Food and the Future Environment

Sustainability: Environments, Communities, and Economics


Sustainability: Environments, Communities, and Economics

The guided reading in this module on concerns around "Environment and Food" and our consideration of the Anthropocene as an era defined by the dramatic expansion of food production on earth's surface lead us naturally to the concept of sustainability, which is a common term in much of our discourse in the present day, in many different settings from the coffee shop and classroom, to dinner tables and company boardrooms, to government offices. As we think about the increasingly obvious impacts of our food system on the global environment and on the social dynamics of global society, we are concerned that this food system needs to (a) be part of society and communities with adequate opportunities for all and just relationships among people and (b) not compromise the future productivity and health of earth's many different environments. As part of the introductory work of this first module, we ought to consider a definition of sustainability that is broad enough to encompass both human and natural systems, and geographic scales from communities to single farming communities to the worldwide reach of food production and transport in the modern global food system. We present below in figure 1.1.6 one relatively common definition of sustainability as a "three-legged stool" (we will return to this concept later in Module 10 when we return to food systems).

Schematic of the Three-legged Stool (Environment, Community and Economy), see text description in link below
Figure 1.1.6. Three-legged Stool of Sustainability
Credit: Steven Vanek, based on multiple sources and common sustainability concepts
Click for a text description of the three-legged stool of sustainability image.
A green three-legged stool. The seat is labeled Sustainable Food System. One leg is labeled Environment, one leg is labeled Community, and the third is labeled Economy. There is a list for each as follows. Environment: reduce pollution and waste, use renewable energy, conservation, restoration. Community and Social Sustainability: good working conditions, health care, education, community, and culture; Economy: employment, profitable enterprises, infrastructure, fair trade, security.

In the model of the three-legged stool, environmental sustainability reflects protecting the future functioning, biodiversity, and overall health of earth's managed and wild ecosystems. Community and social sustainability reflect the maintenance or improvement of personal and community well-being into the future, versus relations of violence and injustice within and among communities. In the case of food systems, this reflects especially the just distribution of food and food security among all sectors of society, the just treatment of food producers and the rights of consumers to healthy food, and the expression of cultural food preferences. Economic sustainability within food systems has often been conceptualized as relationships of financial and supply chains that support sufficient prosperity for food producers and the economic access of consumers to food at affordable prices.

Dividing the concepts of sustainability into three parts of an integrated whole allows us to think about food production practices or food distribution networks, for example, are sustainable in different aspects. Excessive water use or fossil fuel consumption, for example, are aspects of environmental sustainability challenges in food systems considered further on in this course. Meanwhile, issues of food access, poverty, and displacement from war, and their impacts on human communities and their food security are issues that combine social and economic sustainability, which will also be considered by this course. The three-legged stool is a simple, if sometimes imperfect, way to combine the considerations of sustainability into a unified whole. As you consider the sustainability challenges at the end of module one and in your capstone project, you may be able to use these three different concepts along with the concepts in the guided reading to describe the sustainability challenges of some food system examples. You may want to ask yourself, is this practice or situation environmentally sustainable? socially sustainable? economically sustainable?