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Yale Sustainable Food Project FAQ

  1. What is sustainable agriculture?
  2. Does sustainable food taste better?
  3. Is sustainable food more nutritious?
  4. Is sustainable food elitist?
  5. Can sustainable food feed the world?
  6. What impact does sustainable farming have on carbon emission and climate change?
  7. What impact does sustainable farming have on rural communities?
  8. How can I start a sustainable farm in my community? Backyard? School?
  9. How can I locate a sustainable farm near me?
  10. What can I do to support sustainable agriculture?

1. What is sustainable agriculture?

Here at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, we use the word “sustainable” as a tool to aid in making practical deci­sions. We say that a practice can be called sustainable if and only if it can be continued indefinitely without degrading the systems and resources upon which it relies. It, in the words of the United Nations, meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Though it always keeps this principle firmly in mind, sustainable agriculture does not refer to a defined set of one-size-fits-all practices. Rather, it tasks farmers to be mindful of their local ecosystem, the ways their practices interact with it, and the other lives they share it with—present and future.

2. Does sustainable food taste better?

Almost always, and for a number of reasons. The best chefs around the world source their kitchens from sustainable sources because they know that sustainable agriculture turns an eye toward the long-term health of the soil, building the levels of organic matter, biodiversity, and insoluble nutrients. This soil produces healthier, better tasting plants. It also means farmers need to apply fewer pesticides, which means fewer petroleum-based off-flavors are being introduced to your food.

They also know that eating sustainably means eating in season, when local food is at its very best: aromatic melons, plump heirloom tomatoes, and intensely sweet corn in late summer; crisp, red apples and gallons of cider in autumn; buttery, high-roasted parsnips in winter; grilled shoots of asparagus in spring. Sustainable food, intended for local consumption, can be raised from heirloom varieties bred for taste and left to ripen on the vine; conventional produce must be bred to withstand the force of mechanized harvesters and artificially ripened by a hydrocarbon gas.

3. Is sustainable food more nutritious?

Organic produce is good for your health not only because of what it subtracts from your diet—organic farming practices do not use petrochemical pesticides—but also because of what it adds. Nutrition scientist Dr. Virginia Worthington reviewed 41 published studies comparing the nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains, and concluded that organic crops contain significantly more nutrients: 27 percent more vitamin C, 21 percent more iron, 29 percent more magnesium, and 14 percent more phosphorus. For significant nutrients, “five servings of the organic vegetables met the recommended daily intake…whereas the same vegetables produced conventionally failed to do so.”

Additional research at Truman State University in Missouri found that organically grown oranges contain up to 30 percent more vitamin C than those grown conventionally, even though conventional oranges are generally much larger than organic ones. Although these figures are hotly debated, there is increasing consensus that organic farming increases soil health, and with it, nutrients in food.

Here are some specifics:

  • Plants grown in healthier soil have higher levels of minerals and nutrients. Recent studies have shown that organic peaches and pears have higher levels of vitamins C and E, and organic berries and corn have more of the antioxidants that promote cell health and reduce the risk of cancer.
  • Beef and chicken raised on pasture have less total fat and more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than beef and chicken raised on feedlots. Grass-fed meat is also higher in vitamin E, an antioxidant linked with reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • Eggs from free-range hens have more folic acid and vitamin B12—both of which promote healthy skin—than eggs from caged hens raised on factory farms.
  • On average, organic milk has 50% more vitamin E, two to three times more of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect the body against harmful effects of ultraviolet light, and higher levels of omega-3s than conventional milk.

4. Is sustainable food elitist?

No. Sustainable food often costs more than its conventional counterpart, but that does not make it elitist. Its expense is more often the result of high demand than high production costs, as many crops can be grown organically for less than under input-intensive conventional methods.

Elitism is advocacy of or reliance on the leadership and dominance of an elite—the high-ranking members of a society. Sustainable food advocates for, relies on, and supports working farmers and ranchers. It promotes the health both of the people who consume it, and of the natural resources upon which all rely. The conventional, industrial food system does not promote human or environmental health and, more often than not, it relies on and supports a relatively small number of people and organizations who profit from it.

What we, as a society, deem necessary, vital, and worth paying for, is surprisingly fluid and dynamic. In the last ten years we have collectively added cell phone bills and cable bills into our monthly balance. Fifteen years ago, the price of socially acceptable sneakers jumped from twenty to 120 dollars. These changes have been quickly normalized and imbedded—across class lines—in our society. We would never think to claim that cell-phones or cable are elitist.

North Americans spend less of their per capita income on food than the people of any other developed nation. Low food prices appear, at first glance, to be a positive thing. However, when one takes into account the costs linked to low food prices—environmental degradation and clean-up, public health, and farm subsidies—it is clear that we cannot afford to continue eating so cheaply.

5. Can sustainable food feed the world?

Yes. Long-term trials at six Midwestern universities found that organic farms produce yields equal to or higher than those of conventional farms. Organic farming practices also build soil organic matter and drought resistance. Other studies show that small, diversified farms, managed to fit local conditions, are up to ten times more productive per acre than large farms.

Research by the UN Development Programme has also demonstrated the productivity of organic farming. In Brazil, farmers using manure as fertilizer increased soil fertility
and doubled their yields of corn. In Ethiopia, sweet potato production increased from 6 to 30 tons per acre. Cultivating diverse crops for local consumption makes farmers more nutritionally self-sufficient and economically independent.

In 2000, the United Nations set Millennium Development Goals. The first is to reduce by half the number of people suffering from hunger and extreme poverty; the seventh requires environmental sustainability for future generations. Sustainable agriculture is a good way to help achieve both.

6. What impact does sustainable farming have on carbon emission and climate change?

The shift to more sustainable methods of growing and preparing food is centered around practices that reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase the nutrient and mineral levels of soil. An emphasis on buying local, fresh food decreases the use of fossil energy in both
transportation and processing. Supporting organic farming methods decreases the use of petrochemicals, not only further reducing the release of greenhouse gases, but also making food farming healthier for farmers, consumers, and the environment.

These changes can make a substantial impact on world emissions and world climate. America’s food system accounts for nearly 17% of the nation’s energy use, requiring 400 gallons of oil per person each year. Of the 10,250 trillion Btus dedicated to food production,

  • 21% are spent in agricultural production (6.1% on fertilizer alone)
  • 14% in transport
  • 16% in processing
  • 7% in packaging
  • 11% in restaurants or retail
  • 31% in home refrigeration and preparation

Individual choices add up. A steer raised on pasture consumes one-fourth the oil of a steer raised in confinement; each time you enjoy a grass-fed rather than conventional burger, nearly a pound of carbon is prevented from entering the atmosphere, decreasing the energy used in production, transportation, and processing, and by increasing soil organic matter, the shift to sustainable food is reducing the world’s carbon footprint.

7. What impact does sustainable farming have on rural communities?

Sustainable food vitalizes the rural communities that grow it, improving the local economy and safeguarding the environment’s fertility for future generations.

By growing diverse crops to feed local mouths rather than commodities for a world market, farmers protect themselves from global price swings and save money otherwise lost to processing, transportation, and marketing companies. Every dollar spent at a farmers’ market or farm stand goes directly to the farmer, compared to only 19 cents of every dollar spent at conventional supermarkets. What’s more, dollars spent within the local economy have a multiplying effect that generates positive returns for the community. CitySeed, the non-profit organization that oversees New Haven’s farmers’ markets, estimated that the purchases made at their markets kept $1.3 million in the local economy in 2006.

By serving as responsible stewards of the environment, sustainable farmers ensure that following generations will have fertile acres to plant and bountiful food to eat. Conventional farmers in Iowa lose two bushels of top soil for every bushel of corn they bring to silo, and their frequent applications of pesticides and soluble petrochemical fertilizers devastate the levels of organic biomass in local soil and the potability of water for hundreds of miles downstream.

8. How can I start a sustainable farm in my community? Backyard? School?

According to George Purtill, who owns 80 acres of farmland in South Glastonbury, CT and is a regular supplier of the Yale College dining halls, “There is nothing magical about organic sustainable farming. Just reset your clocks to pre-World War II and watch what farmers did then. Compost, crop rotations, diversity of crops, and an absence of man-made chemicals were the norm then.” He’s right: organic farming need be neither mysterious nor difficult, and small gardens can easily be managed in accordance with sustainable principles.

Books by Eliot Coleman, an organic farmer in Harborside, Maine, are invaluable guides to sustainable farming. His writings have deeply informed the practices of the Yale Farm, a sustainable one-acre garden. Finally, schools are recommended to learn from the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California.

9. How can I locate a sustainable farm near me?

There are several national databases for sustainable farms, farmers’ markets, farm stands, and community-supported agriculture programs: the U.S. Department of Agriculture and LocalHarvest. Both can be searched by location and provide you with maps of nearby locations.

If you are in the New Haven area, stop by one of the four CitySeed markets.

10. What can I do to support sustainable agriculture?

Supporting sustainable agriculture can be as simple as enjoying the crops it produces. Patronize a nearby farmers’ market or farm stand, buy locally-marked produce at grocery stores, dine at locally-sourced restaurants, or join a community-supported agriculture program. If there are none in your area, be vocal: ask your favorite restaurant or local grocery store why they don’t provide local food.

To become more involved in support of sustainable agriculture, join your local chapter of Slow Food, an organization devoted to preserving traditional foodways and educating people about food as a center of community. Join, too, the national debate over food policy: nutrition guidelines, organic standards, and subsidy policy are but a few of the key issues determined by the quintennial Farm Bill and other federal or state policies.