Sustainable Food

Sustainability defines systems that can serve people over generations while maintaining full viability of the environment (natural, social and economic) in which they live but also maintaining their health and reproduction at optimum levels. ARSAN developed 17 Principles of Sustainable Foods that address all the aspects of sustainability and define criteria that need to be met for a food to be called truly sustainable. At the Centre we will adhere to and support all aspects of sustainability but the focus will be on the connection between food and human health.

Sustainable food can have many other names: real, traditional, authentic, organic, etc. We use the term sustainable to describe foods that stand opposite to industrial foods, which are principally unsustainable.

Sustainable plant foods must be grown organically in rich and healthy soils. However, not only growing methods are important. Most varieties, particularly from the most common plant groups, first of all grains, are now highly hybridized and created not just by simple crossing but by radiation and other drastic methods. Some are even genetically modified. They may have new biochemical (nutritional) characteristics that can make their sustainability questionable. Using heritage seeds and other propagation methods to bring old varieties back into production is the best way to address this problem. Beware of fruit breeding practices. Common varieties were not developed for their nutritional content and not even for their taste but rather for their appearance and ability to withstand storage and transportation stress. Berries, although many are also highly hybridized, are still the best fruit choice. The wilder they are, such as saskatoons, haskap or others, the better they are for our health.

With livestock assessing food sustainability is more complicated. It is not only about the animals eating natural diets, which is, in most cases, pasture. The quality of pasture is also critical. It should be organically handled, thriving and not overgrazed. It should also have a large variety of plants for the health of the pasture itself, for animals who feed there, and for the health of the people who eat the meat. Native prairie pastures were ideal and the closer can farmer bring the pasture back to be a rich, complex ecosystem, the more sustainable any animal food from such systems is. Many animals, particularly poultry or pigs, must also eat other types of feeds, not just what a pasture offers. Then it is crucial that their feed is optimal, resembling their natural diet and not containing any pharmaceutical or chemicals.

There is even more complexity with processed foods. Most foods are processed before we eat them, even if that is only home food preparation which is still processing. Two principles, if adopted, can greatly simplify the understanding about sustainability of processed food in the context of human health:

  • Staying away from all industrial foods; both industrially farmed and industrially processed. That is the fundamental first step one needs to take, even if such transition is only partial and gradual. Foods that were eaten before the onset of the industrial food revolution can be considered principally sustainable. This refers only to the types of food and their methods of preparation and doesn't imply that how people ate in the past was fully sustainable. Social and political considerations to a large degree defined past diets. We don't think about some foods as being industrial since they have been with us for longer than our life spans. Sugar (not just white, brown is only marginally better), white flour, refined salt, white vinegar and, yes, commercial yeast used now for baking breads are all early industrial foods. Health problems that we may have because of their consumption may surpass any other problems caused by growing/raising food.
  • Bringing back food fermentations is another big part of sustainably processed food. In most, if not all traditional food cultures fermented foods played a big role. Many different foods were naturally fermented, most notably diary, breads and all kinds of vegetables and fruits, but fermentation was also applied to meat, fish and other foods. Natural fermentations not only preserve food (which could be their initial goal) but they quite deeply change food biochemical and nutritional structure, disable toxins inherent in some raw plants and deliver great variety of friendly microbes and enzymes to the eater. Fermented foods usually greatly help digestion and enhance people's health. However, even some fermented foods that are still available they are usually now not produced by the authentic, traditional fermented processes. Notably, breads are now not made from naturally fermented dough and even sauerkraut, the flagship of fermented vegetables, is usually pasteurized, as are fermented dairy or soy products.

Sustainable food needs to be produced in ways that follow the principles of Nature and food traditions tested by many generations of people who would only keep the traditions that served them well. Additionally, it is best if produced locally because only local foods in long term can be considered sustainable.

The Centre has the potential to offer a variety of learning opportunities that can spread the knowledge about sustainable farming and gardening but the most important part of the overall offer will need to be about opportunities to learn traditional, sustainable food processing principles and methods. Such learning will be offered for the benefit of households but also for those who want to produce sustainable processed foods as local, commercial ventures. While there are a number of progressive organizations that help people learn how to grow/raise food, few, if any, offer such an extensive and wholistic opportunity to learn about food processing and food home preparation focused on promoting and advancing human health.


Real Food. What to Eat and Why. By Nina Planck 

The Vegetarian Myth

The Vegetarian Myth. Food, Justice and Sustainability. By Lierre Keith