The Promise of Tomorrow's Sustainable Food System

How tomorrow’s sustainable food system presents an opportunity to correct each of industrial agriculture’s flaws.

As we outlined in our previous piece, The Flaws of Today’s Industrial Food System, industrial agriculture prioritizes production at the expense of everything else. It is unsustainable in every sense of the word. It depletes topsoil, disrupts nutrient cycles, and degrades habitat. It harms human health, pollutes the biosphere, and exacerbates existing inequality.

In contrast, sustainable agriculture prioritizes well-being. It creates its own inputs (natural fertilizer and feed) and cycles finite outputs (like crops/livestock and manure) in a circular system. This dichotomy - between the wasteful status quo and the self-regenerative sustainable future we must usher in - mirrors the contrast between the current carbon-heavy industrial economy and the decarbonized future that prioritizes people and planetary health.

The global food system is good at what it’s designed to do - produce a lot of food - but this design is misguided and unsustainable.

In sum, the global food system is good at what it’s designed to do - produce a lot of food - but this design is misguided and unsustainable. Tomorrow’s food system presents an opportunity to correct each of these flaws. It can be both efficient in the right ways - producing the right food in the right places at the right times - and less wasteful at every stage of the supply chain. It can be resilient to disruptions both related and unrelated to the climate crisis, which will magnify existing challenges to the food system and present new ones. It can be fundamentally equitable by being more inclusive and beneficial for both humans and the planet. It can be regenerative, helping the planet and restoring natural balance to ecosystems that have been punished for centuries by our ecologically destructive approach to making food. And it can be humane and healthy, prioritizing the welfare of all forms of life and the planet’s welfare as well.

Food touches every aspect of our civilization, and reforming the ways we produce and consume food could reshape our civilization more than any other singular intervention the 21st century may bring. Below, we describe how a sustainable food system would correct many of the greatest shortcomings of our modern industrial food system while curbing some of the greatest societal challenges we face.

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Regenerative Agriculture

At its core, regenerative agriculture entails producing food in harmony with nature. Whereas industrial food production compartmentalizes nature and blindly maximizes food output without considering the interconnections inherent to natural systems, modes of sustainable food production like regenerative agriculture take a more holistic view of how soil and nutrient cycles contribute to your favorite fruits and veggies sprouting from small seeds into fully formed foods you can consume.

The foremost priority of regenerative agriculture is soil health. As we noted in our piece on industrial food production, soil health underpins not only the global food system but just about every major ecosystem around the world. As such, regenerative farmers minimize mechanical soil disturbance. Instead, they leave nature to its own fruitful devices.

Soil hosts a rich ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes that maintain nutrient balance and support crop growth without the need for synthetic inputs like herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. By rotating crop growth and supporting a diversity of crops, natural biodiversity levels are supported, improving ecosystem resilience while avoiding human health impacts from the toxic chemicals that plague industrial agriculture. And beyond local farm impacts, avoiding these synthetic inputs mitigates the need for the harmful fossil fuels required to produce those noxious chemicals.

And in the context of the climate crisis, regenerative agriculture provides another key benefit: carbon sequestration. The world’s greatest carbon sink actually lies beneath your feet. Soil stores more carbon1 than biomass (vegetation) and the atmosphere combined. Plus, restoring carbon stocks in the top meter of soil by just 1% would capture more carbon than total annual global emissions from burning fossil fuels. According to Project Drawdown2, regenerative agriculture could sequester 9.43 to 13.4 gigatons of CO2 equivalent from 2020 to 2050, translating to two to three trillion dollars in savings.

In sum, there’s no better place to start in terms of restoring soil health while fighting climate change than regenerative agriculture.

Agroecology

In contrast to the efficiency-oriented approach of industrial food production that looks at each aspect of the global food system separately, a sustainable approach to food production requires a scientific yet holistic understanding of the interplay between these various aspects (human health, animal and plant health, ecosystem health, etc.). Agroecology puts that understanding into practice.

Ecology is the study of natural relationships between living organisms and their physical environment. Agroecology applies that scientific understanding with social principles to create a holistic and interdisciplinary framework underlying sustainable food production. It promotes practices that alleviate human-caused environmental harm, restores natural biodiversity and wildlife populations, and empower small farmers in often marginalized communities who deserve a seat at the table.

In contrast to the cold and calculating industrial food system, agroecology builds on the accumulated knowledge and practices which farmers have amassed over millennia, adapting to local ecological and climatic conditions.

A sustainable approach to food production requires a scientific yet holistic understanding of the interplay between various aspects.

Ecology is the study of natural relationships between living organisms and their physical environment. Agroecology applies that scientific understanding with social principles to create a holistic and interdisciplinary framework underlying sustainable food production. It promotes practices that alleviate human-caused environmental harm, restores natural biodiversity and wildlife populations, and empower small farmers in often marginalized communities who deserve a seat at the table. In contrast to the cold and calculating industrial food system, agroecology builds on the accumulated knowledge and practices which farmers have amassed over millennia, adapting to local ecological and climatic conditions.

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Environmental Benefits

By and large, agriculture is the biggest source of anthropogenic environmental change. Nothing marks our footprint on the planet more than the inefficient ways in which we grow and raise food. Climate change is one of the dimensions of that footprint, but it’s far from the only one. Deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification, and coral reef bleaching are some of the others. If we want healthy diets for people and the planet, this devastating status quo cannot persist.

Environmentally speaking, sustainable agriculture is far superior to industrial agriculture. Its core practices - crop diversity, crop rotation, cover cropping, purely natural fertilizers and pesticides, no genetically modified seeds - increase organic matter in the soil, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity. Sustainable farms work with the local ecology rather than against it, fostering rather than disrupting the complex relationships between different organisms to ensure the ecosystem stops pests and diseases in their tracks.

A sustainable approach to food production requires a scientific yet holistic understanding of the interplay between various aspects.

Meanwhile, naturally produced food is free of these toxic chemicals that contribute to poor public health, from dietary deficiencies to infectious disease mitigation. And the lack of synthetic chemicals mitigates harmful agricultural runoff while healthier soil reduces water runoff in the first place.

All along, sustainable agriculture values animal welfare. Livestock raised for human consumption are raised in spaces large enough to allow them to graze and forage naturally, move freely and express natural behaviors, and avoid the illnesses common in factory farming. Pain and suffering are alleviated as much as possible while the absence of toxic chemicals and waste sustains human, livestock, and ecosystem health in stark contrast to industrial farms that endanger surrounding communities.

Economic Returns

Contrary to popular belief, a sustainable food system would generate massive economic returns. A 2019 report3 from The Food and Land Use Coalition estimated that by 2030, a global transformation of our food and land use systems would create new business opportunities worth up to $4.5 trillion per year, more than 15 times higher than the required investment cost (which itself would be less than 0.5% of global GDP).

This transformation would “help bring climate change under control, safeguard biological diversity, ensure healthier diets for all, drastically improve food security and create more inclusive rural economies.” With agriculture, fishing, and land use expected to produce half of global greenhouse gas emissions, this presents a tremendous lever to reduce climate change. And it could create 120 million jobs in rural areas while mitigating severe inequality in some of the world’s poorest regions.

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Health Improvements

One of the biggest benefits of reforming our food system is the potential to uplift human health in both wealthy and less wealthy regions. The EAT-Lancet Commission4 consists of 37 scientists from 16 countries who agreed on a so-called planetary health diet that is symbolically represented by half a plate of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, with the other half consisting primarily of whole grains, plant proteins (beans, lentils, pulses), unsaturated plant oils, modest amounts of meat and dairy, and some added sugars and starchy vegetables. This diet could feed a future expected population of 10 billion people within natural planetary boundaries that we have violated for decades.

The Commission maintains that “global uptake of the planetary health diet...can reduce approximately 11 million premature adult deaths annually, effectively contributing to a 19-23% overall reduction in premature mortalities per year.” Many of these avoided deaths would stem from decreased prevalence of chronic, diet-related diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Whereas the predominant Western diet abounds with carbohydrates and unhealthy fats thanks to its overreliance on animal protein and grains, diets rich in fruits and vegetables uplift human health.

Much of the transition will come from a groundswell of people around the world actively choosing to reshape the way they get food from the Earth to their plate.

One of the quickest and most overarching ways governments can lead a transition to healthier diets is through agricultural subsidies. Today, the world spends about $600 billion a year on agricultural subsidies5. Most of those funds are allocated in a misguided fashion, for instance, contributing to diminished farmer income or supporting excess growth of nutrient-poor food like rice, maize, and wheat. If these funds were instead repurposed to emphasize the production of healthier foods while delivering better outcomes for farmers and the environment, the food system could promote human and planetary health rather than depleting it.

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Taking Ownership of Your Food Footprint

Jonathan Zaidman, Director of Engagement & Impact at The Ecology Center in Southern California, identifies four questions you should ask yourself before you put food in your mouth.

First, have organic practices been implemented to minimize the application of harmful chemicals during the growing process? Zaidman suggests not blindly following the labels you might see when you buy food and doing your own homework to feel comfortable about the inputs used to grow your food.

Second, has the soil used to grow your food been nourished rather than depleted? For example, regenerative agriculture is one method of food production that nourishes the soil but isn’t the only one.

Third, if you’re consuming any sort of animal product, how have the animals who are providing you sustenance been treated? As Zaidman points out, the marketing labels we often use to justify better eating habits don’t necessarily paint a complete picture of what goes on behind the scenes. For instance, a carton of organic eggs might be worse for animals because the lack of antibiotics might worsen the pain suffered due to injury or disease, both of which are rampant on farms.

Fourth, how have the workers who helped get your food to your plate been treated in the process? Has their welfare and dignity been respected and valued appropriately? Worker welfare is often underappreciated or flat-out dismissed, but a truly sustainable food system must sustain the people who keep it humming.

To Zaidman, these four questions might guide you to make better dietary decisions at the grocery store or at your favorite local restaurant. But beyond your day-to-day eating habits, he thinks there is a more important intervention we can make to take ownership of our food footprints. It’s not about the cooking shows we watch or the fancy appliances we might buy to upgrade our kitchen. Zaidman believes it’s about “getting your hands in the soil,” whether it’s by planting your own garden or working on someone else’s (maybe even a community garden in your residential complex or your local community). By doing so, Zaidman believes you establish a much deeper relationship with the food you consume and gain a deeper appreciation for the holistic network of living systems that are required to deliver food to your plate.

In the United States, for instance, the percentage of people who are this directly exposed to the food system is drastically smaller than it was before industrial agriculture. In 1880, almost half of Americans lived on farms6. As of 2019, less than two percent of Americans7 are employed in the agriculture sector. Particularly in wealthier countries, the vast majority of the populace has limited interactions with the inner workings of the food system. Less labor-intensive agriculture generally reflects positive socioeconomic development, but one of its side effects is that most people only see its outputs (food) rather than the inputs and processes required to produce that output.

Zaidman recognizes that there is no one golden ticket toward cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable eating habits. Just as there’s no silver bullet that will avert the worst possible impacts of climate change, there’s no silver bullet to improve your food footprint. In his words, “just like an ecology, we need a diversity of solutions to build something for the future, and that’s going to be sustainable.”

In short, it’s an individual journey affected by your circumstances. Factors such as your upbringing, your geography, your means, and your cultural surroundings affect how and to what degree you can take proper ownership of your eating habits. Zaidman also reiterates that you can leverage those factors to make a unique impact both for yourself and for others. For instance, if you feel so inclined, raise your hand when supporting local restaurants and ask about how they source their food. Build relationships with the people in your community who have the biggest impact on your diet and your neighbors’ diets, whether it’s at your favorite restaurant or at the local farmer’s market.

Conclusion

For decades, we’ve perpetuated a devastating way to grow our food. We’ve treated the natural living systems that sustain us through an industrial lens, with grave consequences for our health and our planet’s health.

We can replace our industrial food system with a gentler one, one that nourishes us and our planet in equal measure. It will transform our food system from a global liability to a global asset, an engine of health and healing that can feed a growing population while treating all of its stakeholders - the planet, us humans, and the other living things we depend on - the way they’re meant to be treated. The Golden Rule we all learned about in school applies to our food system, as well as it applies to our friendships and relationships with each other.

Much of the transition will come from a groundswell of people around the world actively choosing to reshape the way they get food from the Earth to their plate.

As with most of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, from climate change to plastic waste, the inevitable transition towards true sustainability in our food system will require a mixture of systemic and individual solutions. Governments will need to level the playing field between healthy and unhealthy foods and support a just transition for farmers and growers of all backgrounds.

These top-down changes, such as policy reforms and continued technological innovation, can go a long way. But much of the transition will come from a groundswell of people around the world actively choosing to reshape the way they get food from the Earth to their plate.

And to Zaidman, that choice is as complicated and as simple as saying, “Where does our food come from? Who grew it? How has it grown? Why was it grown in that way?” If you can answer those questions and feel good about the answers, “you’re taking a step in the right direction.”