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Beyond Organic: Just What Is Sustainable Food?

Does it matter? What does it mean for you?

Senior Digital Food Editor

Sustainable food is a phrase we hear a lot but one that doesn’t always seem to have a clear definition.

To find out more, we spoke to Anna Lappe, author and sustainable food advocate, who is known for her ability to translate complex issues into understandable and compelling information.


Just what is sustainable food?

"'Sustainable' is a word that gets tossed around a lot.” Anna explains. “I like to say that sustainable agriculture is a production system that's good for the environment and for people, that's humane to animals and to food and farm workers, that supports thriving rural and urban communities. In other words, it's the production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare. It's a way of food production that generates abundance while ensuring future generations can do the same.”

Photography by: Helen Norman

How does sustainable food relate to organic food, to the farm-to-table movement? Is local food the same as sustainable food?

Anna says, "Yes, the message is that all these terms are intimately connected." In the U.S., "organic" is a word with a specific definition, set in place by the USDA certified organic program and requiring a codified set of practices such as for an organic produce grower, not using synthetic fertilizers or GMO seed (among others). Certified organic is a sustainable model but sustainability is a broader term.

How Do These Issues Affect Us?

"The issues around our food system are something we can touch every day," Anna says. To shop and eat sustainably is more than just how the food is produced. It also means avoiding heavily packaged and processed foods, reducing food waste, and considering the connection between our food and global warming: That’s not just a result of transporting food great distances, industrial food production, especially meat production, is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. And "on a local level, as well as how and what you shop for and cook, there are important issues around preserving agricultural land for farming and food production, encouraging the local production of food to support a regional food system (and reduce greenhouse emissions and other negative environmental consequences), in other words, keeping land sustainable."

Is a sustainable food system something we can achieve?

"Yes," says Anna, "in theory it is achievable. We could produce enough food to feed the world in a sustainable way." The downside is that the obstacles to doing that are political and very hard to achieve, "so anything we can do to move ourselves along the spectrum toward the goal of sustainability is important."

Learn what you can do to shop, cook, and eat more sustainably.