Is it really a sustainable choice?

March 15, 2018

Is it really a sustainable choice?

Substituting gasoline with corn-derived ethanol is a great idea. Or maybe not. If we start to analyze the energy wasted in the process and its social and environmental costs, we may change our mind. The production of ethanol fuel from wheat is a key example, outside the realm of food, of how easily we may make mistakes and label as sustainable a practice that really is not, as highlighted, almost 10 years ago, on the Scientific American, by Michael D. Lemonick, Senior Writer at Climate Central, a nonprofit Princeton think tank that actively works on the issue of Climate change.

Matters complicate even further when we talk about sustainable food and healthy food, where the boundaries are very hazy. Just think of quinoa, a popular food among healthy eaters, and how it is damaging the small Bolivian farmers who have always used this plant as a staple of their diet. The price hike generated by the growing demand from the western world is literally causing them to starve. This is why those who get carried away with new foods, bringing distant communities to their knees (as denounced by The Guardian) those who want to eat bio and organic food, believing it is better, highlighting its benefits for health, society and the environment, should know the difference between 'healthy' and 'eco-sustainable', as underlined on the Huffington Post by the blogger of the Center for Food Safety, Lisa Bunin.

Although the message has reached, when it comes to meat, which is produced with significant environmental impact, other issues are not as clearcut. For example, a few years ago Science magazine highlighted that we should reconsider consumption of healthy products like almonds, given the huge amount of water used to produce them. Or fish, an item featured in diets across the world, which is often at the forefront of debates about sustainability, particularly in the long term: rather than eating sustainably sourced fish, we should really stop eating it, according to some.

A simple and effective formula is to 'eat healthy, eat local, and only if in season': Californian strawberries are a case in point, they are the sixth most important raw material of the sunny state. Strawberries are undoubtedly attractive, reasonably nutritious, tasty, but they are consumed all year round: consumers' wish to have these red fruits available even in mid-December has a strong impact on the environment, sometime even catastrophic, which thwart its healthy features. In fact, strawberries can be grown in the quantities we see only thanks to massive use of pesticides and fertilizers. Without them, not only we could not have the amount of berries we see on supermarket shelves in all seasons, but their prices would skyrocket, becoming prohibitive.

Let us eat local, yes, but also remember not to disrupt farming, becoming counterproductive: as Jay Rayner, a British food critic, observes, the continuous demand for food deemed to be 'local' causes forced harvests and may well be more dangerous than air transport from afar. Last but not least, the concept of 'zero miles' can also be mistakenly used as a synonym of sustainability. Mistakenly, because producing locally may generate the same amount of CO2 as importing, though it may seem absurd. Why? It has to do with volumes and means of transport: think of cargo ships - which are certainly more efficient - versus a small truck carrying a few boxes for a few miles. 

Food Sustainability Report - Release n° 3/2017 - July – September