Natural Foods Merchandiser

Food’s Latest Fashion: A Return to Roots

With all the growth in organics the last several years, you?d think the industry could rest on its laurels, especially now that federal standards have been developed and largely embraced. Not so fast. There?s a new kid in town, and her name is sustainable.

?You can buy a certified organic food product that may have been grown in South America and then shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray and shipped here,? points out Jennifer Wilkins, senior extension associate at Cornell University?s Division of Nutritional Sciences and director of the university?s Farm to School Program. ?But,? she asks, ?is that sustainable??

The movement toward sustainably grown food means that heirloom tomatoes will beat out airlifted organic ones for many cooks, if the former are locally grown. And as the trend spreads, so do the categories it encompasses. Sustainably raised dairy and meat products are becoming popular, as are fair trade coffee and candy produced without preservatives or additives.

Wilkins sees more than mere trendiness at work, however. ?I think that people are maybe interested in a broader set of issues that have to do with building community,? she says. ?Sustainable agriculture is broader in that it usually encompasses not only environmental criteria, but also social and economic criteria. Sometimes it involves a justice issue or ethical issue.?

Overall, she says, ?There?s this notion of connectedness with food that people are really hungry for.?

Marc Halperin, culinary director at San Francisco?s Center for Culinary Development, expands that notion. ?I?m getting my cheese from Humboldt [County], and I?m getting my mussels from Bodega Bay. ? The consumer can begin to identify the quality of a product with its provenance, and I think we lost that. You talk about butter from Normandy, salmon from the Pacific Northwest, but not much more.? However, he says, ?It?s beginning to happen more and more. It?s a good marketing thing for the restaurants and the retailer.?

Even so, embracing sustainably grown food doesn?t have to mean abandoning a commitment to organics. ?One of the hallmarks of sustainable agriculture is the farmer next door, but it?s not the only tenet,? says Halperin. Price and other factors also figure in when comparing organic and sustainably grown produce. ?If [a buyer] knew that the organic stuff were absolutely clean ... he might choose the organic,? if its price were better.

But at the point of purchase, consumers have come to rely on the U. S. Department of Agriculture organic seal to know that the food they?re purchasing really is ?clean.? What assurance do they have regarding sustainable food? ?The best way [is] to be able to have a relationship or talk to the person who produced the food,? Wilkins says. ?It gets down to trust and transparency.?

Although in the 1990s the USDA developed a definition of sustainable agriculture, it?s only a guideline. ?It?s been open to interpretation and intense argument? for years, Wilkins says.

One result is that many farmers practicing sustainable agriculture are opting out of meeting organic certification standards, she adds. ?They feel what they are doing just goes beyond organic.? Halperin agrees, and thinks the trend may result in less availability of certified organic food.

That may, in the end, be all right with consumers. Farmers and chefs wouldn?t have any interest in sustainably produced foods were it not for consumer demand, Halperin says. ?Consumers are becoming more aware of what they?re putting into their mouths. They want to feel more comfortable about the quality of the food they?re eating; they want to feel comfortable that they?re not harming the environment ? not depleting the soil, not responsible for illegal immigration [and that their food] is contributing to the economic health of their area or their state. They want to feel good about it, and ultimately that?s what?s driving it.?

The sustainability trend affects more than just farmers and chefs, however. ?The retailer has to respond to what the consumer is interested in,? Halperin says. ?I bet if a buyer from Whole Foods said to [a sustainable food grower], ?I was down at the [farmers?] market and I saw your tomatoes ? they?re better than the tomatoes I?m getting,? ? they could work out a deal. A medium-sized farm can supply a medium-sized chain, he says. ?It just takes time and effort.?

What is Sustainably Produced Food? Although interpretations vary, many advocates of sustainability agree that sustainable farms:

  • Grow food without ?excessive use? of pesticides and other harmful chemicals
  • Maintain the fertility of the land
  • Do not raise more animals than the land is capable of supporting
  • Conserve water and protect local aquifers from pollution
  • Prevent soil erosion through the use of windbreaks, cover crops and other methods
  • Do not use antibiotics unless an animal is sick; do not use hormones
  • Treat animals humanely
  • Preserve genetic diversity by raising a wide range of animal breeds and crop varieties
  • Minimize fossil fuel consumption
  • Sell produce locally
  • Support their local economies with jobs and local purchases
  • Treat workers fairly and pay competitive wages and benefits
  • Support small family farms and rural economies


Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 10/p. 68, 73

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