e., healthier) nutrient intake for its residents.
Consumers should consciously incentivize businesses that employ crop rotation and other ways of providing nutrient-dense foods. As a result, their food will not just have calories but essential minerals and other compounds that promote health and wellbeing. If we work together to increase demand and signal that we demand change, the supply will increase as businesses cater to their customers.
Transition from Linear Resource Consumption to Circular Resource Use
The purpose of a circular economy in general, and a circular food system in particular, is to decouple growth from non-renewable resource consumption. Circular models aim to reduce consumption, loss, and waste through recycling and repurposing. The ultimate goal is to reduce consumption of non-renewables as far as possible through efficiency and reliance on renewables. Examples of circular processes in a food system include using waste as fertilizer, converting byproducts to textiles, or making biofuel.
Incentives are necessary to move the food system toward a more circular model. Education and training in resource management at all levels, from farm to table, will help change our mindset and approach to food production and consumption. Furthermore, we need to make continuing investments in the technology that reduces the amount of a renewable resource something consumes or converts the output of one process into the input of another.
Consumers should consciously incentivize businesses that employ crop rotation and other ways of providing nutrient-dense foods.
Invest in Fruit – The Low Hanging Kind
Public and private investments need to aim at the right goals. First, they need to be eco-friendly. Second, they should have the most significant possible impact on the quality and accessibility of food. For example, small farms keep producing everyday staples in more affluent countries because there is too little profit in underutilized crops like quinoa, buckwheat, teff, etc. So we should invest in and subsidize them instead of corn for ethanol production – the effects on sustainability would be much more significant.
But perhaps the biggest return on investment would come from addressing the needs of regions that lag furthest behind their production potential. For example, improving basic irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa would improve sustainability more than offering quinoa bowls in trendy suburban bistros. Proper irrigation could address the nutritional, economic, and social needs of hundreds of millions in Africa and Central Asia.
Honor Diversity in the Food System
At first glance, it may not be self-evident that diversity and equity have any bearing on a sustainable food system. However, equitable investments, subsidies, and policies toward the needs of women, children, indigenous peoples, and historically disadvantaged communities will move the global food system towards sustainability.
If we promote equitable growth in food systems worldwide, marginalized populations will enjoy a rise in income, either as farm labor or by working in processing, storage, transport, resale, etc. In addition, the entire agricultural sector would benefit from a simultaneous increase in labor and demand – these people would have more income to afford food.
These investments would cause cultural and traditional food preferences to (re)assert themselves, stimulating a more varied food production that promotes better human health and incurs less environmental damage.
Sustainable Innovation Requires a Focus on Health and Humanity
Sustainability is a long way away, and we are running out of time. Luckily, there are plenty of sustainable innovations waiting for employment. Anything that focuses on nutrient-rich food and circular resource use will help sustain a growing population while regenerating the planet. Moreover, investing in communities that lag the furthest behind their agricultural potential would yield the best possible economic and social return. If we educate, invest, and set the right policies, we can innovate our way to sustainability.
Forego some personal convenience. Healthy, nutrient-dense food will cost you some more money or time, perhaps a bit of both. However, it will improve your health while reducing pollution and resource consumption. It's an investment in the future.
If you buy imported food, go for Fair Trade. Foods are Fair Trade only if the producers have been fairly compensated for their labor and it is eco-friendly. This designation ensures that the planet benefits and the people receive value equal to what they produced.
Consider investing in alternative production methods or buying alternative foods. For example, you could explore urban or vertical farming depending on where you live and work. You could also consider adopting a diet that focuses more on vegetables and fruits than animal products.