Sustainability Explained

IMG_4417-2-1 photo credit: Grace Gehrke, Gehrke Grass-Fed Beef

Sustainability is a hot topic in both politics and business. Large corporations, small businesses, and consumers are making decisions based on sustainability now more than ever.

A sustainable business is an enterprise that has a minimal negative impact or, better yet, a positive effect on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy. Sustainable fashion has become "fashionable." Energy and transportation sectors look to lower emissions and use green sources for power. Sustainable farming is gaining popularity, and a sustainable diet is no longer just for the "food without faces" crowd.

I was shocked when my 23-year-old son told me he was a flexitarian yesterday. He still has some sustainably fished salmon in the freezer, but otherwise, when he eats at home, he's staying away from meat but isn't eliminating it in his diet. Vegetarianism and veganism have been with us for decades now, but flexitarianism is on the rise. Many people, like my son, are choosing this lifestyle because they believe in the science that shows cattle farming to be bad for the environment, making it non-sustainable in the long term.

Sustainable farming is on the rise

These conversations are happening around the world and at the local and national levels. Agribusiness changed farming several generations ago. Then we saw the rise of organic farming, and now there is a strong push to make farming more sustainable. So what does sustainable agriculture look like?

  • Cover crops are used to cover the soil between rows of plants used for harvesting. They can slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, and help control pests and diseases.
  • Crop rotation is simply the practice of growing different plants in the same fields from year to year, reducing the need for fertilizers and herbicides. Together with cover crops, it can improve soil quality and minimize pests and weeds.
  • No-till farming is vital for sustainability because tilling the soil releases carbon into the air. The carbon is produced by plant roots and any part of the plant remaining after harvest. It is essential to providing nutrients to the next crop. By eliminating tilling, the nutrients the soil needs are sequestered, and the soil structure does not deteriorate. No-till farming prevents erosion during the off-season allowing the snowmelt and rain to seep into the soil and replenish the nutrients. At the national level, the Biden administration has proposed paying farmers for storing carbon in their soil. Carbon sequestration is a byproduct of sustainable farming, which has the additional benefit of limiting global warming. Carbon-rich soil is black in color and much of the midwest was once abundant in it. Due to generations of plowing and planting the same crops year after year, much of the soil used to grow food is a lighter brown and requires chemical fertilizers.
  • Grass-fed meat is not only healthier than grain-fed meat because it is lower in fat due to a diet of forage crops. It also is more sustainable, especially when raised in conjunction with cover crops and no-till farming. The animals also naturally stomp out weeds and fertilize the land as they graze.
  • Aquaponic farming of vegetables is also on the rise. People purchase tower gardens and grow vegetables in their homes year-round. Large-scale aquaponic farms produce organic vegetables with the help of fish for fertilizer.

Plant-based meats

For some people, farming doesn't hold all the keys to sustainability. For the fast-growing numbers of flexitarian consumers, the alternative of plant-based meat is a more appealing option than meat derived from animals. The category also includes plant-based seafood, eggs, and dairy. For example, there are more and more vegan dairy products produced with nuts and even oat milk. Almond milk was one of the early options, but as almond farming sustainability was questioned due to the amount of water required, additional options became available.

Earlier generations of plant-based meats did not try to replicate conventional meat in the way that Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat do. We are likely to see exponential growth in this area in the years to come.

Local sustainability progress

The Business of Food sits at the crossroads of suburban Chicago and prairie farmland. There are numerous family farms, many of which are adopting sustainable farming practices. Resources in Chicago and throughout the state of Illinois are answering the call for sustainability.

For example, FamilyFarmed in Chicago, a self-described non-profit leader "in the effort to build a better food system, one that urges everyone to eat food produced as locally as possible using sustainable, humane and fair practices. Our enduring goals are a healthier, more environmentally sustainable and more economically dynamic food system." Pre-Covid they hosted conferences designed to bring together food growers, producers and consumers as well as and educational seminars.

McHenry County Community College answered the demand for local, sustainably farmed products with its recent addition of the Center for Agrarian Studies. As described on the college website, the center is a "community resource for all growers, sharing the latest growing and business practices to keep your farms sustainable, productive—and, above all, profitable."

We can no longer deny the need for change in agriculture. The Living with the Land ride at Epcot Center in Orlando is steadily introducing new generations to what sustainability means and why it's important. Once considered the future of farming, sustainability is here today and will continue to become more mainstream as a new generation of farmers is answering the call to provide sustainable, locally produced farm products. 

The Success of Kimmer's Ice Cream
The Evolution of a Food Business

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to

The Business of Food, LLC
1330 E. State Street, Unit B
Sycamore, IL 60178