Sustainability and food systems-what do they have to do with each other?

Written for by food sustainability author Laurie Ouding, RN

In looking at the industrialized food systems and their evolution over their years, one might think that we have made a lot of progress for the better. The reality is, that it has become a corporate owned, globally damaging monstrosity that has not only impacted the planet detrimentally, but has also caused an increase in nutritionally related diseases from eating processed foods, traveling thousands of miles to get to consumers.
Industrialized food practices have been more concerned about economic growth then the impact on the environment, resulting in long term damage to our air, land and water systems. An increased use of chemical pesticides over the last half century in conjunction with industrialized agricultural practices and genetically modified crops have damaged the air and water supplies along with creating pesticide resistant weeds and insects, thus creating a greater need for more and different pesticides-a vicious cycle damaging our ecosystem. Industrialized livestock farming, where animals are kept in confined areas, create particle pollution with methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide gas going out into the atmosphere. Agriculture affects climate change and climate change affects agriculture.
In creating these large food systems, we have introduced more processed foods, prepackaged and convenience type foods to consumers, making up 51% of what consumers are purchasing either at the grocery store or online. The impact these processed, “convenience” foods have on our health over time is evident by the increase in diabetes, obesity, malnutrition, chronic constipation, gastrointestinal illnesses, heart disease, etc over the last 20 years as these have become more accessible. Overall, we are getting more food than previous generations, but less nutrition, hence the increased health issues.
The highest rates of diabetes and obesity occur in neighborhoods where fresh food is inaccessible. What we eat and drink directly affects our health and yet there are places where culturally appropriate, healthy foods are not available in certain areas. This is evidenced by the existence of children who are obese, yet malnourished, which occurs when the quantity of food outweighs the quality of food eaten. A parent with minimal income may choose to have more of a cheaper food which is less healthy, than a smaller quantity of healthier food that costs more. Visit any typical corner store in a poor neighborhood and you will find a plethora of highly processed, sugar laden, fat filled products with nary a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight.
The solution to these problems are simpler than what you may think and requires us to go backwards in some ways. Meaning back to a time when food was grown and purchased locally, people cooked what they purchased and ate together. Growing your own food may seem simplistic and difficult in some areas/climates but prior to the industrialized food system development, it is how people fed their families, lived healthier lives and thrived. It is not only possible, it is necessary to improve health outcomes and for the benefit of our planet.
From an urban standpoint, we need to create more farmer’s markets, community food growing areas, and grocery stores in all neighborhoods, which is essential for healthy food access. However, access alone is not the answer-we must also provide community outreach in the form of nutrition education and cooking classes, which needs to be culturally appropriate to promote behaviors leading to improved health outcomes. Nutrition education needs to begin at birth-for the parents and then continually for the child as they grow. This needs to occur as part of every school curriculum’s STEM programming along with agriculture, the food cycle, food systems, etc.
Every physician graduating from medical school takes the Hippocratic oath “ First do no harm”. Another, more relevant quote from Hippocrates “Let thy food be thy medicine, thy medicine be thy food”. We can either continue to poison our earth and ourselves, or we can “revolutionize” our food system by getting back to the basics of growing our own food, knowing where it comes from and breaking bread together as a family, as a community.

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