Friday, October 4, 2013

Healthy. SUSTAINABLE. Affordable. Fair. (Part II)

Food Day's four-word tagline is Healthy, Sustainable, Affordable, Fair. We're doing a series of blog posts leading up to Food Day (October 24th!) about what each of those words mean.

In my last post, I talked about what FAIR means in terms of our food system. Today, I'm combining a short discussion of SUSTAINABLE with something new I learned this morning. So what does a sustainable food system look like?

Wikipedia provides this definition of sustainable farming: "an integrated plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term." The blog, Sustainable Table, defines it as follows:

"In simplest terms, sustainable is the production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare. This form of agriculture enables us to produce healthful food without compromising future generations' ability to do the same."

It can be hard to know exactly what won't compromise future production, but there are some agricultural practices that clearly will. What comes to mind most clearly for me are the crop circles I sometimes see from airplanes. I'm not talking about alien crop art, but of irrigated perfect circles of green amid an otherwise brown landscape.

This National Geographic photograph of Nevada is a perfect example. Water pumped from underground aquifers is sprayed by a moving radius-irrigation system to produce perfectly green circles in the midst of a desert. Aquifers tend to replenish very slowly, so removing lots of water for irrigation like this is most definitely not sustainable. I think many people would look at a feedlot or CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) and also think, unsustainable.

So much of our industrial agricultural system relies on practices like these, so how do we move away from them towards systems that resemble the definitions of sustainable farming?

Well, this morning, I learned of a fast-food chain that is taking large steps in that direction. I knew that Chipotle Mexican Grill talks up its commitment to healthier foods, but I didn't know much about what they meant by that. Then I saw a link to this article about why Big Ag "hates" Chipotle and watched the animated short movie the article is about. The Scarecrow shows a bleak future agriculture and a simple Scarecrow who moves to defy it. After watching it, I needed to learn more about why Chipotle would make a film that could be quite controversial, so I went to their website.

It turns out Chipotle has an entire section of their website devoted to their Food With Integrity beliefs. According to Chipotle, they have been working towards better sourcing for their foods for over a decade, including sourcing 40% of their beans from organic sources, all of their dairy from cows not treated with rGBH, and most of their beef and chicken from farmers who do not use antibiotics in animal feed. They also have new initiatives to increase their local food purchases and use a 350-mile radius to define local. You can learn much more about their Food With Integrity standards on their website.

I don't eat much fast food ever, but sometimes when traveling, there are few options. I'm glad to know that there are better options even in the fast food category.

Better, that is, in terms of sustainability. This is definitely not an endorsement of Chipotle on all levels. I did a quick calorie calculation for a chicken burrito with brown rice and black beans. I included cheese and guacamole, but not sour cream, and it came to a grand total of 1,095 calories (about half a day's worth) and a whopping 2,960mg of sodium (more than the recommended daily intake). There are certainly ways to eat healthier at Chipotle (the vegetarian burrito bowl I've eaten clocks in at 615 calories on the calcultor), but I don't think the chain overall would get an A-plus for that first word in the Food Day tagline: Healthy.

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