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What is Sustainable Food?

At first sight, this is a simple question. One that, when I Googled it, I thought should have brought up a list of things that I can eat and feel good about my contribution to the planet.

However, much like everything else when it comes to climate change, figuring out what food is sustainable is more complicated than I first thought.

So, I started by zooming out, by looking at sustainability in general, then the theories around sustainable foods, and finally, how I can implement this knowledge into my daily life.

What does sustainability mean?

Simply put, sustainability means the ability to be maintained at a certain level. When talking about the environment, this means that whatever we do, must be able to be maintained at that same level for a significant period of time.

For example, mass deforestation would be deemed unsustainable as there isn’t a magical, regenerative forest that regrows trees every time we cut one down.

However, sustainability also has three pillars: the economy, society, and the environment. This means that in order for a product or a practise to be deemed sustainable, it must also be able to be maintained at a certain level without significant harm being caused to society and the economy.

For example, ensuring that workers receive a fair wage and benefits would contribute to the social sustainability of an area.

What does sustainable food mean?

When we try to relate this to food, it becomes a little more complicated.

The theory is the same: sustainable food is food that can be produced at a certain level for a significant amount of time without serious harm to the environment, society or the economy.

However, knowing which food meets this criteria is incredibly difficult.

With the abundance of greenwashing in the food industry, it is often impossible to know whether your food is sustainable without some serious data research. (Which is why we created sustained.)

So, to simplify it even further, in this article, we’re just going to discuss the environmental impact of food.

Environmental Impact of food

But when we talk about the impact that food has on the environment, what do we mean?

In total, there are 17 environmental impact categories used in LCA, ranging from climate change to photochemical ozone formation.

However, to keep this blog simple, I’m going to focus on the 7 environmental impact categories that we use here at Sustained.

The categories we use are: global warming; soil pollution; ocean pollution; fossil resource use; human health; water use and; land use.

So, using the theories from above, low environmental impact foods are those which don’t contribute significantly to soil pollution and ocean pollution. They don’t use a great deal of land and water, and they don’t cause significant damage to human health.

Simply put, these foods would be able to be produced at the same level, for a significant period of time, without causing serious, irreversible harm in any of these 7 environmental impact categories.

Making Sustainable Food Choices:

While it is essential for us to understand the theory around sustainable foods, there remains to be a disconnect between theory and practise. Or, in other words, how I can implement this knowledge into my daily life and food habits.

As such, we’ve compiled these guides for you, which go into detail about which foods are sustainable, and how to integrate more low impact foods into your daily life:

Alternatively, you can download the Sustained app, and know the environmental impact of your food in real time: