Darina Allen: The meaning of sustainable food and where to source it

The word sustainable is quite the buzzword nowadays, endlessly bandied about in conversations about climate change, food security, the state of the oceans, farming and food but what exactly do we mean by sustainable food… and where can we source it?

Food is unquestionably the crucial issue of our time. Some forms of food production are a major contributor to climate change, responsible for one-fifth of all global carbon emissions.

It’s a key driver of resource depletion, species and biodiversity loss. Food production slurps up 70% of all fresh water.

At present, the priority in agribusiness is rarely to produce healthy wholesome food to nourish the nation, more often the primary focus is to produce the maximum amount of food at the minimum cost with maximum profit to the processor and retailer but rarely the primary producer.

Consequently, one in nine go hungry at a time in history when more than two billion people are obese and half of all the food produced is wasted — an estimated 10 million tons.

Almost two million tons never even make it to the market as a result of the demands of supermarkets for uniformity and cheap food. That’s bad enough but it’s even more shocking to learn that seven million tons are wasted in our homes. We appear to have far less regard or respect for food when it’s cheap. Easy come easy go in the rich world, whereas the poor count every grain of rice.

There are many reasons for these statistics, industrialisation has resulted in cheap food — ultra processed, convenient, time saving, but at considerable cost in health, socio economic and environmental terms.

The reality is that unless we are engaged in farming or food production, we have little understanding of the work that goes into growing or producing food. To many, it comes as quite a shock to realise that it takes at least three months to grow carrots, beets, or broccoli.

Ask yourself, how can they possibly be sold for less than a euro a bunch?

The answer is, it’s not possible to produce nourishing, wholesome, chemical-free food for the price the farmers are being paid at present, We now imagine that cheap food is our right, it’s a major problem, unrealistic and totally unsustainable yet everyone needs and deserves healthy wholesome food.

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking but I really feel there’s a shift in consciousness. Could it be that we are on the cusp of change ?

Some millennials at least seem more interested and prepared to spend a greater proportion of their income on healthy produce and are beginning to grow some of their own food.

But, how to create a sustainable food system? It’s abundantly clear that business as usual is no longer an option.

Farmers are doing their best to respond and move to sustainable farming systems but a paradigm shift in thinking and methodology is required. They urgently need both financial support and knowledgeable advice.

We urgently need to dramatically increase independent research into organic food production and regenerative farming methods which already tick all the boxes for both sustainable and healthy food production.

The current debate on what we should and should not eat and the trend towards veganism has further added to the confusion.

Neither the FAO or Lancet reports differentiated between organic, free range and intensively managed livestock and poultry which needs to be phased out.

It is clear that we urgently need to replace farming systems that have destroyed the fertility of the soil since the post war period, rebuild biodiversity and create conditions to bring nature in the form of birds, wild life and pollinating insects back onto farms.

We need to re-embrace mixed farming systems, ruminants are the only animals that can turn cellulose into something we can eat and are essential for fertility building and a healthy diet.

Farmers who want to move towards sustainable food production systems, will produce healthy, free range chicken, juicy and flavourful and free of chemical residues.

These chickens will cost considerably more to produce so inevitably chicken will become an occasional treat rather than the cheap commodity it is today.

Pork too will need to come from pigs that root outdoors and are fed on whey and antibiotic-free food, delicious, tasty meat that we can, once again consume with a clear conscience, without worrying about animal welfare issues.

In the UK, 50% of pigs are reared outdoors compared with 1% over here.

The reality is, if we don’t change our food production system we won’t have a planet that’s fit for our children and grandchildren to live on.

Education is a crucial part of the solution. Practical cooking must be a core subject in the national curriculum — it’s an essential life skill which no child should be allowed to leave school without being proficient in.

At present our educational system is failing our young people in this area, it is not enabling our kids to make sense of the world they find themselves in or equipping them with the information — they need to know what to do about it. Education can change habits and attitude to food. It’s an uphill battle now but an urgent and essential consideration for the survival of the planet.

Everyone agrees we are in the midst of a crisis, so how can we be part of the solution? Each and every one of us can make a difference depending on how we decide to spend our food euro.

Shop mindfully — seek out and buy food from farmers and food producers who are farming sustainably in a way that enriches rather than diminishes the fertility of the soil. Grow some of your own food and pass on your growing skills to your children and their friends.

Buy seasonal food directly from the producers at farmers’ markets. Join an organic vegetable box scheme.

Buy meat and poultry direct from the growing number of small farmers who are selling boxes of well hung, heritage breed beef, lamb and poultry.

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