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Sustainable Food Systems

A food system is a process that aims to create a more direct link between the producers (farmers) of food and fiber and the consumers of the food. This system consists of several components, including production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste disposal.

A food system can be characterized as being local, regional, national, or global. The word sustainable is often associated with the sustainable agriculture movement, which had its beginnings in North America in the 1980s. This period was characterized by a wave of bank foreclosures of farm operations, particularly small and family-owned farms. Many were unable to compete with the large national and international farming corporations and were forced to sell their farms and go out of business. Globalization, through international trade agreements, were also viewed by some in the agriculture community as another reason for the demise of many small and family-owned farms.

Misuse and overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides contributed heavily to the degradation of many farms and waterways throughout the United States, Canada, and other developing countries. Out of this "farm crisis" came national and international institutions and organizations of concerned citizens, producers, community organizations, and environmental groups. They agitated for the creation of policies and laws that supported new environmentally safe approaches to producing food and fiber and that would ensure the livelihood of farmers and vibrant rural communities. Thus, a sustainable food system is a system that sustains people as well as the land.

Why Are Sustainable Food Systems Important?

A sustainable food system, whether it is local or regional, brings farmers closer to consumers by producing fruits and vegetables or raising livestock or fish closer to the places they are sold. Advocates of this system believe that when it comes to food security, the closer producers are to homes and neighborhoods, the greater the access to more nutritious and affordable food.

Globally, crop production is a highly intensive operation in both inputs and energy consumption. Of the 10 to 20 percent of the fossil-fuel energy that is used by agricultural operations, 40 percent is indirect energy used in the development of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. There is thus a need to work with natural processes to conserve all resources, minimize waste, and lessen the impact on the environment. In theory, this usually means limited use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. Instead, it means more reliance on methods such as crop rotations, animal manures, legumes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks to maintain soil fertility and productivity; and on natural, cultural, and biological controls to manage insects, weeds, and other pests. The emphasis is on prevention of problems and the use of curative interventions, such as pesticides, as last resorts.

Urban growth and infrastructure development has reduced the amount of prime agricultural land. The United States, for example, loses two acres of farmland every minute to urban growth between 1992 and 1997. According to the United Nations projections, 4.9 billion people or 60 percent of the world population will be living in urban areas by 2030. It is not clear how this population can be adequately fed and nourished. Increasing population also means increased quantities of food to be distributed, which increases the amount of trucks used to transport the food, thereby contributing to traffic congestion and air pollution.

Promoting Sustainable Local Food Systems

Consumers around the world can make a difference by choosing to vote with their dollars to support local and regional food systems. There are a Sustainable agriculture is a method of farming that minimizes environmental damage and depletion of resources. To be successful, sustainable agriculture requires a commitment from food producers as well as food consumers. [JLM Visuals. Reproduced by permission.] Sustainable agriculture is a method of farming that minimizes environmental damage and depletion of resources. To be successful, sustainable agriculture requires a commitment from food producers as well as food consumers. [JLM Visuals. Reproduced by permission.]
number of ways that individuals can support and help to sustain food systems in their area.

Farmers markets.

Buying fresh food from local farmers markets supports family farms and circulates money within the community. Organic foods should be purchased, if possible, since they are grown with little or no artificial pesticides or fertilizers.

Community and school gardens.

These gardens provide fresh produce, particularly for underserved populations in low-income and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. This increases the dietary quality and ensures a measure of food security.

Community-supported agriculture (CSA).

In this type of arrangement, individuals buy shares the harvest of a farm before the crops are planted. In return, individuals receive fresh fruits and vegetables and sometimes local meats, cheeses, flowers, and eggs, on a weekly or prearranged basis.

Pick-your-own farms (U-Pick-It) and roadside stands.

At some rural farms, consumers are allowed to pick their own fresh fruits and vegetables. This can serve as a social outing for urban families who drive to rural roadside stands.

These practices help consumers choose foods grown using agricultural practices that keep water sources clean, support healthy soil, and encourage wildlife conservation. A healthy and successful food system emphasizes support for local sources of food production and processing, encourages and supports environmental responsibility, and provides economic stability all within the context of a local or regional area. Sustainable food systems also encompass and emphasize such larger issues as stable farm families, food security and access, community self-reliance, and even entrepreneurship. Sustainable food systems provide hope for a sustainable future.

Carlos Robles

Internet Resources

American Farmland Trust. "Farming on the Edge: Sprawling Development Threatens Americas Best Farmland." Available from <http://www.farmland.org/farmingontheedge>

Deumling, D.; Wackernagel, M.; and Monfreda C. "Eating Up the Earth: How Sustainable Food Systems Shrink Our Ecological Footprint." Agriculture Footprint Brief, July 2003. Available from <http://www.RedefiningProgress.org>

Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Studying Food Supply and Distribution Systems to Cities in Developing Countries and Countries in Transition: Methodological and Operational Guide, revised edition. Available from <http://www.fao.org>

Wilkins, J. "Community Food Systems: Linking Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture." Cornell Cooperative Extension, Food and Nutrition Available from <http://www.cce.cornell.edu/food>


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