September 07, 2011

Sustainable Food: 10 Reasons to Care

My journey to becoming an environmentalist—a designation I’ll wear with pride regardless of any stigmas—didn’t start out with a passion for local, sustainable food. But it quickly went there.

When I began learning more and more about the horrors of mainstream, industrial food production a few years ago, it shook me. And it saddened me. I’m a different person today than I was before I learned those things. I had a lot of thoughts that went something like, “Oh my god … What are we doing to ourselves, this Earth and other living creatures? How in the world did we get here and how can we turn it around?”

Food is tied to almost everything. And, to me, it’s the perfect point of convergence for thinking about sustainability—because it literally sustains life. Without nourishment, we don’t exist.

Here are 10 reasons why I think food is so important, and why I’ve come to care about it.

1. Gardening Is a Gateway Drug. I feel a powerful mix of excitement, peace, awe and gratitude when I plant a seed and watch it become a plant that becomes my food. This process astounds me—and I love it. If we hope to build a positive wave of environmentalism and a generation of people who are good stewards of the Earth and the living things here, the first step is to plant a seed that helps them care about this place and their connection to it. And planting actual seeds is the perfect recipe. When you touch dirt every day, become familiar with life cycles, and care for living, growing plants, you can’t help but feel a sense of connection. On the whole, there are an overwhelming number of people living on this Earth right now who are profoundly disconnected. They live indoors, they work indoors, their lives are screens, highways and food prepared by a corporation. I think the more people who do something even as simple as growing a tomato plant, the better the world could be. It may start as a tomato, but if the spark of connection grows, that tomato could be the gateway to something bigger.

Squash and Eggplant Harvest with pattypan squash, zucchini and swiss chard

2. Food Grown the Right Way Is Healthier. A basket of vegetables you bought at the supermarket is not equal to a basket of organic vegetables you grew in your backyard. And I don’t just mean the taste. The nutritional value of industrial food has been steadily declining for the past several decades—so that basket of grocery-store veggies actually has far less nutritional value. Here’s a big reason why: A field of industrially produced vegetables receives a steady input of water and commercial fertilizers at the soil surface, which in turn leads to small, weak root systems on each plant. Because the plant has no need to grow deep roots to access water deeper down in the soil, it doesn’t (plants only work as hard as they need to). A plant’s root system is where nutrient uptake happens, and a small, weak root system equals nutritionally weak fruits. A further reason is that fruits (tomatoes, peppers, squash, what have you) don’t reach their full nutrient potential until they’re ripe. In our mainstream system of picking produce unripe so that it can be shipped great distances to end up in a grocery store, the food simply doesn’t have the chance to acquire the nutrients that would have developed during ripening. A third reason is that commercial produce is bred with two main goals in mind: large fruits and high yield per plant. These breeding goals have led to more watery fruits with less nutrient density. These reasons are just the beginning, and say nothing of the pesticide residues on standard supermarket and restaurant produce. I hope to write much more about this topic in the future, but for now I’ll say that it’s important and it may be industrial ag’s biggest secret (in a closet of many secrets).

3. Food Can Equal Compassion—or Not. A lot of food offered in grocery stores and restaurants involves torture. There’s no denying it. The status quo: meat birds bred to have such large breasts that they can’t walk, laying hens crammed in battery cages being denied their natural instincts to scratch and roost (and occasionally enduring starvation to force molting), mama pigs caged down tightly in metal gestation crates so there’s no risk of stepping on her piglets, piglets that naturally want to sleep and cuddle with their mother in a “nest” she’d create in nature are instead on concrete and only given access to their mom through a metal cage, calves destined to be veal caged so tightly they literally can’t move or develop any muscle (done to create more tender meat), cattle in filthy feedlots eating grain their stomachs aren’t even meant to process … this is a beginning of a long, tragic list. By turning a blind eye to this kind of treatment that’s entrenched in our food production, I think we create a scary, dangerous social ethic. If we’re willing to put up with this, what else are we willing to put up with? Alternatively, there is a humane, compassionate way to raise animals for food. I’ve been witness to it in several contexts, and the farmers and ranchers I know who raise animals in this way are smart, compassionate, helpful, kind people.

4. Food Relates to Energy. Energy seems to be one major faction of the environmental movement. It’s an incredibly important faction, but it’s by no means separate from the issue of food. Most foods are shipped far and wide before they end up on dinner plates. That takes a lot of energy, and so does ensuring that all kinds of produce appear in grocery stores every season of the year. Industrial, monoculture farming is profoundly energy intensive, and the amount of food we waste (I’ve read some estimates that say it’s as much as 50 percent) means a lot of wasted energy, too. The amount of processing much of our food goes through also takes energy.

5. Food Relates to Water. Clean water is another aspect of environmentalism that’s closely connected to food production. Not only do we use a lot of water to produce food, but we’re also harming our water supply through our enormous use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Because of the huge fertilizer inputs on industrial farms, fertilizer runoff flows down streams and rivers and into the ocean. This excess nitrogen in the water creates enormous algae blooms that deplete the oxygen from the water, creating “dead zones” where little else can survive. Concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs), which have their own set of runoff problems, are also disastrous for the water supply.

6. Food Relates to Soil. Top soil is an amazing gift that allows us to grow food, and we’re eroding it year by year through industrial farming practices. Sustainable farming actually enriches and builds soil by the addition of organic matter, whereas today’s mainstream farming techniques strip the soil of its goodness. For an excellent breakdown of soil’s importance and how we’re harming it, check out the film Dirt.

7. Food Relates to Justice. This issue is best addressed with a series of questions: Who has access to fresh, healthy food? Who doesn’t? How do the answers relate to class, race? When a corporation uses workers to apply pesticides to crops or fruit trees, who has to handle the chemicals? How is it affecting their heath? Who decides which chemicals are allowed on our food and creates food policy? How does that relate to lobbying and the flow of money? Who’s exploited when food comes at an incredibly cheap cost?

8. Food Can Create Community—or Not. In all my life, I think the times when I’ve felt the strongest sense of community had to do with food. Whether it was helping at a school garden, working in a community garden, chatting with farmers at my local farmers market, helping a friend can tomato sauce, preparing a group dinner with friends, or helping my neighbor weed her garden, I felt connected, engaged … and I felt happy. Compare those examples with a typical grocery store experience. I feel pumped when the person checking me out even talks to me or looks at me. (And now there are even machines that we use to check ourselves out at the store instead of people!) This is a group of great people I worked with to start a school garden at an elementary school in Lawrence, Kansas:

Group Starting a School Garden at Sunset Hill Elementary School in Lawrence, Kansas

9. The Current Food System Is Reducing the Planet’s Lifeforce. When I say “lifeforce,” I’m referring to the planet’s biodiversity. The diversity of life on this planet is shrinking at an alarming rate, and a huge reason is food. As our food system has evolved and corporations have increased “efficiencies,” fewer and fewer plant and animal species are bred and used. Thanks to organizations like Seed Savers Exchange and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, some rare plant and animal species are being saved, but this issue is still concerning. Another way food production relates to biodiversity loss is simply that a lot of land is cleared for monoculture farming. I saw a photo of the Amazon forest the other day that showed huge soybean fields replacing what were once trees teeming with life. The photo showed fields as far as the eye could see, with only small patches of forest left.

10. Food Production Can Empower. In a world that includes war, poverty, apathetic governments, unfair laws, scary environmental problems and countless other issues that cause many people to throw up their hands in despair—and even more people to disengage and live in a bubble of TV shows and personal affairs—food offers a tactile, meaningful way to take control of something. Not every issue works quite like that. For instance, while I care about energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, right now I don’t have the money to make the initial investments to outfit my home with renewable energy systems. So I try to use less energy—but that doesn’t feel very proactive or empowering. On the other hand, I have the power to choose to buy organically grown food at a farmers market, grow as much of my own food as I can, preserve excess, cut down on waste, compost, and use only eggs and meat from pastured animals. And that feels great!

If you also care about sustainable food, or love cooking or gardening, I hope you’ll check back often and join the conversation. I love sharing ideas, recipes, news and gardening tips—and I have no doubt that I’ll learn more through writing and engaging with people who have similar passions.

Top photo by stock.xchng; bottom photo by Shelley Stonebrook


  1. This post is inspiring and right on. I was especially touched by reason No. 3. In addition to the torture of animals, industrial farming can be a form of torture to humans — the exploited workers who have no rights, no fair wages and no voice.

    I agree that food is a great point of convergence for thinking about sustainability. It's something we all know, that we all must have. Discussions of sustainability sometimes get weighed down by faraway concepts few can or care to conceptualize. Relating sustainability to food, though, makes the subject accessible and pertinent to all of us.

    Looking forward to your future posts!

  2. Great job Shelley! I'll be following the blog.

  3. Interesting timing on the blog Shelley. I have just recently started looking at food differently and I think it is great that you are blogging about it. I have always been a bit of an environmentalist but I never really thought of the impact food has on...well everything. Congrats on the blog and good work.


  4. Although every single one of your reasons are convincing, I especially identified with numbers 8 and 10. This country needs less media and more community. No matter how low the Dow drops or what the terror threat is for the week, good seeds will always germinate from good soil and sustain good life. The number of tablet PCs sold last week or the latest threat from a far off tribe will have nothing to do with saving our health. In fact, what kills our health is being domestically cultivated. I'm excited to read more of this blog and I hope you post often.

  5. Thank you, everyone! It seems like different numbers on this list resonated with different people, and I think that's cool. That means there's something each of us can get really excited about when it comes to this issue.

    Megan, I'm so glad you made the point about exploited workers. I hope to write about this issue in the future.

    Stephanie, thanks for following!

    Ronnie, it's so good to hear from you—and really awesome to know you're getting into these issues lately.

    Doug, I couldn't agree more about the need for community. Not the artificial sense of community that's created by going to a pro football game or something, but the genuine sense of community that comes from knowing people, helping people and caring about people and the spot on this planet the group inhabits.