Saturday, March 12, 2011

Defining sustainable food

I met with a beautiful woman last week and while she was in the midst of getting me completely intoxicated, a friend of hers asked me what food sustainability means. I umm'd and ahh'd and blurted out a list of facts about increasing strains from a booming global population, peak oil and limited resources; without actually answering her question. Cycling to uni the next morning with a hangover, I considered her question a little differently under the glaring light of day.

I find it strange that in high school we all learn about the origin of the universe, the human body, how cells are the building blocks of life. We spend countless periods listening to teachers blab on and on about sex, food and nutrition (the three imperatives in my mind), but we don't learn about something which holds the same level of importance, and perhaps even a little more urgency - how to sustain life on Earth.

Somehow, despite my passion for the course that I'm undertaking (well.. maybe passion isn't quite the word I'm after to describe my feelings about biology) I never defined what food sustainability actually means. So what is this so-called 'food sustainability' that the media has suddenly latched onto and why is it important?

Under Key Programs, UWS describes food sustainability with the following:
By 2050 global food demand is forecast to be 70% greater than current levels. While this is a daunting challenge, it is only part of the story. At the same time that we face this global food challenge, the natural resources that underpin agricultural production; land, water, energy, and human capacity; are in decline, facing competition from other uses, and becoming more expensive. 

Are you confused? I'm still confused. To understand what food sustainability is, we first need to define the concept of 'sustainable food'. My definition of which is:

'food produced in a holistic manner for the purpose of environmental health and longevity'

When I say the environment, I'm not just referring to trees and oh save the rainforests! No.

Plants, animals, people, microorganisms in the soil, entire ecosystems, water, air, earth; they're all important features of the environment.

Obviously environments can vary dramatically with spatial and temporal differences so we need to keep an open mind whilst also considering the effects of farming practices, waste management, logistics, integrated pest management, nutrient recycling, and so forth.

There are a number of key issues that we must tackle if we want a chance to sustain life on Earth for the many generations to come, and one that stands prominently as the easiest to change is the use of fertiliser.

Conventional farming relies heavily on inorganic synthetic fertilisers which are produced from finite sources, clearly a problem in itself if we want to continue with our system of conventional farming and continue using synthetic fertilisers indefinitely.

Nitrogen fertilisers build up and mineralise with the soil which causes acidification, making nutrients less accessible to plants and decreasing productivity. Nitrogen has a half-life of approximately 41 years (Wood 1995) so as you can imagine, the side-effects of using inorganic fertiliser can be rather long-lasting. Acidification doesn't stop at soil level however. Fertiliser continues to leach down through many soil horizons before making its way into aquatic systems; leading to excessively high levels of nitrogen, flourishing algae growth, depletion of oxygen and death of marine life (look up eutrophication and hypoxia for more information).

Synthetic fertilisers do not replenish organic material and other elements. Trace minerals present in fruit and vegetables have plummeted by almost 60% in the last few decades (Thomas, cited in Lawrence 2004, p. 213) and funnily enough, coinciding with the booming industrial revolution and rapid increase of fertiliser use over the past forty years. Without constantly replenishing organic material and through excessive tilling, conventional farming is accelerating the rate of soil erosion. Sooner or later, conventional farmland will be nothing but a dry dust bowl.

Conventional farming practices and the application of petrochemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides to crops has had negative implications for the microflora which inhabit soil and colonise in organic matter. The diverse range of microorganisms recycle biochemical compounds and make nutrients and trace minerals available for plant intake. Much like the bacteria which live in our gut and attribute to good health, soil microflora is imperative for the regenerative health of soil.

Fortunately environmental issues have been allocated more importance as of late. Community allotments and 'green' structures are popping up all over the place; passionate permaculturalists (or permies as they like to be called) are spreading their knowledge of holistic management; and we have witnessed an influx of farmers from a younger generation, bringing with them simple ideals for the new world.

These are by no means enough to see us through the enormous challenges that lie ahead, it's merely a start.

Wood (1995, p. 137-140) said it best:
Surplus food production in developed countries together with increasing concern about the effects of agricultural practices on the environment are now prompting a critical evaluation of the long-term feasibility of high-input agriculture.. we are facing problems of unprecedented magnitude: such as how to feed an ever-increasing world population, how to protect the Earth's atmosphere. These are not solely environmental problems, they are issues which involve the fundamental relationship between human beings and the Earth.. Such strategies will involve a shift away from energy-intensive technologies to more knowledge-intensive technologies.. Biological agriculture aspires to a system in which the maintenance of soil fertility and the control of pests and diseases are achieved by the enhancement of natural processes and cycles.. This is a concept that is remarkably akin to that of sustainability.

Lawrence, F 2004, Not on the label: what really goes into the food on your plate, Penguin Books, England
Wood, M 1995, Environmental soil biology, 2nd edn, Blackie Academic & Professional, Glasgow

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