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What is sustainable food?

Keep our planet in mind when you eat your meals...
Keep our planet in mind when you eat your meals...
Photo: NASA

Sustainability has become quite the buzzword lately and seems to be everywhere. One of the more prominent uses of this word is in describing our food and diet, but what is sustainable food? A sustainable food system is one that has the potential to last and not deplete our planet's resources such as: water, fossil fuels and soil, while ensuring the biodiversity of our planet's animals and plants and ideally helping small farmers stay in business making a living wage.

Our country's current food system by and large does not follow this ideal of sustainable foods. Large scale commercial farming and food production is extremely resource intensive - including electricity (mainly from oil and coal), water, and fuel (to transport all this food all over the world). The pesticides and fertilizers sprayed all over conventional crops are also made predominately from petroleum. Water and petroleum are finite resources and are being increasingly wasted by this food system. Our country's monoculture (farms that only grow one type of crop) farming practices also drain soil of nutrients since soil needs a variety of plants growing in it to maintain its health.

The monoculture growing practices on conventional farms is also unsustainable because in addition to the fact that this type of farming is causing different plant breeds to become endangered and in some cases extinct, this type of growing also is highly vulnerable to blight and pests. Many plant diseases and parasites tend to favor just one type of plant and will spread easily throughout a field of singular crops. This is what happened in Ireland with the potato blight and could easily happen again. In fact, we may even be in danger of losing the banana completely. Biodiversity is important because it protects the health of the plants that are being grown to feed us and it also provides food security to us as it gives us more options should a singular crop fail.

Many small farms do not practice monoculture and instead grow a variety of crops, quite often without the use of pesticides. These small farms are at a competitive disadvantage from the large-scale farms though, because they are not subsidized by the government. These subsidized crops mostly consist of crops that we don't actually eat as vegetables. The most common crops grown in these monoculture farms are corn and soy, which are mainly used in processed foods (as corn syrup and soy oils) and non-food uses (such as plastics and ethanol).

Most of our country's meat is raised in Contained Animal Feeding Operations - also known as CAFOs. This system is also extremely water and fuel intensive, for example: creating just one pound of hamburger meat requires 8,500 gallons of water. To compound matters, many developing countries have been adopting an "American diet" (greatly increasing their meat and processed food consumption) requiring an ever-increasing amount of land for raising livestock. In fact, 80% of therainforests cut down are cleared for agricultural use such as raising cattle which is then shipped the world over. On these CAFOs, livestock live in very small areas, crowded with many other livestock creating a great deal of waste which seeps into the nearby water system often causing contamination. Due to these highly unsanitary growing conditions, CAFOs and slaughterhouses pump antibiotics into the livestock, which does help prevent some diseases from getting into the meat, but is proving to be a huge contributor of the evolution of the super diseases such as H1N1 (swine flu).

So what can you do to eat a more sustainable diet?

Try to get your food as locally as possible since this has an immediate impact on the amount of fuel it takes to get from farm to plate. Also, try to support smaller farms. Even though they may not always be "certified organic" many of them use organic growing practices for their crops. Finding these farms is easy - as there are more than 100 farmer's markets throughout the state of Connecticut. By giving your money to small, local farmers, you are also helping to sustain not only their farms but the local economy as well. When purchasing products that cannot be grown here, try to purchase Fair Trade items to ensure that the farmer's were paid a fair price for their goods.

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