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What does ‘sustainable’ even mean when it comes to our food system?

By October 30, 2022No Comments



Food writer Jocelyn Doyle examines an ever more complicated question…


We really lost the run of ourselves when it comes to food production. 

On the one hand, the industrialisation of food systems around the world vastly increased productivity, making it possible to provide food to the planet’s growing population. However, with capitalism and greed in the driving seat — as they so often are — it also led to a variety of additional and overwhelmingly negative consequences. Modern, intensive farming practices have degraded soils, destroyed biodiversity, polluted our waterways and landscapes and operated in an overwhelmingly wasteful manner, and continue to do so on a daily basis. Today, global food production is the single biggest contributor to climate change. 

Because of power imbalances and the way the system has been structured, it also doesn’t even do what it says on the tin: while we produce enough food to feed the world’s population, we don’t direct it the right way. We grow food for livestock instead of people, with the end result (meat) an incredibly inefficient use of resources. Western countries waste enormous amounts of food, while many developing nations still struggle with famine.

It’s abundantly clear that the system we have in place isn’t working. We fucked it up. We’re greedy little piggies and we’ve demanded too much from our planet’s finite resources. We’re starting to suffer the consequences (drought, famine, extreme weather patterns, soil degradation, mass extinctions) and it’s only going to get worse from here. A dramatic change is needed — but a change to what? What does a sustainable food system even look like in today’s social, political and economic landscape, with eight billion people to feed and an urgently ticking clock?


The very concept of sustainability is complex. In March 2020, a report by the European Commission called Towards a Sustainable Food System outlined three distinct facets of sustainable food production. Environmental sustainability is the one that comes to mind first, for most people; it means prioritising soil health, biodiversity, animal and plant health, water and air quality, considered land use, climate change mitigation and reduced or zero carbon emissions. Economic sustainability includes the provision of jobs, profits and financial security for those involved in the food system, as well as food affordability for the end consumer. Lastly, social sustainability includes a focus on public health and nutrition, animal welfare, local culture and traditions, community wellbeing, culinary and agricultural education and the preservation of skills, food safety, occupational health and safety and inclusiveness. 

Earlier this year, the Sustainable Food Trust released a detailed report called Feeding Britain From the Ground Up, designed to assess what the UK’s food system might look like if consumption patterns and agricultural practices were overhauled with sustainability at the forefront, taking into account public health, climate change, biodiversity restoration and food security. 

In brief: there would be a general shift to mixed farming, where crops and livestock are grown in rotation to rebuild soil fertility naturally. Woodland cover would increase, and trees would be integrated into farmed landscapes. There would be more land left to nature, complementing the improvements to biodiversity enabled by the shift to biologically-based farming.

This regenerative approach would require a phasing out of intensive, grain-fed livestock production. Without grain being fed to livestock, grain production would halve, leaving room for Britain to double its production of fruits, vegetables and legumes. Once intensive livestock farming was phased out, there would be a 75% decline in pork and chicken production. In contrast, sustainable diets could still include similar levels of beef and lamb, reared mainly on grass.

This vision is specific to the UK, and the details of a sustainable food system are likely to differ from country to country due to a variety of factors including climate, culture and economic wealth. However, some overarching principles will be relevant across the globe: increased prioritisation of soil health, reforestation and biodiversity; a shift away from industrialised factory farming practices; a return to mixed farming and a greater variety of crops planted; and more farmland given to legumes and vegetables.


Food production doesn’t stop at the farm, and a sustainable food system is about more than agriculture. We have woven an ever more tangled web when it comes to manufacturing, processing, supplying, importing, exporting, labelling, delivering and selling food. It’s like that scene in The Good Place where Michael (Ted Danson) realises that, because the world is constantly becoming more complicated, it’s increasingly difficult for individual people to make informed decisions with any real clarity about their impact.

Once upon a time, someone picked their own apple straight from the tree, without ever having to consider food miles or carbon footprints. Every apple eaten was non-GMO, organic and local. Today, you’re often hard pushed to even find an Irish apple in the supermarket, despite them growing here quite happily — and there are a myriad of other considerations, not all of which have readily available answers. What chemicals were used in growing this apple, and what impact did they have on the environment? How far did it travel to get to your local supermarket; what means of transportation was used? Were apples that looked less than perfect rejected by the supermarket, generating waste? Did the farmer get a fair cut, a living wage?

The unfortunate truth is that, for the development of a sustainable food system to be successful, the “profits first” attitude we have become accustomed to under capitalist economies will have to shift to a “sustainability first” mindset. We need a future where retail isn’t dominated by supermarkets who can afford to undercut prices and squeeze out the little guy. We need an economic environment where small local businesses — supplying food from small local producers — can not only survive, but thrive, keeping money in local communities. Give us a world where we know our apple came from an orchard just a few kilometres away, where the grower is dedicated to environmentally friendly agricultural practices; a world in which our local butcher sources meat from local farms where animal welfare, soil health and biodiversity are of the highest priority. Mixed farming, mixed farming; my kingdom for a return to mixed farming.

Thinking about the grip that big industry has on our food system is incredibly depressing. It’s tempting to give up, to think that we’re stuck with the system we have, that the dark side of capitalism has won. It’s true that it’s an uphill battle, one that will only be won with big, bold, visionary shifts and hefty commitments from governments, policymakers and every industry out there. With some big changes in environmental legislation announced this year, I have to believe the tides are beginning to turn.

As for us consumers, we have a role to play, too. A system as promising as the one envisioned above requires us to make changes in our own kitchens and diets. Now, more than ever, we need to vote with our trolleys and our online shopping baskets. Eat meat less often. Rely more on fruit, vegetables and legumes. Choose Irish, choose local. Buy what’s in season. If you can afford to buy free range, organic or wild (even some of the time, even for just one or two of your grocery items) do it. Support small-scale businesses — grocery shops, farmers, fishermen, butchers — and know that you’re doing what you can to influence the food industry for the greater good. Let our demand generate a new, improved supply, opening the door for a new kind of food system: one that benefits everyone.