An introduction to food sustainability

There are four broad aspects of sustainability that we individually and collectively need to face up to: energy, food, water and waste. This post focuses on food sustainability.

Sir Dove-Myer Robiinson
A statue of Sir Dove-Myer Robiinson, former Mayor of Auckland, in Aotea Square, Auckland City

Back in 1984, ex Auckland mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robbie Robinson said “If mankind is to achieve optimum health he must consume healthy food grown in a healthy environment.”

Was Robbie commenting on the direction that the first two decades of an industrialised agricultural system was taking us? Things like the degradation of our soils, water and ecosystems? Or agriculture’s contribution to excessive GHG emissions that would lead to climate change?

We do not know what his motivation for those comments was but today, over 30 years later, and in the face of these and many other societal changes, Sir Dove-Meyer’s musings are now even more relevant.

The sustainability issues of our food production and supply networks are multi-faceted.

Some of these facets are the subject of a new report published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable food systems (IPES-Food). The IPES-Food is a Europe-based expert panel exploring new ways of thinking around food research, sustainability, and food systems.

TFrom Uniformity to Diversityheir June 2016 report From Uniformity to Diversity concluded, “Neither industrial nor subsistence farming work to the benefit of people and planet. Instead, diversified agroecological systems represent an improvement on both.”

Amongst the key messages from the report is an acknowledgement that today’s food and farming systems have been successful in getting required volumes of foods from producers to global markets.

But the industrial system we have come to rely on has negative consequences. These range from wide spread soil loss and water pollution, to the persistent hunger and nutrient deficiencies suffered by many in the developing world.

The developed world do not escape consequences but they are of a different kind. The rapid rise in obesity and diet-related diseases is in part a consequence of the sales and marketing imperative of an industrial society.

A fundamentally different model of agriculture is required to restore food sustainability – that model is variously named natural farming, organics, permaculture, biological farming and agro-ecological farming.

This implies that farmers must diversify their production, ensure and increase biodiversity and replace chemical inputs with natural ones.

Data shows that these agro-ecological systems can at least match industrial agricultural systems in terms of total outputs and, in times of environmental stress, even show an increase in productivity.

The report also found growing evidence that these agro-ecological systems retain carbon in the soil, support bio- diversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for more secure farm livelihoods.

Change is already happening. Industrial food systems are being challenged on multiple fronts, from new forms of cooperation and knowledge-creation, to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail networks.

In particular, small plot intensive and urban farming systems are gaining in popularity.

So what can we, individually and collectively, do about these issues of food sustainability? There is plenty we can do and the first project that the Anglican Diocese of Auckland will seek your involvement in, is the subject of the next post – Communal Food Gardens – a sustainability and social justice initiative.

An opposing view on this issue, one presenting the sustainability case for industrial agriculture, argues that small-scale food system enlarge the human footprint.  The author of the article is Ted Nordhaus, an author, researcher, and political strategist.   He is a founder and chairman of The Breakthrough Institute which advocates a pro-GMO, pro-Nuclear and an ecomodernist solution to the world’s food issues.


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