The Food Ecosystem: Understanding the Sustainability Problem - Bridge Partners

The Food Ecosystem: Understanding the Sustainability Problem

Food Ecosystem

As a sustainability consultant with Bridge Partners, and nearly a decade into my career in sustainability, it’s fair to say I’m invested in the health of our planet. Very early on in my career, my passion for sustainability was awakened by the food system. And through food, I came to understand that every issue is connected. After all, food directly impacts the ecosystem in which it is grown, transported, sold, and enjoyed—and is equally impacted by it as well.

Our food ecosystem is completely interdependent. Soil nutrients, water quality, human health, climate, and food exist in such a delicate balance that if disturbed leads to an unsustainable system. Food’s role as being both powerful and fragile in an ecosystem was intriguing to me.

My eyes were opened to this strong link between food and sustainability in my very first professional experience with food. Back then I lived in New York City, working with at-risk teens in food-insecure communities to expand access to fresh, healthy foods. Our program focused on providing fresh foods to neighborhoods that were considered food swamps. In addition, we provided wider distribution channels for small, local farms, as well as job training for young adults.

This is when I saw first-hand the inequities in the food system—and how they compound on other injustices already experienced by these communities of predominantly black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). It was apparent in this line of work that the negative externalities of food production and distribution were felt most acutely by the communities that had the least access to fresh, healthy foods.

Later, I worked on the other end of the food system: with the farmers and farm laborers on local, family-owned farms. My work centered around advocating for fair farm labor practices, supporting sustainable growers and the land stewardship they championed, and bolstering a disinvested local farm economy.

Through this work, I learned about the harm that conventional modern agriculture can do to the soil, water, climate, and us as humans. I also learned how responsible farming practices can curb those impacts, setting the stage for my current views on sustainability.

Arriving at sustainability through the lenses of this world was powerful. It made it clear to me that food is a universal that everyone encounters daily (even if that encounter is the lack of food, and thus hunger). And it made it obvious that food is inseparable from the larger system it is a part of.

Whether you’re a sustainability veteran or just beginning to dip your toes into this world, the food system is a great way to explore the varying and intersected issues involved in environmental sustainability. While there are too many areas to do justice to in this post, I have laid out some of the key issues that sit at the nexus of food ecosystems and sustainability.

Sustainable agriculture practices can regenerate ecosystems.

Soil and water are vastly important in sustainability. And unfortunately, many of today’s modern agricultural practices have harmful effects on land and water ecosystems. For example: tilling leads to soil erosion; fertilizer runoff affects marine life; pesticides harm pollinators we need to grow food. However, if we focus on sustainable agriculture practices, we can reduce harm to those ecosystems and, in some cases, even regenerate them.

Biodiversity in ecosystems is crucial.

For the most part, agricultural land must be cultivated to plant crops and pasture livestock. That translates to clearing the land of trees and prairie, which displaces the existing native plants and animals and leads to less biodiverse ecosystems. And when ecosystems are less biodiverse, they are less healthy and therefore, less stable.

The production of crops and livestock affects the climate.

10% of the US’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are caused by crop and livestock production. GHG emissions affect the climate and can even impact nutrition levels in certain staple crops. These emissions are a direct result of the use of fertilizers, the growth of nitrogen-fixing crops, the operation of farm equipment that runs on fossil fuels, and especially the production of meat and dairy.

Farmers and farmworkers don’t have it easy.

Agriculture takes a toll on the humans who grow our food too. Not only is farm work physically taxing, but it’s also dangerous. Operating heavy motorized farm equipment as well as applying and handling pesticides present real danger for farmworkers. Seasonal farm laborers are often vulnerable to housing discrimination, wage theft, immigration-status discrimination, and inadequate access to healthcare. Farm owners are often in economically precarious situations themselves. And because of how increasingly difficult it is to earn a living by farming, American farmers are disappearing.

Global food supply chains come at a price.

Because of globalized supply chains, we are accustomed to enjoying food grown all over the world. We here in the Pacific Northwest will find lettuce from California, tomatoes from Canada, blueberries from Chile, and garlic from China in almost any grocery store at all times of the year. This is a boon for our plates but not for our climate. Transporting that food across the globe is carbon-intensive. Moreover, global supply chains are vulnerable to international trade and health issues, which we saw with the disruptions in the food supply chain during the Covid pandemic.

Not everyone has equal access to healthy food.

When it comes to food access equity, the sad truth is that the very communities that grow, process, and transport our food are often the most likely to be food insecure themselves. Low-income and BIPOC communities face the brunt of food insecurity, as access to fresh, healthy foods is often inequitably distributed. Unfortunately, this problem has only compounded during Covid.

Wasting food is prevalent.

Despite a lack of food access in many communities, food waste persists. By some estimates, Americans waste approximately 40% of the edible food available to them. This wasted food leads to increased GHG emissions in the decomposition process in addition to all the wasted water, energy, and labor that went into producing it in the first place.

 

In reflecting on these seven areas, it’s easy to see how the issues are intertwined. After almost ten years of working in this field, I see these connections everywhere: in the food world and beyond. As sustainability consultants, I think it’s imperative that we approach our work with the understanding that what we do is part of a larger system.

When I consult with clients about sustainability, I couldn’t talk about the effects of agriculture on soil health without talking about its effects on biodiversity. I couldn’t consider the food system’s impact on climate without thinking about the people who will experience and become further marginalized by the negative effects of climate change.

Ecosystems are all about interdependency—and if we pull on one thread, we’re bound to unravel the whole thing. It truly was a gift to arrive at sustainability in this way because it gave me an appreciation for the inseparability of the issues. No matter our location, we are connected through the ecosystem.

 

Our purpose at Bridge Partnersis to create opportunity and constructive impact for our customers, our people, and our communities in a sustainable and responsible way. We are taking immediate action against climate change, and guide our clients to do the same. Read our sustainability commitments here.  

About the author

Jackie Bach

Jackie is a Senior Consultant for the Sustainability Practice at Bridge Partners. She is passionate about leveraging the power of business for good. She has managed and deployed programs to address environmental and social impacts across sectors and industries while working in food, agriculture, healthcare, construction, and consumer goods; in Fortune 100, national retailer, non-profit, and start-up settings.

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