We want a sustainable food system, but what does that mean?

A sustainable food system is increasingly on the minds of consumers when considering the foods they purchase. Yet sustainability is nothing new for farmers; in fact, it has long been a “way of life” for them.

Today’s consumers are making their food purchase decisions differently than in past generations. Sustainability and an emotional connection to the brand are influencing consumer choices, in addition to price and taste considerations.

What a consumer is looking for is going to change from person to person. There’s no commonly accepted version of what makes a sustainable food system, so it could look different from one individual to the next.

Consumer research suggests most of our decision is based on how we feel about something from an emotional standpoint and less about any sort of facts that are provided to us, and label claims on food packaging are designed to be emotionally appealing. But as a dietitian, I encourage you to focus more on the back of a food package than the front because that’s where real facts are reflected on the label – in the ingredients and nutritional profile of that product.

Food companies react to consumer demands

Many food companies are working to measure sustainability initiatives, including measuring their environmental impact so consumers can have meaningful, easy-to-understand ways to make choices.

It’s now a consumer-driven expectation. Sustainability claims – and the data to back them up – are no longer considered an extra.

One of the most common ways to measure sustainability initiatives by food companies is to measure greenhouse gas emissions. Many are looking for other ways to measure sustainability so they can back up their label claims with data. This makes sense should that consumer care to take a deeper dive into the sustainability claim. It’s also a way to implement change at the farm, processing or manufacturing level to keep taking steps toward a more sustainable food system.

Sustainability at the farm level

 I recently had the privilege of touring the Esmond, Illinois, family farm owned by Paul Taylor and his wife, Barb. Paul is passionate about sustainability and explained it this way: It’s a three-legged stool that needs all three legs to sit evenly – economic, social (the family unit) and environmental. He later demonstrated a rainwater simulator that showed the different amounts of water runoff with five different types of tilled soil. Watching this was fascinating to a non-farm gal like me!

We want a sustainable food system, but what does that mean?

Environmental sustainability on the farm works to manage environmental changes, decrease soil erosion and thoughtfully manage weeds and insects, to name a few. I sat next to Tricia Braid of the Illinois Corn Growers Association during lunch and she suggested we also think about sustainability being related to choices that allow the farm to stay in business from year to year and the effects farmer choices have on a community. As Paul explained with this three-legged stool approach, a truly sustainable food system takes more than environmental impact into consideration.

Dealing with aspects of sustainability as it is understood by most people is really just day-to-day for the farmers. There are a lot of shared values here between the farmers and the end users – people like you and me – at the grocery store.

We want a sustainable food system, but what does that mean?

It all boils down to this

Whether we like it or not, the front of a food package is meant to appeal to us on a very primal level. If I’m a mom and I’m out there looking for a product, I want to see myself reflected in that product in some fashion. Maybe it’s a natural claim, a free-from claim or a sustainability claim.  While we may be drawn to these claims, it’s important to learn more about what’s behind them. That’s important to me and it should be important to all of us.

We’re all pulling for the same outcome: a sustainable food system that provides us with healthy food, maintains or improves the environment and is facilitated by a market that helps family farmers stay in business.


We want a sustainable food system, but what does that mean?

Christine Palumbo

About Christine

Christine is a dietitian with a passion for science, people and food.

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