Creating Sustainable Food Systems: Local, Regional, National, and Global Approaches

Sustainable Food Systems Examples

Food systems are the network of people, businesses and resources involved in growing, processing, distributing, retailing, eating and disposing of food. These systems are vital to human health and well-being.

Yet they’re often unsustainable. Changing them requires smarter policies and practices that reduce waste at all stages of the process.

Local

Local sustainable food systems involve the production, aggregation, and distribution of locally-grown foods to consumers. They aim to sustain ecosystems and promote social equity and economic prosperity. They can be based on organic or holistic management, agroecology, and indigenous food cultures.

Local food systems are a great way to minimize environmental impacts. They reduce energy and water usage, and reduce waste. They also encourage more efficient farming methods, such as crop rotation and the use of plant-based nitrogen fertilizers instead of chemical-based ones.

They can also help increase farmers’ incomes by promoting local consumption and providing market incentives, like cash payments or discounts on produce. Locally produced foods can also be distributed via CSAs and farmers markets, as well as in restaurants, hospital and school food services. Consumers can also join a box scheme, where they regularly receive a pre-ordered selection of in-season local organic produce or ingredients, from a farm near them. This can include vegetables, meat, dairy, or even flowers.

Regional

Sustainable food systems bring farmers and consumers closer together by growing fruits, vegetables and raising livestock and fish locally or regionally. This allows consumers to buy fresher foods that are often less expensive and healthier since they haven’t been transported over long distances.

Currently, the food we eat travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate. As a result, more than 90% of Americans have pesticides or their byproducts in their bodies. Food waste is also a major source of greenhouse gasses. And industrial animal farming practices degrade soil, pollute waterways and breed lethal viruses and antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

Reversing these negative trends will require a global shift in investment priorities. That includes prioritizing research on agroecology, the practice of managing farms as living ecosystems that support biodiversity while maximizing production. These investments could include developing more nutritious crops that reduce the need for chemicals, or creating processing methods that use fewer toxic chemicals and repurpose byproducts from traditional manufacturing processes.

National

A sustainable food system delivers healthy and nutritious foods to people regardless of socioeconomic status. It also promotes fair treatment of farmers, workers and communities while protecting the environment.

The current unsustainable global food system relies heavily on fossil fuels, emits a significant amount of greenhouse gasses, and contaminates water sources. The system also diminishes crop biodiversity, supports large agribusiness while disadvantaging small farms and uses excessive chemicals for processing, packaging, and transportation of foods.

The sustainable food systems of the future will produce fruits and vegetables, raise livestock and fish in environmentally conscious ways and provide a wide range of other products. They will use sustainable smart technology like greenhouse robots and soil sensors to reduce waste, such as by sourcing surplus or byproduct ingredients that would otherwise be wasted. They will bring food production closer to homes and neighborhoods, particularly in urban areas and “food deserts,” to make healthier food more accessible. They will support local economies while reducing reliance on food imports.

Global

Global sustainable food systems are working to improve the world’s economy and human well-being by reducing environmental damage. For example, unsustainable global production of animal feed causes excessive nitrogen pollution which contaminates water bodies and leads to the death of marine organisms. It also drives land degradation, contributing to climate change and inequality.

Another goal of global sustainable food systems is ensuring that everyone can access healthy, affordable foods. According to Reynolds, this involves addressing the structural inequities that have been woven into food systems. These include barriers to farming for historically marginalized groups and market concentration in Canadian and global supply chains.

One way to address these inequities is through agroforestry, where food trees are planted alongside conventional crops. These trees offer a source of nutrient-rich foods that complement and diversify staple diets, which prevents nutrient deficiencies. Examples of nutrient-rich food trees include pawpaw, mango, mulberry, custard apple, loquat and chocolate berry. They are also known to increase farmer incomes and provide habitat for indigenous species.

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