What does it mean to eat sustainably?

I generally avoid writing about food.

What and how we decide to eat, if we are lucky enough to live in economic circumstances that allow us to choose, is deeply personal. Advocating one approach to eating over another tends to win us few friends.

Still, what we eat does have a powerful impact on the planet, and conversations surrounding food sustainability have exploded over the past few years. Many in my circle of friends have given up most (or all) meat or all animal products. Those that haven't tend to joke about their deep-seated guilt. 

An abundance of articles, from scientific to purely propaganda based, discuss the question of what we should eat or avoid to be sustainable. Statistics from an array of sources contradict each other when it comes to agriculture's impact on the environment, partly because we use an unruly variety of indicators. Also, the scope of what we mean when we say "impact" is inconsistent in reporting.

That's why I wanted to share what I see as a helpful, relatively straightforward article by Tim Zimmermann, published in Outside Magazine. 

Zimmermann tackles the delicate, complex, and maddening question of what it means to eat sustainably. While addressing the complexity of the global food industry, consumption patterns, beliefs, preferences, and their impacts is impossible, this article does a decent job of trying.

It explores in easy-reading, not-too-long chunks: 1) the benefits and drawbacks of two popular diets (paleo versus vegan), 2) the numbers when it comes to the rough footprints of vegans, vegetarians and omnivores (including some fascinating stats on nuts, grains and legumes), 3) what seafood allows us the most minimal impact, 4) some info on organic, 5) the importance of buying regionally produced goods, 6) a healthy reprimand regarding our food waste, and 7) some thoughts on what's to come.

Of all the sections, it was the one on going organic that left me with the most questions. I wish the article had addressed the challenge of productivity, whether organic has an impact on it, and the massive future demand of a growing population. Exploring the benefits and drawbacks with reference to a few more numbers and experts would have helped environmentally concerned non-agronomists among us better arrive at an understanding of this complex issue. 

I'll explain. While I was raised eating mostly organic produce and strive to purchase it when possible, I've heard from farmers in the course of my work that organic is about "a market". One traditional Swiss farmer commented that traditional approaches to production, using a responsible mix of methods, are more practical. However, the argument regarding how organic fosters healthy soil, critical for long-term productivity, cannot be ignored.

But there's also a very basic logistical challenge when it comes to "organic" - that is, it requires a certification. One that is difficult to achieve and maintain for many farmers, not because of their practices, but because of their limited access to avenues of certification.

Regardless of where you fall on the food issue, Zimmermann's article is an efficient and informative summation of some of the key questions lingering in the air when it comes to food sustainability.