sustainability in agriculture

Role of Consumers in the Success of Food Sustainability Initiatives

Food production practices have changed a lot since people first started working the land about 13,000 years ago, as some historians estimate. Though people have existed for much longer than that, the population started growing with the start of some basic crop cultivation. However, it really boomed only after the appearance of the mechanization processes brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

New machines and innovative agricultural methods enabled mass food production and shipping to distant places, which opened up opportunities for large profit. Technology has been rapidly improving since then, making such giant leaps that many existing inventions seem like science fiction to an average person. Thanks to technology in agriculture, the producers are able to offer all types of food anywhere in the world, any time of year, regardless of the season.

automation in agriculture industry

The pioneers of mass food production, including the scientists in the food science industry, were probably thrilled with the results and the potential to feed the entire world. They were oblivious to the fact that irresponsible use of soil and water could have a devastating effect on the planet and its inhabitants – human, plant and animal. But that’s where we are today. Because of our insatiate desire to take from nature more than it can safely give, we are facing a grim future.

That’s how the term “sustainable” became so relevant and important today. We need to revert to and discover new sustainable methods of food production if we want to provide a livable future to our posterity.

What is Sustainability?

According to Farm Table, sustainability means “to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” Since most of our food production methods are not in harmony with nature, eliminating entire forests, causing lake depletion, contaminating rivers, polluting the air, making native animals flee from their habitats, making crop varieties disappear, etc., we can conclude that we’re far from optimal food production practices.

Today there are many food sustainability initiatives that strive to redefine the food market. Some are larger organizations, some are small scale people’s movements or food producers. Their strategies for helping achieve food sustainability are also vastly different.

For example, there are people who have devoted their lives to organic farming, making sure their livestock is fed organic food, isn’t treated with antibiotics and has access to the outdoors at all times, while others are focused on broader issues than just food. Their goal is to raise awareness of the public using creative, artistic methods to bring their attention to sustainability issues (e.g. “Plastic Free Tuesday” initiative).

So, How Can An Average Person Help?

Every average person is a consumer. For many mass food producers, that’s all that we are – product buyers. As such, we have amazing power. It seems that consumers around the world have only started to realize how much power we have. Our decisions which products to buy and which products to boycott, can change the whole production strategy of a food company. That is exactly what is happening today.

One example is the new “sugars added” element on a nutrition label. Because of outside pressures from the people, the FDA has recognized the fact that added sugars is a major and valid cause for concern among consumers. That’s why they issued a new regulation in 2016 that mandates all nutrition labels to include the “added sugars” information.

sustainable agriculture

Since people are increasingly aware of the issues related to unsustainable and bad food production practices, they are beginning to inspect what they are buying more closely. The percentage of people reading food labels is still not that high, but it’s increasing. They are not only interested in how many calories and sugar added they are consuming, but also where the food is produced, which ingredients it contains, and  whether the packaging has any of the ecolabels that prove the product is non-GMO, inspected by the USDA, bird-friendly, organic, or similar.

Some statistical data shows that in 2018 as many as 14.3 million households in the US paid more for products and services that had an eco-friendly designation. A large percentage of people claim that “clean” certifications play a big role in their purchasing decisions.

So, if we want to help passionate environmental movements redefine the food market, we can simply do the following:

  1. Read food labels and look for signs of eco-friendly practices
  2. Wherever possible, buy from local producers, instead of mass producers
  3. Buy seasonal products
  4. Avoid excessive shopping and stuffing your kitchen with food – cut on food waste!

A book by Jared Diamond talks about how agriculture may have been humankind’s worst mistake, but we don’t have to be so pessimistic about our future. There’s reason to hope that we can fix our mistakes and create a better, greener world. That reason are thousands and thousands of devoted people who are doing the impossible to change the cruel, profit-driven system. If we make an effort to do the four things listed above, we’ll be one step closer to that greener world.

Ana Brady

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