What is sustainable food?
Sustainable food has been grown or produced with consideration of its health, environmental and social impact. As with all sustainable shopping, this includes where the food was made, the materials it was made from, how it is packaged and any energy efficiency or environmental ratings.
Is your food sustainable?
According to the Environment Protection Authority Victoria, the food we eat makes a bigger contribution to our ecological footprint than our home energy use and transport combined. Considering the sustainability of every piece of food you put into your mouth can be challenging. An easy way around this is to consider categories of foods and to support businesses that are taking a sustainable approach to growing, farming and producing food.
Fruit and vegetables
Sustainable fruit and vegetable farming considers its impact upon the environment, our health, and workers. This approach can include minimal soil disruption and reduced or limited use of fertilisers and pest control. Buying seasonal produce and local fresh produce will support local farming and businesses, and reduce transportation and refrigeration associated with the food (food miles). Wherever possible, buy directly from the source, at farmers' markets and co-ops. An even better option is to grow your own food. Buying seasonal food or growing your own will also save you money.
Sustainable meat farming focuses on animal treatment, the source of meat products, soil health and the health of the meat. It includes practices such as rotational grazing, which involves rotating cattle around pastures to encourage grass regrowth and minimise soil compaction. Sustainable farming also minimises the widespread use of antibiotics in industrial livestock production which contributes to antibiotic resistant bacteria or superbugs. Look for free-range or organic labelling on the meat, poultry and eggs you buy.
For a variety of reasons – including lifestyle and ethical choices – some people choose to eat a plant rich diet. To find out more, visit the Better Health Channel.
Sustainable fishing is about fishing practices that maintain the population of fish and fish stocks. Look for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fish, as certified fisheries meet international sustainability standards. The Sustainable Seafood Guide will help you avoid endangered fish and choose fish species with healthier population numbers.
Free-range and organic labelling
Free-range farming considers the welfare of animals throughout their lives, such as the amount of space they have to move in. It's important to carefully read any free-range or organic labelling on the meat, poultry and eggs you buy. Free-range poultry accreditors include FREPA (Free Range Egg & Poultry Association), RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme and Humane Choice. Humane Choice also certifies free-range sheep. There is even a free-range egg app you can use to confirm whether your eggs are truly free-range.
In addition to no pesticide or genetic modification, organic certification focuses on the provision of a natural environment for animals. To ensure the items you're buying have been produced to organic standards, check that they've been certified by a Department of Agriculture organic approved certifying organisation.
Palm oil is found in a wide range of foods and products, including cosmetics, cleaning products and Easter eggs. The problem with palm oil is that tropical forests and other ecosystems in countries such as Indonesia are being cleared to create space for oil palm plantations. Fires used to clear land are polluting the air locally and internationally, and where this clearing involves peat swamp forests, large amounts of greenhouse gases are released. Orangutans, elephants and other animals are also suffering during the forest clearing process or because their food source has been removed.
Avoiding palm oil is not as simple as avoiding products that list palm oil in their ingredients, as it is often labelled as vegetable oil, vegetable fat, emulsifier 471 and other names. Wherever possible support products containing palm oil that has been sourced ethically and avoid those that have not. A palm oil barcode scanner app has been developed which identifies whether a product contains palm oil and, if it does, whether the palm oil has been sourced ethically.
Fair trade is about ensuring farmers and workers in developing countries have good working conditions and are paid a fair price for their labour and products. It also focuses on environmentally-sustainable farming methods. Fair trade certification covers agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables, cocoa, coffee and sugar. Look for the fair trade mark when shopping to support fair trade practices.
How to shop sustainably for food – five questions to ask
1. Do you need to buy it?
Avoid, reduce, reuse, recycle. Do you need to buy all of the food you buy or could you grow your own food? With a small amount of space you can start a balcony garden, a wall garden or an indoor garden, and don't forget your local community garden. By growing your own food you'll eliminate all packaging, plus the energy expenditure and emissions associated with transportation of food. You'll also save money. Whether you grow your own food or not, be careful to only buy what you need, avoiding food waste and the packaging associated with it. And remember to compost. It's easier than you think, even if you live in an apartment.
2. Is the produce in season?
Choosing food that's in season supports local farming and businesses, and reduces transportation and refrigeration associated with the food (food miles). For the freshest, most nutritional produce, buy food that was grown or made locally.
3. Was the food grown or made locally?
Buying locally – direct from farms, from accredited famers' markets, food hubs and bulk food stores – will support the local economy and employment, and minimise energy expenditure and emissions associated with transport. Put simply, this food will have fewer 'food miles', a measure of the energy and pollution used to move food from farm to home. When buying locally, we can also be more confident that the conditions and wages of the workers who grew or made the product are fair.
4. Is the product free-range, organic or Marine Stewardship Council certified?
5. How is your food packaged?
Does your food have excess packaging? Fruit and vegetables in plastic trays and tea bags are examples of unnecessary food packaging. Choose products with less packaging and remember to take reusable shopping bags from home rather than use single-use plastic bags.
Sustainable food shopping includes the packaging your food comes in. Australians throw away around 1.9 million tonnes of packaging each year – enough to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground nine times over. Packaging takes a lot of energy, water and other natural resources to produce, and packaging waste pollutes our air, water and soil. Let's reduce, reuse and recycle packaging as much as possible.