Can sustainable food lead to sustainability overall?

What is the route to get people thinking about sustainability? If we could answer this question, then maybe we could direct our efforts more towards that route and we could get ourselves moving in the direction of sustainability a little bit faster.

I would like to propose that food is the route we want to take, the one that will have the greatest impact. Through this route of food, I believe the economy will begin to change with it. There are many other factors that are going to have to change to see a sustainable economy, but I would like to argue that food is the perfect place to start.

Many people point to means of transportations such driving less, flying less, using public transportation. Other people say that people need to buy less or live simpler, maybe even self-sufficient lives. While still others suggest moving to renewable energy sources is the solution to the problem. These are good, but I think they all pose strong obstacles with little incentive to motivate the majority of people to consider their ecological footprint in these ways. They only experience the inconveniences and don’t see the benefits anywhere in the near future. These will each come with time, but I think food is the way to get the wheels turning in people’s heads to think about sustainability and how their actions have a great effect on the world we live in.

With this blog I would like to show why food is the best route to sustainability over all. There are two points I am going to use to make my point. First, food is central to every person, and secondly, food plays a huge role in our economy and environment and therefore, plays a crucial role in transforming our unsustainable world into a sustainable one. The economy plays a huge role in this transformation towards sustainability and food markets can even begin to change other markets in the economy.

I would like to look at the significance for food in our human lives and the many connections that it has to every aspect of every person’s life. Take a minute to think about all of the interactions you have with food in a day or in a week. The most obvious to probably eating three times a day, then you think about cooking meals and shopping for groceries. You may also think about storage of food, food waste, and going to a restaurant.

Think of all of the celebrations and holidays that center around food. If your family is anything like mine, food is central to all celebrations and are the center of conversations. Family or roommate conversations over dinner is a way people connect with each other over food. Kate Powers, in an article entitled Introducing Behaviour Changes Towards Sustainable Food Consumption, she comments about how bedded food choices are in social norms, routines, and personal values. She says that changing such a deeply rooted thing poses challenges, but smaller and more achievable challenges than those I mentioned earlier. People have a deep connection to food and are very passionate about it. If we can get people to think about what they are putting into their bodies and how these choices are affecting others, then people may start to think about the food choices they are making at the supermarket. Eventually, if they are thinking about what they are fueling their bodies with, then they will think about what they are fueling their cars with or how they heat and cool their homes. When the consumer demands sustainable products and services, the economy will change to give the costumer what they want.

Powers also suggests that healthy food maybe be a good approach to get people to think about the food they are eating. People are becoming more and more concerned about their health and want to be healthy because that is when they feel alive and happy. Levine and Labuza (1990), in an article entitled Food systems: the relationship between health and food science/technology, write: “Patterns in food consumption have changed and will continue to change as recommendations such as decreased consumption of saturated fats, salt, and cholesterol continue to be made.” The food we eat greatly influence how healthy we are, so if consumers start to demand unprocessed, local, healthy, fresh food, the food system will have to supply this for them.

Now I would like to take a look at my second point as to the impact food has on the economy and on the environment. I asked you to think about all of the times you interact with food, now think about all of the people what help bring that food from the farm to your table. There are farmers, veterinarians, seed companies, truck drivers, meat packing plant workers, food scientists, food processing workers, and grocery store workers, just to name a few. Looking at the effect of agricultural exports on the economy we can see these effects. According to the USDA, “Avery $1 billion of U.S. agricultural exports in 2012 required 6,577 American jobs throughout the economy.” Also, “each dollar of agricultural exports stimulated another $1.27 in business activity.” Agriculture plays a huge role in our economy, employs a lot of people, and effects how much we spend on groceries every month. Everyone is affected by the food markets, for better or for worse.

A study by Brighter Planet looked at American’s carbon “foodprint” (see graphs below). They estimate that 21% of total emissions are food-related emissions. 54% of these food-related emissions are from up-stream of consumption point. This includes food production, packaging, transportation and retail. A quarter of our foodprint comes from red meat and another quarter from other animal products. The remaining half is from plant based foods, but most of this is from grains, fats, and sugars. As you can see, food and particularly the typical American meat-based diet plays a huge role in emissions. The food with the biggest impact is also the food that is not good for our health either, foods such as red meats, sugars, and fats.

These graphs are from a study done on American Foodprints. You can see that 21% of total emission come from food, 54% of these emissions are from up-stream of the consumer, and red meat, fats, and sugars- exactly what doctors tell us to eat in moderation- have the greatest impact on the environment.

The EU is seeing the same trends as far as high environmental impacts from the food industry. A study called Environmental Impact of Products completed by a few European organizations identified key contributors to environmental impacts. They found that cars, food, heating, and house building continually showed up in the top rankings of the various studies that each looked at emissions in different ways. Food and drink account for 20-30% of the various environmental impacts of private consumption. Meat followed by dairy is the most important in this category as we saw in the study done on American foodprint.

Besides the impact of food production from agriculture related areas, the miles that food travels also has a big impact on the economy and the environment. Also known as “food mile,” this can have a complex and many times unknown effect on social, economic, and environmental aspects. A report produced for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK in 2005 called The Validity of Food Miles as in Indicator of Sustainable Development reports, “The direct environmental, social and economic costs of food transport are over £9 billion each year, and are dominated by congestion.” These costs include CO2 emissions, noise, accidents, and infrastructure. They conclude that globalization and higher food miles are not directly related, but play an important role in local, rural economies and communities.

As I have tried to show food is the way to get people thinking about sustainability both because of food’s unique importance to every human life and its leverage it has in the economic and environmental fields. When people start to think about food’s impact on the environment, on people around them, and their own health, they will start to demand from the economy food that meets their standards. We can already see this happening in the US. According to the USDA, from 2005 to 2011, organic cropland has increased from 0.46% to 0.83%, organic livestock has increased from 0.11% to 0.34%, and poultry has increased from 0.69% to 1.97%. That is almost a 300% increase in both organic livestock and poultry. This is not to say that organic is the ultimate goal for a sustainable food system; this just proves that the producers supplies what the consumer demands. Beside the huge impact a more sustainable food system would have on the environment, I also believe once people start thinking about these things, they will begin to think about the other parts of their lives, the other things they consume, and maybe even the whole economic system.


Daly, Herman E., and Joshua Farley. “Human Behavior and Economics.” Ecological economics: principles and applications. 2. ed. Washington: Island press, 2011. Print.

Dahl, Darren. “Social Influence and Consumer Behavior.” Journal of Consumer Research 40: iii-v. Print.

“Food Economics.” GRACE Communications Foundation. N.p., 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 May 2014.

Kling, M.M. and I.J. Hough (2010). “The American Carbon Foodprint: Under- standing your food’s impact on climate change,” Brighter Planet, Inc.

Levine, A.S., and Theodore P. Labuza. “Food Systems: The Relationship between Health and Food Science/Technology.” Environmental Health Perspectives 86: 233-338. Print.

Powers, Kate. “Introducing behaviour changes towards sustainable food consumption.” CORPUS: n. pag. Print.

Seyfang, Gill. “Ecological Citizenship And Sustainable Consumption: Examining Local Organic Food Networks.” Journal of Rural Studies 22: 383-395. Print.

Smith, Alison. “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development.” Final Report produced for DEFRA: n. pag. Print.

“USDA ERS – Home.” N.p., 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.

“U.S. Food System.” University of Michigan, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 May 2014.

Stewardship GardenAbout the author: Leann Luecke is a senior Environmental Science major at the University of St. Thomas

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One Response to Can sustainable food lead to sustainability overall?

  1. Pingback: The End of Growth? Perspectives from an Aquinas Honors seminar | Sustain

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