Food systems, like all systems, are made up of interconnected links, with change in one link inevitably affecting others. Links include all aspects of the food system, from farmers to processors, to retail and transportation. Our modern food system is focused on feeding an ever-growing world population, as efficiently and economically as possible, but often with great disregard for its social and environmental impacts. Efficiency, while profitable in economic terms, is not always sustainable. We see this in the tremendous wealth and quality-of-life disparities among communities, including food system workers, and the immense environmental degradation associated with our current industrialized food production.
The Triple Bottom Line framework offers three pillars upon which to build a more just, equitable and sustainable food system for all. This people-planet-profits framework is a great litmus test for sustainability by evaluating initiatives and policies for their economic impact, but also their impacts on communities and the natural environment.
People: Every human on earth has the right to adequate food and clean water. Policy has the power to improve or diminish the lives of the general public and the lives of over one billion agricultural workers worldwide. Our current industrial way of eating keeps some of the hardest-working laborers living in a cycle of poverty and, in some instances, dependent on taxpayer-funded government assistance programs. These economically vulnerable workers may be unable to avoid dangerous situations like commercial-slaughterhouse work during a global pandemic. Sustainable policy can elevate community health through access to better nutrition, living wages and workplace safety.
Planet: Our current food production systems utilize a tremendous amount of fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers for crops and fuel for farm equipment, processing, transportation and refrigeration. The EPA states that agriculture alone directly contributes about 570 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, contributing 8.7% of the nation’s total emissions, while all food-system activities account for around 30% of the world’s total greenhouse emissions. These emissions have accelerated the warming of our planet, increasing the occurrence of hurricanes, flooding, drought, heat waves and loss of biodiversity. Climate change is the most serious environmental challenge for our existing U.S. food system. Local, sustainable food production offers opportunities for addressing the need to reduce emissions as well as providing greater adaptability to changing climate conditions.
Profit: In 2010, Americans spent around $1.1 trillion on food. As companies push for more growth and wealth, they become consolidated and vertically integrated. This consolidation removes resiliency found in replication, competition and diversity and, as a consequence, our food system becomes more vulnerable to disruptions at the same time that it steals dollars from local economies. Investing in local food initiatives, like food hubs and farmers markets, and planning for sustainable growth, living wages and green-focused jobs is a step towards a more sustainable future.
Cook Inletkeeper’s Local Foods Program aims to build a sustainable food system that reduces environmental degradation, enhances food quality and safety, and stimulates the local economy with quality jobs and by keeping money spent on food local.