During my final semester as an undergraduate student, I decided to sign up for a course on global food systems. The professor started our first class by showing the students in the room a variety of fast food logos and asking us to identify the company. The young adults in the classroom listed the fast food chains with ease.
“McDonald…Wendy’s….Burger King, ” we said in unison.
The professor then switched to photographs of seeds and asked the class to identify the corresponding plant.
As the professor switched between photographs of seeds and full grown plants, our classroom of 30 students were completely unable to accurately identify a single photograph.
As my professor so aptly demonstrated, many of us remain disconnected from the processes that bring food to our tables. This is particularly apparent in the last several weeks, as journalists begin to discuss the diverse ways that COVID-19 will influence food supply chains, agricultural workers, and increasing hunger in developing nations. Although these issues have long existed, an urgency to discuss and address them have only recently emerged as consumers start to experience empty shelves and reduced selection. Unfortunately, many experts are predicting that COVID-19 will exacerbate pre-existing inequalities that already plague our global food distribution systems, hitting those responsible for food provision, such as farmers and agricultural labourers, the hardest.
Solutions for addressing global food inequities at a large scale will take a coordinated effort in policy development between national governments, and increased financial aid to non- governmental organizations working to address the issue. The diverse range of interests and number of different actors involved in food procurement makes the task particularly difficult to achieve. At the personal level, environmental and social activists have suggested consumers implement sustainable eating to reduce environmental degradation and food related injustice. Defined by Harvard’s School of Public Health, “Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” Whether eating at home or travelling abroad, sourcing our food mindfully can have a valuable impact on the environment and diverse communities.
For consumers looking to integrate the practices of sustainable eating into their daily life, some of the easiest and most effective measures are described below.
1.) Choose Fresh Over Processed Food Options.
Processed food has been through many steps in manufacturing and with lots of ingredients coming from all corners of the world it has a large carbon footprint.
2.) Buying Food From Local Markets.
Local marketplaces are often the principal location that small scale farmers are able to sell their product, especially in the Global South. The food usually travels a lesser distance and the profit is more likely to support local families and members of the community.
3.) Avoid Purchasing Fresh Foods Out of Season.
Foods that travel long distances are not typically sustainable. When you purchase fruits in the winter from far away countries that are flown in by air, the environmental impact is high. For lists of fruits and vegetables produced in Ontario and their seasonal availability, please click here.
4.) Reduce Food Packaging.
Packages (cereal boxes, clam shells, individual cups) can make a huge impact on sustainability, and unnecessarily enter our ecosystems and waterways. Select minimally processed whole foods with little packaging as your best bet. If possible, try to use reusable items such as a cloth bag, water bottle, or straw.
5. Trim Food Waste.
This is a significant factor in sustainability, because about 40% of all food produced in the U.S. is never eaten. Unfortunately, we use vast resources—soil, water, fossil fuels, crop inputs—to produce food that will go to waste.
6. Avoid Chain Restaurants and Eat in Locally Owned Establishments.
Chain restaurants frequently use frozen processed foods and out of season ingredients for their menus. By eating at local restaurants- including street food stalls- consumers are able to support small scale local business and source their meals from local supply chains.
7.) Support Organizations That Promote Sustainable Food Systems.
In the last few years, tours, non profits, and restaurants dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability and local entrepreneurship have become increasingly common domestically and abroad. Oodles of Noodles, Cafe Ubuntu, La Cocina, and Round Table Food Tours are some great examples of sustainable eating and travel.
8.) Prioritize a Plant Based Diet.
Shifting to a more plant-based way of eating will help reduce freshwater withdrawals and deforestation. Meat production is a substantial contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – beef production especially – and the environmental burden deepens, as raising and transporting livestock also requires more food, water, land, and energy than plants.
For many of us, food is one of the most enjoyable parts of everyday life and travelling. Practicing sustainable food choices can complement our desire to experience the best of local cuisine, while supporting inclusive economic growth and environmental stewardship one bite at a time. In particular, being mindful of the food we eat, where it comes from, and who provides it, creates a greater appreciation for local communities, culinary experiences, and the important role that other people play in nourishing our bodies. As my professor aptly demonstrated many years ago, creating deeper connections to the food we eat and exercising informed participation in our food selection can hold tremendous benefits for health and wellbeing at both local and global scales.