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10 Keys to Having a More Sustainable Food System

Farms today often run like a factory, seeking the maximum yield at the lowest possible price, with no regard for human, animal or environmental consequences. Large farming operations monopolize the agricultural economy and specialize in specific commodities, depleting the soil, wasting water, polluting local waterways and emitting greenhouse gases that promote global warming. Farmers have lost their autonomy over food production, and many don’t even know what is in their livestock’s feed.

Sustainable Food System

The health of both the planet and humans can no longer sustain the current food production system. We need a global revolution to truly transform the food system from a water- and gas-guzzling industry into a sustainable, secure operation. Thus, both private and public cooperation are essential to creating this change.

Here are a few key ways the industry, the government and consumers alike can work together to create a more sustainable food system.

1. Support Small Agriculture

Small-scale farmers are essential to a sustainable food system. Local farmers don’t need extensive methods of transportation, since they don’t export the food and they don’t heavily rely on monocultures, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, fossil fuels or pesticides. For these reasons, small-scale agriculture is extremely sustainable. In corporate America, however, “get-big-or-get-out” policies have created agricultural giants that threaten smaller agricultural systems with their low prices and mass production methods.

People often view these major corporations as the solution to feeding the world’s growing population. However, small farms and family operations produce 70% of the world’s food. And, in developing countries like Africa and Asia, smallholders provide the majority of the local food supply. For example, in Asia, small farmers supply up to 80% of the country’s food.

However, small agricultural operations face several challenges. In wealthy countries, large yields result from technology, excess land and funding. But developing nations often don’t have access to these things. Poor transport infrastructure, remote farming and limited access to land, water and proper funds make major yield growth less likely. So, to create and maintain a small-scale food production system, we must first seek to improve infrastructure and choose to support these operations over megacorps by buying local.

2. Adjust Trade Policies

Another way to support both small agriculture and sustainable food systems is to change trade policies. The food industry and policymakers both play roles in this endeavor. Legislators should create guidelines, procedures and laws that once again make the local and domestic market the center of gravity of the economy. Quotas and taxes can protect the economy from the destructive power of major corporations that set artificially low prices.

The food industry can also support sustainability and small-scale operations by supporting fair trade. Companies can buy and promote smallholder products, benefiting the industry as well as small-scale farmers and their local communities. For example, Starbucks Coffee Company is one of the largest purchasers of fair-trade coffee in the world.

 By investing in the Fairtrade Access Fund in 2012, Starbucks has loaned more than $15 million to small-scale farmers. Their investment has increased the income of farmers, improved family livelihoods, increased access to infrastructure development, technical support and capital investment and continues to promote sustainable community development.

3. Switch Crops

Smallholders and the food industry as a whole also battle a changing climate, droughts, natural disasters and intense storms. Not to mention, buyers present a growing demand for produce year-round, even if it is out of season. If they hope to combat these inevitable changes and challenges, the agricultural industry must start seeking alternative crops that can thrive in extreme weather conditions. For instance, farmers in Zimbabwe have returned to cultivating native varieties of small grains, like millets and sorghum, which can still thrive in recent droughts.

As the planet continues to heat up, more farmers will look to substitute their crops for more robust ones. With the right assistance and practice, switching crops for more resilient ones could be an opportunity for smaller farmers to become more productive. It will also help governments, communities and agricultural leaders focus their efforts on creating a long-term sustainable solution to impending climate change.

4. Create Incentives for Sustainable Conversion

Developing a more sustainable food system makes it essential to incentivize a conversion to more sustainable production methods. These incentives may include low-interest loans, grants or polycultural pasture systems. In recent years, however, the federal government has cut back on funding conservation efforts. Thus, state governments have stepped up in its place and are providing incentives for farmers to adopt more sustainable agricultural practices.

For example, in Iowa, the state government offers a refund of $5 per acre on crop insurance if farmers plant cover crops. These crops reduce erosion that contributes to the pollution of local waterways and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And, in Delaware, the state offers loans to poultry farmers to reduce excess waste and pollution, helping out both the environment and local farmers.

5. Disincentivize Unsustainable Practices

Fees and regulations have the power to dissuade agriculturalists and food producers from participating in unsustainable agriculture. By making pesticides and monocultural farming more expensive, state and local governments and conservation organizations can disincentivize unsustainable agricultural methods.

 In Michigan, for instance, the state charges fees on pesticides and fertilizers to fund the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program. This program disincentivizes the use of chemicals and pollutants and recognizes those who participate by offering a verification that declares them leaders in environmental stewardship.

Consumers also have a role to play in discouraging unsustainable food systems. Through their purchases, they send unmistakable messages to producers, manufacturers and retailers about what they deem important. By voting with their consumer dollars, they participate in improving the food system and creating more sustainable production.

6. Make Green Jobs Part of the Economy

Within the U.S., the number of farms and food producers has been declining for several years. But now, the rapid growth of green jobs is calling for a new generation of farmers — ones who can produce sustainably. By providing training and resources, the government can encourage young people to head back out to the fields and implement new and improved green farming initiatives.

Switching to a green economy could provide millions of jobs, improving both the economy and the livelihood of farmers everywhere. However, realizing the full potential of green jobs depends on countries taking action and implementing policies that will foster investment in the creation of a new workforce and a more sustainable food production system.

7. Shift Diets

Achieving a sustainable food system also requires a global shift in food consumption. Any meaningful change will involve a reduction in meat in our daily diets. Emissions related to agriculture are a primary cause of global warming, and the demand for meat is making matters worse. The total land dedicated to animal feed, including pastures, meadows and crops, accounts for the vast majority of agricultural land. It robs the earth of vital carbon sinks, while further increasing methane emissions.

By reducing meat consumption, consumers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a more sustainable food system. Many countries have already begun to make decreased meat consumption a weekly ritual through Meatless Mondays. This campaign encourages consumers to refrain from consuming meat one day each week to reduce their carbon footprint.

8. Work to Reduce World Population

The global population is on track to reach more than 8 billion in 2025, with the majority of this growth taking place in developing countries like Africa and Asia. The food system, therefore, must prepare to sustain this many people. But reducing population growth may also help slow this dilemma.

If more people in developing nations had access to contraceptives, the effect would be tremendous. Furthermore, women need to learn about the effectiveness of birth control and the importance of female education and empowerment. When a girl receives education and contraceptives, she is more likely to delay marriage and childbirth and invest in a career. These two things combined could slow the global population growth and even decrease it in the long term.

9. Find Clean Energy Alternatives

Renewable energy and agriculture are a winning combination when it comes to achieving a sustainable food system. Renewable energy is a clean alternative to diesel and fossil fuels and lasts forever, creating an endless source of income for farmers. Forms of clean power include wind, solar and biomass energy.

One way farmers can switch to cleaner energy is by using a clean three-phase power system. Many North American systems rely on single-phase power supplies to regulate produce storage facilities. However, three-phase systems cut down on energy requirements, optimize power use and return clean power to the grid when possible.

10. Invest in Future Generations

Of course, the best way to create a more sustainable food system is to focus on the future. It’s crucial to teach the next generation how to protect the environment and foster sustainable agricultural practices. Governments, educational systems, parents and organizations should focus on showing children where their food comes from and how it grows. Nutrition classes in schools, animal husbandry, gardening, community cleanups and cooking lessons are all great ways to invest in future generations.

When people around the globe understand the path their food takes from the farm to their table, the knowledge will better equip them to make healthier, more sustainable decisions. And, by anchoring food education around local farms and markets, we can help build a food economy that is secure, reliable and sustainable for many years to come.


Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!

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