Like the word nutrition, sustainability is a loaded term. It can produce an emotional response and be associated with much misunderstanding.
When consumers make purchasing decisions, they often focus on a single aspect of nutrition or one component of sustainability.
For example, sometimes clients base their assessment of a food’s healthfulness on its sodium or fiber content or the lack of a feared nutrient. And they make similar judgments about the sustainability of certain foods. A consumer may choose one nut over another because it requires less water during growth. Or, a client may pick one snack bar over another because her view of sustainability means less packaging material. Another may believe that a small food company produces food more sustainably than does a large company.
As an RD, I’m capable of discussing the strengths and weaknesses of my patients’ assessments of what is nutritious. But discussing sustainability is more difficult. I haven’t spent years studying sustainability, and I’ve only recently grasped how complex the term is. When discussing sustainability and farming, Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting in Carmichael, California, refers to the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. Sometimes farmers make choices that will benefit all three, but often there are trade-offs. “If something is good for the environment but doesn’t help a farmer to be financially sustainable, it may not be the most sustainable choice for that farmer. Likewise, if a choice is good for profits but not for a farmer’s quality of life, then he or she may make a different, yet also sustainable, choice,” Miller explains.
But even farming practices aren’t enough to explore when evaluating sustainability in the food supply. There are many points between prepping the land for planting and using and disposing of the food in the home, and each point impacts people, planet, and/or profit.
Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to visit several farms, processing plants, and food companies, and attend a summit on sustainable agriculture. Through these experiences, I’ve learned that sustainability encompasses so much more than fertilizers, pesticides, and packaging materials. Among many other things, sustainable practices may include using cover crops, rotating crops, bringing in predatory insects, integrating plant and animal farming, ensuring the safety of farm workers and rural communities, reducing waste in processing plants, packaging products creatively for distribution, responsibly sourcing ingredients and materials, and generating wind energy.
I’ve also learned that even large farms and companies can implement sustainable practices.
Minnesota dairy farmer Suzanne Vold, whose farm, Dorrich Dairy, won the 2015 US Dairy Sustainability Award, explained to the attendees of the Sustainable Agriculture Summit in Kansas City, Missouri, in November 2017 that farmers—regardless of the farm’s size—don’t measure success by the year or the decade. Instead, farmers measure success by the generation because they expect their kids and their kids’ kids to take over the land. That, she explained, is why farmers engage in sustainable practices. In addition, Miller says farms must be financially sustainable for the next generation to want to stay in farming.
At the same sustainability summit, Kansas wheat farmer Justin Knopf shared his farming strategy, which involves economic returns as well as returns to natural and human resources. On the Knopf’s 4,500-acre farm, they’ve engaged in continuous no-till with crop rotations for the past 15 years. Among other benefits, Knopf explains that this system protects the soil and reduces greenhouse gases by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil. He regularly engages other farmers in conversations about sustainable practices.
Food processors also set goals to preserve people, planet, and profits. For example, Mars Food attempts to send zero waste to landfills. The company met its goal in 2015 and nearly met it in 2016 (www.mars.com/global/sustainable-in-a-generation/healthy-planet/waste). And General Mills has committed to improving the health of ecosystems throughout its supply chain. Among other things, it supports research to improve the health of bees and has invested more than $6 million since 2011 to support pollinator and biodiversity efforts (https://globalresponsibility.generalmills.com/HTML1/general_mills-global_responsibility_2017_0054.htm).
While there’s currently no seal or index to identify whether a grocery item has been produced and traveled to the supermarket in a sustainable way, there are meaningful things consumers can do in their quest for sustainable foods, explains Sharon Palmer, RDN, known as the Plant-Powered Dietitian, who’s currently studying for her Master in Sustainable Food Systems degree at Green Mountain College in Vermont. Palmer offers the following tips:
- Limit the number of trips you make to buy groceries if traveling by car.
- Avoid overeating, which is a form of food waste.
- Limit foods with low nutrient density. Using resources for foods with poor nutritional quality isn’t sustainable.
- Reduce meat consumption because it has larger carbon and water footprints than do plants.
- Focus more on foods that require minimal processing. Foods that have been through many processing steps generally have a larger carbon footprint.
- Choose canned and frozen versions of fresh produce that’s out of season. Typically, they’re a more sustainable choice than purchasing produce that has traveled a long distance.
- When you shop local, ask farmers about their sustainability practices.
- Grow some of your own food, if possible.
A sustainable food supply will require efforts from farmers, food manufacturers, consumers, and many stakeholders. Unfortunately, we don’t have a simple way to identify foods in the supermarket that have been grown, produced, packaged, and transported in only sustainable ways. For now, RDs can continue to learn about agriculture and food manufacturing and guide clients to take some of the small steps mentioned above.
— Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND, CHWC, is a freelance writer and a nutrition and diabetes consultant to the food industry, including Dow AgroSciences and Egg Nutrition Center. She has a private practice in Newport News, Virginia, and is the author of several books, including Diabetes Weight Loss — Week by Week.