Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been consumed with the need to improve the efficiency of their crops. The reason for this is that the switch from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer civilization to a static, agricultural one actually decreased the amount of food available per person. With the evolution of farming practices and agricultural techniques, crop yields became ever greater and exploded with the advent of industrialization. Today, vast mega-farms crank out huge amounts of food in a production-line fashion, obsessed with squeezing out the most bang for the least buck via the use of pesticides, machinery, and GMOs.
None of these things is inherently bad – the world needs to be fed, after all, and this is currently the most efficient way to feed it. But as climate change continues to creep up on us – despite what various politicians would have you believe – bringing with it flooding, desertification, and the destruction of arable land, a wholesale change in farming practices will be urgently needed.
The local food movement is a good example of a sustainable farming practice that has gone from strength to strength over the last few decades. A response to mega corporations growing food in one country, shipping it halfway around the world to be processed and then shipping it elsewhere again to the supermarket shelves, the local food industry prizes locally sourced food that doesn’t have to travel too far. The advantages of local foods are allegedly that they are fresher, tastier, healthier and easier on the environment.
Highlighting the local food trend, the number of farmers’ markets in the US rose from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,144 in 2013, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Suppliers, grocers and restaurants have taken advantage of the trend too, by stocking and promoting local foods.
Despite the hype, however, it’s worth noting that local foods are not always necessarily the best thing for the environment. Because final transportation to market is only about 4 per cent of the overall environmental impact of food production, the environmental benefits of local food don’t necessarily stack up, especially if food grown locally requires extra processing, such as the use of sanitation technologies like food grade metal detectors, or packaging plants that are smaller and therefore less efficient than the ones used by the larger manufacturers. It might be actually better for the environment to grow the food in a place where less or more efficient processing can be used, cutting down on energy costs, and then ship it to where it’s needed.
So perhaps the lesson that the local food movement can teach larger manufacturers is that consumers will pay for sustainability and freshness, and that they pay more attention to perceived environmental impact than the actual numbers.
So, if local food isn’t the answer, what is? Well, the UN has published a list of 17 sustainable development goals, several of which focus on food: ending hunger, improving food nutrition, promoting sustainable production, and achieving food security. Among their recommendations for sustainability are:
- traceability: the documentation of nutritional and ingredient information could be expanded to include the origin of the food and the amount of processing required to produce it, allowing consumer choice to maximize sustainability;
- reusing waste: nearly 90 million tonnes of food are spoiled annually in the European Union alone. Reducing this waste is a huge priority, and several companies have partnered with charities to focus on it, for example by offering retailers the opportunity to sell expiring products to customers who wish to save money, or by helping professional kitchens to reduce waste along their production chain;
- food fabrication: 3D food printing is coming, and will allow a revolution in the cheap, efficient, sustainable production of food through the manufacture of customized food products;
- nerd farming: rather than farming nerds, this is farming for nerds, and involves developing open source software and hardware platforms to allow hyper-local (i.e., inside your own apartment!) sensor-controlled hydroponic and aeroponic agriculture systems;
- low-impact foods: these are foods that have a low impact on the environment, such as edible insects, which contain high-quality protein, vitamins and amino acids, or algae, which is high in protein and iron;
- food education and communities: knowledge about food and sustainable practices is one of the most important ways to ensure that a sustainable system can be shaped and developed.