Kerri LaCharite is an assistant professor at the George Mason University Department of Nutrition and Food Studies College of Health and Human Services. She writes and teaches about sustainable food systems, urban agriculture, and the impact of agricultural learning on eating behavior. Recently she answered questions about food consumption, sustainable agriculture and the environment.
What are the environmental concerns related to eating food?
The way we eat has many impacts on the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with food supply chains in the US are predominantly from food production, with much smaller contributions from food transportation and retail.
Other impacts include threats to biodiversity, declining bee and bird populations due to pesticides, freshwater salination, overfishing of fish stocks, deforestation, emergence of pesticide-resistant weeds, phosphorus depletion and groundwater pollution.
With so many environmental crises, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, distressed, or even apathetic. But we can all take simple actions to make changes and help the environment.
What is meant by the term “sustainable food system”?
A sustainable food system is one that responds to the needs and constraints of people and the planet. It implies long-term persistence, capable of maintaining productivity indefinitely. Although this definition can be somewhat ambiguous, it is useful.
A sustainable food system must be site-specific. What is grown and eaten in the mountains of Vermont would and should be different from the Balinese rice fields or the semi-arid climate of Arizona. Cultivation practices would also differ in these different areas.
What is urban agriculture and how does it fit with sustainability?
Urban farming grows food in urban areas. This can be done in courtyards, community gardens, rooftop farms, and vertical farming, either indoors using soilless growing techniques like hydroponics and UV lighting, or growing vertically on buildings.
Sustainable food systems are about augmenting local food systems and intersecting with national and global food systems to increase resilience.
Q: How does nutrition fit into sustainability concepts?
What is healthy for the environment is healthy for people. Changing dietary habits to reduce consumption of meat and animal products can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and some of the risks of the typical American diet, such as type 2 diabetes.
How can people individually and collectively contribute to sustainability?
The biggest thing we can all do to reduce global greenhouse gases is to eat less meat and animal products. Sustainable healthy eating includes vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian, Mediterranean diets, New Nordic diets, meat reduction, and adhering to USDA dietary guidelines. Eating meatless even one day a week can have environmental benefits. Taking small steps together can have a big impact on the environment and our health.
What is food policy and why is it important?
We need food that is available, accessible, affordable, sustainable and nutritious. This is a big task. As a global society, we should not make healthy eating and sustainability a luxury. Food policies at the national level, such as laws affecting agriculture, and at the local level, such as zoning for urban agriculture and community gardens, can encourage and mandate sustainable food systems.
What if the US invested as much money in research and development for sustainable agriculture as it does in conventional industrial agriculture? The cost of sustainable and organic food could go down. What if we needed to locally and sustainably source a certain percentage of the food in our schools, prisons, universities and other government facilities? Politics enables collective action for all and tries to serve our values as best as possible. It can have a lasting effect.
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About George Mason
George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, DC, Mason enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is known for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and dedication to accessibility. In 2022, Mason will celebrate 50 years as an independent institution. Learn more at www.gmu.edu.