Ensuring Sustainability in Food and Agriculture

Here’s a beginner’s guide to sustainability in food and agriculture.
Kashyap Vyas

People are becoming positively conscious of their food choices. They prefer organic and home-grown fruits and vegetables. There is a significant change in their eating habits and dietary sources.

The global sale of organic foods in 2017 was calculated to be 97 billion dollars, as compared to 18 billion dollars in 2000. This behavior is further accelerated by the internet and social media.


Many ‘influencers’ have come to advocate these foods. Eating healthy is becoming a trend.

But it is not sufficient to simply understand the impact of what we eat on our bodies. We need to be aware of its impact on the environment as well.

How much impact does food really have?

It is quite surprising to find out the environmental impact of our food. But if we imagine the food item’s journey from the farm to our plates, the impact would be quite clear.

To put things in perspective, having a pint of beer 3-5 times a week will lead to annual greenhouse gas emissions of 139 Kg, the same as driving a regular gasoline car 356 miles.

It would consume 2,020 liters of water, equal to 318-minutes of showers. The idea of sustainability is ideal to measure human impact against and to optimize it.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability literally translates to ‘the ability to maintain at a certain rate or level.’ To put it in context, sustainability is the balance between human activity and the environment such that development can take place without disrupting the ability of natural resources to replenish themselves.

Deriving from this definition, sustainable food is food that gets cultivated, distributed and consumed in a way that does not have any long-term degrading impact on the system that sustains this process.

This leads us to some ideas for sustainable agriculture, agriculture that can fulfill the needs of today without compromising with the needs of the future.

According to the US National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977 it is defined as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource-based upon which the agriculture economy depends
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole

The interesting thing to note here is that it talks about the socio-economic aspects as well as the ecological ones. These are interdependent factors, known as the three pillars of sustainability.

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There is no economic development without social development and no social development without environmental protection.

Sustainability at the grassroots level

The food industry is a complex network. It includes farmers and grocery markets as visible elements.

It also includes manufacturers of agrochemicals and farm machinery, food processing and catering, and distribution systems. The problem in shifting from the mass-market model to a sustainable model arises because of the rigidity of these dependent intermediaries.

Many companies are trying to reposition themselves as eco-friendly. But a traditional farmer is more likely to care about the sustainability of his crops as opposed to big corporates.

This is because he has an attachment and respect for the land that he cultivates.

What sustainable food should I consume?

The best thing to do would be to go for naturally sustainable food items. Bison, beans, figs, and rope-grown mussels are some common food items that help maintain ecological balance.

  • Mussels are known as filter-feeders and do not require to be fed. They have minimal bodily discharge and can be grown and harvested without damaging the seabed.
  • Lentils are great sources of protein and dietary fiber and labeled under superfoods. Moreover, they have a low carbon footprint and consume less water.
  • Beans are commonly known as nitrogen fixers and replenish the soil’s ammonia content naturally. Many traditional farmers grow beans and lentils along with other crops to maintain soil fertility.
  • Figs are super nutritious and provide an important source of food for many animal species around the world.
  • Prairies such as bison help maintain soil fertility and make up for the emissions of poultry farming.

Where do I find sustainable foods?

If you have the resources available, you can take it a step further by opting for homegrown fruits and vegetables. Alternately, you can join a community garden.

Seasonal vegetables are a great way to break the monotony of your staple diet and add some flavor to your dishes. They are almost always better for the environment as well.

You can further use apps such as HowGood or EWG Food Score to rate your groceries based on 60 different parameters of sustainability. Apps like HappyCow let you locate the closest sources of vegetarian or vegan foods.

Are there any disadvantages of sustainable food?

Ironically, the biggest disadvantages of sustainable food are not agricultural but economical. Food yield per acre has increased since big businesses started taking interest in agriculture, though, one may argue that this is taxing the land for resources.

At the same time, it is true that the growing urban population cannot survive on strictly ‘sustainable’ food sources. Even though foods labeled as sustainable are often costlier, blindly scaling such operations would be difficult.


A change like that takes time and different fields have to work in synergy, pitching their ideas together and pushing the movement forward.

While we wait for sustainable food to turn into a trend, we can do our part by making a conscious decision to consume more sustainable food. Consuming sustainable foods will promote sustainable agricultural practices that will have an impact on not just environmental protection but the society and economy as well.