A critical component of a sustainable community is its food system. A sustainable food system must not only provide ample and nutritious food to its residents, but also be economically viable for producers and consumers, and use ecologically sound production, processing, and distribution practices to ensure its long-term health. A sustainable food system relies on a strong, well-connected collaborative network of producers, marketers, and consumers in its foodshed; such a food system not only provides physical nourishment, but also enhances the environmental, economic, and social health of the community. Communities can increase the sustainability and resilience of their local and regional foodsheds by preserving agricultural land, encouraging sustainable agriculture practices, supporting local food producers and providing them with distribution opportunities such as farmer’s markets and cooperative food buying programs, and supporting the establishment of urban farming projects, community gardens and home gardens.

At the base of a sustainable food system are the principles of food sovereignty and food security. Food sovereignty, first defined by Vía Campesina in 1996, is “People’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Food sovereignty prioritizes local and national economies and markets, promotes transparent trade that guarantees just incomes to all peoples, and protects the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. Efforts to disclose and label the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), support for fair trade practices, and a return to heirloom and indigenous crops are good examples of food sovereignty issues.

Food security is defined as having sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis, having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet, and having knowledge of nutrition and care – as well as adequate water and sanitation – to use the foods. Lack of access to healthy foods due to lack of financial resources, transportation, or availability, such as living in an underserved neighborhood, are examples of a lack of food security in a community. Improvements to food security are found in initiatives like the recruitment of new grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods, healthy corner store projects, food pantries, farmers’ markets, and community gardens, all of which share the common goal to increase the quantity and quality of nutritious foods in neighborhoods.

The sustainable use of land and resources for food production – worldwide, nationally, and locally – is critical to meeting the ongoing nutritional demands for a growing population and eradicating hunger. Food systems dependent on fossil fuels to produce, process, and transport food are not sustainable at a worldwide, national, or local level. Current industrial agriculture practices, deforestation, and overfishing have contributed to environmental degradation, soil erosion, and a reduction in food yields. In addition, fossil-fueled conventional agriculture and feedlot livestock production (i.e., Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs) contribute significantly to climate change. The escalating costs to our communities of these industrial methods include not only soil loss and water pollution, but also the public health costs associated with the growth in antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the negative impacts on farmer and farm work health from pesticide and herbicide exposure, for example.

Climate change impacts, too, are negatively affecting current food production and security worldwide. Because agriculture relies on healthy soil, adequate water, and a delicate balance of gases in the atmosphere, farming is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As temperatures warm, rainfall patterns vary, and unpredictable weather events increase in frequency and force, the disruption of agriculture worldwide will make it increasingly difficult to reduce hunger and poverty in the world’s poorest regions. The resilience of national, regional, and local foodsheds here and abroad will be tested.

Agriculture, forestry, and other land uses – when done sustainably – hold important keys to mitigating climate change. The United Nations estimates the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80-88 % of the carbon dioxide that it currently produces. Only land-based carbon sequestration offers the possibility today of large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, through plant photosynthesis and soil carbon sequestration. Practices such as organic farming, no-till crops, and climate friendly livestock production could shrink agriculture’s environmental impact and help mitigate the damaging effects of climate change. Land use is an important climate solution tool in addition to improving energy efficiency, transitioning to renewable energy, and other emerging solutions.

Sustainable agriculture was first addressed by the US Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill, which states “the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

Transitioning from our prevalent industrial agriculture model to the more ecologically sound and methods of sustainable agriculture and other holistic systems approaches such as agroecology, agroforestry, and permaculture, is both necessary and urgent. Though challenging, it can be done, as shown by the growing number urban food ventures, community and home gardeners, small organic farms, dairies, pastured livestock, and Cuba’s “organic revolution.” This infographic about growing food from Nourishing the Planet, a project of the WorldWatch Institute, clearly illustrates the benefits of using a holistic agroecological approach and the costs of industrial agriculture.

To create sustainable food systems, we must seize the opportunities to work within the constraints of climate mitigation and adaptation. Taking a systems approach, we can build sustainable resilient foodsheds, ensure food sovereignty and security, lower greenhouse gas emissions, restore and preserve the biodiversity of our communities, and strengthen the social connections that enrich our community life.

Learn More

Refer to UU Ministry for Earth’s Earth Day 2010 materials on the theme of Food and Environmental Justice, where you will find the Call to Action section with resources and action ideas on six different topics. Also see the UUA’s Ethical Eating Congregational Resource Guide(revised 4/2010), which offers a wide variety of background information and resources related to sustainable agriculture, food systems, food sovereignty, and food security. The guide was developed in association with the 2008-2012 Congregational Study Action Issue (CSAI): Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice, which was approved as a Statement of Conscience (SOC) at the 2011 General Assembly. Also, take a look at the new website of PACE: the President’s Advisory Committee on Ethical Eating (formerly the Ethical Eating Task Force), launched in 2012 to support UU congregations and individuals as they implement the Ethical Eating SOC and make food justice an important part of their lives and justice work (May 2014 note: the PACE website is temporarily offline).

Nourishing the Planet, a project of the WorldWatch Institute, assesses the state of agricultural innovations with an emphasis on sustainability, diversity, and ecosystem health, as well as productivity. From the title link, you may download two important reports:  Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use and Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture: Supporting Climate Friendly Food (also described in a blog post). A related post is Desperately Seeking: A Sustainable, Climate-Friendly Food System (or a slightly different version). The blog has a comprehensive searchable database of research and articles by topic, e.g., agriculturebiodiversityclimate changeconservationdevelopmentdietdroughtenvironmentfarmersfood securityhungerindigenouslivestocklocalnutritionorganicpolicypoverty, and sustainable (only the topics with the most articles are listed here – there are many more!).

Food First (of the Institute for Food & Development) analyzes the root causes of global hunger, poverty, and ecological degradation and develops solutions in partnership with movements working for social change. It is committed to dismantling racism in the food system and believes in people’s rights to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems—at home and abroad. It offers a full range of pertinent publications – download these particularly useful ones: Cutting Through the Red Tape: A Resource Guide for Local Food Policy Practitioners & OrganizersAgroecology, Food Sovereignty, and the New Green Revolution; and several from this page on Food Policy Councils.

Food and Agriculture: Toward Healthy Food and Farms, section of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) website, focuses on promoting sustainable agriculture in the United States through shifting our agriculture policies to support healthy food and farms. Check out the links in the left sidebar and be sure to click What You Can Do for action ideas. Download publications such as Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems and Toward Healthy Food and Farms: Policy Brief.

The Color of Food and Good Food and Good Jobs for All are downloadable publications from the Applied Research Center: Racial Justice Through Media, Research and Activism (ARC), a racial justice think tank using media, research, and activism to promote solutions. Both publications explore racial, gender, and class injustices throughout the food system in the U.S. Explore these justice issues further in the How We Eat series on ColorLine, ARC’s news blog where you will also find a commentary on The Color of Food.

Improving Access to Healthy Food is an initiative under PolicyLink’s Center for Health Equity and Place, one of its main focus areas. PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by “Lifting Up What Works.” From the main page are links to extensive information on advocacy, research, tools, and technical assistance. A new report issued on Food Day in Oct. 2012, Growing Urban Agriculture, is particularly useful, as is The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters (with the Food Trust, another great advocacy site – download its Healthy Corner Stores Tool Kit).

Food for Everyone was the theme of the Spring 2009 issue of Yes! Magazine. The many articles in the theme section are loaded with easily accessible information on many aspects of sustainable agriculture and food systems. It also includes a downloadable discussion guide and an extensive resource guide. Don’t miss the Community Food System piece (download the poster that appeared in the print magazine at the bottom of the page). Yes! Magazine maintains a huge archive of articles on food issues by date, as well as other environmental topics (see right sidebar).

Institute for Responsible Technology is “the most comprehensive source of GMO health risk information on the web.” They are not kidding – the site is overflowing with facts and resources. Download a comprehensive Action Tool Kit and additional specialized Tool Kits for retailersschools, and parentsJust Label It! is a less complex and comprehensive site, but with excellent information and informative short videos. Its emphasis is on our right to know if our food has been genetically engineered.

Food Tank: The Food Think Tank is a new website (launched Jan. 10, 2013). Co-founders Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson are food justice professionals and activists who say the website “will offer solutions and environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty by creating a network of connections and information for us to consume and share . . . [and] is for farmers and producers, policy makers and government leaders, researchers and scientists, academics and journalists, and the funding and donor communities to collaborate on providing sustainable solutions for our most pressing environmental and social problems.” Learn more and view a short video and check back often as the website matures.

Food MythBusters: the real story about what we eat is another new website (launched Oct. 24, 2012) created by Anna Lappé. The website name came from her mother’s (Frances Moore Lappé) 1998 book, World Hunger: Twelve Myths (writer’s speculation). Anna asks the question: “Do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world?” To find the answer, start with her informative short video, then explore the website. The blog already shows great potential. Go to the final pages to read glowing commentary of this important new resource for the food justice movement. Learn more – all materials are creative commons – and follow Food MythBusters on FacebookLappé’s latest book is Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.

Take Action

  • Many congregations across the nation are already deeply involved in the food justice movement. Learn from their ideas and actions by checking this table of Earth Day 2010 activities. Also, find more suggestions to consider in the UUA’s Ethical Eating Congregational Resource Guide (revised 4/2010).
  • Read this EcoWatch article on Food Policy Action and learn about its unique National Food Policy Scorecard for politicians. Then go to the Food Policy Action website to see how your senators and representatives voted on food policy related legislation and how they scored. Depending on how well they did, organize a postcard or letter-writing campaign to either thank them for their great work or suggest ways they can improve. Find out about pending food and agriculture legislation in your state and make your voice heard.
  • Offer the Northwest Earth Institute’s Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability (2011) discussion course in your congregation. This follow-up to Menu for the Future (2008; revised 2013) delves deeper into eco-justice issues and includes action plans in each section.
  • Learn about the Farm Bill – lobby your legislators; when this one passes, start getting ready for the 2016 Farm Bill; work to change the title to the “Food Bill.” Information sources include (1) Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Farm Bill Resources, which include EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database; (2) National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Farm Bill pages and take action (check out the Advocacy Toolkit and follow progress on the NCAC blog); (3) American Farmland Trust has a Farm Bill website; and (4) The New York Times maintains an archive of Farm Bill articles.
  • Yes Magazine’s Food for Everyone issue (described previously) included the article “8 Ways to Join the Local Food Movement” – how to turn a lawn into lunch, swap preserves, glean, boost your food security, live the good life. Use the list as inspiration for change at home, in your neighborhood, congregation, or community.
  • Do all the children in your community have access to healthy foods and snacks? If not, take action to improve the situation with The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative. Be inspired by the successful program in Philadelphia and use the extensive resources (left navigation bar) to help create your own plan. Especially useful is a downloadable “tool kit” to help grocery stores learn how to sell healthy foods, increase sales, and attract more customers.
  • Learn about the quality of your own foodshed, from the local through regional and/or state level and think about what you can do to improve it. Dreaming New Mexico is a project that envisions New Mexico as a Fair Trade state supported by an interconnected network of local foodsheds. The downloadable materials are sure to inspire you!  In addition, the Oberlin Project shares its visioning and planning process for creating a local food system with 70% localization and for identifying and permanently protecting 20,000 acres within a six county area of local agriculture and land resources for food, energy and carbon sequestration projects.
  • Explore the feasibility of a project or collaborative effort to increase the resilience of your community’s foodshed. Find guidance and inspiration from these examples and resources to learn about Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) or start a community garden or egg coop; identify and support your local farmers’ markets and producers and encourage them to accept food stampslaunch a gleaning project to supply your local food pantries or families in need; or join or start an inter-faith organization in your area to provide a variety of food solutions to vulnerable children, families and seniors in your area – The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh, NC models a comprehensive approach.
  • In your Covenant Group or other small group, devote several sessions to the extraordinary Oct. 2011 TedxFruitvale: Harvesting Change, which brought together farmworkers, farmers, activists, artists, students, professors, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs to celebrate the people upon whom we depend to harvest our food. Links to all the videos and bios of the speakers are on the website.