Sustainability: A Critical Link between Food Choices and Well-Being
As we realise the critical linkages between our food choices and our well-being, it’s important to select more sustainably grown food for better health, nutrition and less environmental damage
Sustainability has become a buzzword when it comes to food and farming, with every artisanal farmer, nature lover and gourmet chef extolling its virtues and advantages extensively. But what exactly does sustainability mean and imply in the context for most of us as consumers.
Over the last couple of decades, it has become pretty clear that the methods of food production employed across most of the world are undermining our health instead of nourishing it.
For many of us, there is a growing realisation that many things going wrong with our food are a result of how we are producing it. Many of the inputs and practices involved in chemical-based farming have over time created significant negative impacts. Pesticides are merely the most obvious cause of the problems, with toxic sprays being overused and their residues making their way into our bodies as we consume them. They’re also harming the health of farmers who apply them and polluting the environment that we rely on for fresh food, air and water.
If we seek better and more nutritious food for ourselves, then these will have to come via a healthier and more sustainable food production system.
The importance of sustainable farming
Sustainable farming practices address the drawbacks of the synthetic chemical-based industrial farming system by adopting techniques that are more in sync with our health and with nature. These practices avoid the use of chemicals in farming — pesticides, fungicides, urea etc. — and instead utilise a variety of practices to enhance and maintain soil health. Healthy soils produce healthy food, is pretty much the guiding principle of this movement. Organic farming, bio-dynamic farming, natural farming, agroforestry and permaculture are some examples of sustainable agricultural models that are becoming popular among farmers and consumers seeking to see food produced in healthier ways.
But sustainable farming isn’t merely about eliminating chemicals from our farms, because there is much more that is wrong with our food system. Where we grow it and what we choose to grow as food are also critical in this regard.
Vegetables and other foods that are grown thousands of kilometres away from where we consume them cannot possibly retain their freshness and nutritional value. For instance, how can the adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, hold true if the apples are travelling halfway across the globe to be consumed weeks later? There is now a greater realisation that food grown close to our cities and towns are substantially more nutritious and richer in flavour because they are fresher as they have had fewer food miles to travel.
We’ve also suffered a staggering loss of food biodiversity in the last 70 odd years, with hundreds of varieties of indigenous grains, vegetables and fruits simply disappearing from our food chains and our plates. Many of these have been replaced by exotic foods which are perceived to be more desirable than our own foods. We can now see that the emphasis on these foods has been misplaced, and that the loss of traditional foods leads to not merely a loss of our culture but also the loss of important ingredients for our health.
Red amaranth grown in peri-urban farms in Goa
One example is the renewed interest in millets and pulses which have been an important part of Indian food culture. These are now understood to be nutritionally dense and better for us than imports like wheat given our climatic conditions and our bodies. Consider turmeric whose healing properties and health benefits are now widely appreciated across the globe. Amaranth and moringa are also gaining popularity as superfoods that are more suitable for Indian conditions and our unique constitutions. These traditional foods are also easier to grow without the use of pesticides and in our climate.
Better nutrition, better health
The upside for our health as a result of more sustainable farming practices in the production of our food is significant.
The first benefit is pretty much like addition by subtraction — the elimination of poisonous or toxic chemical residues that cause varying levels of harm is a large benefit in itself. This leads to a reduced likelihood of a variety of health conditions ranging from minor allergies to more serious ailments like cancer.
The value of our immune systems has become abundantly clear, we can also benefit from the higher nutrition content of sustainably produced foods. Food growing using sustainable and organic processes is richer in certain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which help build our immunity. This is also the reason why doctors are quick to prescribe organic food to people with low or compromised immunity like infants and patients undergoing treatment for cancer.
Access to fresher fruits, meats, dairy and vegetables which haven't travelled hundreds and thousands of miles, has a considerable impact on the nutrition available from our food. It eliminates the need for excessive use of artificial preservatives which can cause unintended side effects. It also reduces our reliance on processed foods, which are often inferior in nutrition and generate many more food miles. Unpolished grains and dals for example retain more of their nutritive value and are therefore a more wholesome choice of food.
Environmental and climate-related benefits
The first and most obvious aspect of sustainability is the relationship between farming and the environment. Most modern food production has become increasingly industrialised and de-linked from nature. This has resulted in practices which are ecologically destructive on a massive scale. One important issue is the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and also fertilisers, which is causing considerable damage to our ecology and our environment..
Crop diversity is an important aspect of sustainable food systems
Given our dependence on the environment for some basic necessities like safe food, clean water and clean air — we need food systems and practices which let us maintain the quality and availability of these resources to sustain our health. Sustainable growing systems are a key to achieving this, and therefore critical to our wellbeing even beyond the food we consume.
There is also overwhelming evidence that the sustainability of our food is linked to climate change, whose effects we can see accelerating all over the world. This makes large scale mono-cropping a risky practice which can lead to food insecurity because it affects the sustainability of our farms and farmers. Farms may also need to adapt to more climate-appropriate crops which are different from what we are consuming now. For example, water-intensive crops like rice and wheat are becoming unsustainable and there is a move back to millets which are more sustainable in certain parts of the country.
Looking ahead to healthier food
As we try to improve the nutritional impact of the food we consume, we need to realise the importance of the role played by our own food choices. Picking foods that are grown more sustainably can lead to changes in the systems of food production as producers realise there is a market for better growing practices.
Several important factors make sustainable farming imperative and must be adopted quickly to ensure our food security, better health and enjoyment of benefits provided by a thriving environment around us.
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