Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

From Farm to Fork: Behind the Scenes of Food Production

By Angelica CulloPublished October 10, 2013

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The saying "out of mind, out of sight" often rings true when it comes to assessing the environmental impact of the food we eat. From farm to fork, food production, processing, and transportation demand a sizeable amount of energy and water, and produce emissions and other harmful byproducts. Agriculture production places a substantial burden on the environment and non-renewable resources. So how can we address the root of the issue if production and distribution infrastructure remain unsustainable?
The saying "out of mind, out of sight" often rings true when it comes to assessing the environmental impact of the food we eat. From farm to fork, food production, processing, and transportation demand a sizeable amount of energy and water, and produce emissions and other harmful byproducts. Agriculture production places a substantial burden on the environment and non-renewable resources. Agriculture is the single largest user of freshwater, consuming 70% of global freshwater resources, and also requires energy intensive production, processing, and distribution methods. So how can we address the root of the issue if production and distribution infrastructure remain unsustainable?


While most of us know that consuming produce that is in season and locally grown is better for the environment, our health, and our local economy, when it comes to making purchases at the grocery store, sometimes personal preference, prices, or convenience can take precedence. Acknowledging that these factors can conflict with even the best intentions to be a sustainable consumer, it becomes clear that government policy reform is necessary in developing sustainable agricultural systems. In order for food production and distribution infrastructure to be effective, local or county governments should have jurisdiction over policy development so they can tailor initiatives to circumstances that may be unique to their respective municipalities.


Despite heterogeneity of municipalities, there are several overarching strategies that should be used when implementing policy to promote sustainable consumption patterns. These policies should work to improve availability of local food products by coordination between local suppliers and consumers. 


Several strategies could be implemented to improve the availability of local food products including food mapping, which links domestic food outlets to local farmers. The City of Baltimore has already begun to incorporate similar strategies as seen in the Baltimore Healthy Stores Model, a program that works to increase consumer awareness of food options and to guide store-owner food purchasing and stocking decisions.

While policies are an irreplaceable component in developing sustainable food consumption infrastructure, individual consumers can also take small steps to contribute.

Starting with your next meal, you can be a part of the solution by purchasing products that are in season and locally sourced. Purchasing in season avoids energy expenditures associated with processing such as heating greenhouses and long term heating and refrigeration. The Natural Resource Defense Council provides a comprehensive and searchable database where the public can access information on which foods are in season and in what locations. You might think twice about making that Rolattini in March when you see that only one, distant U.S. state produces eggplant in early March, while 31 grow the vegetable in late August.

Additional consideration should be given to the mode of transportation that food takes to get to your fork. According to Rich Pirog, associate director of Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State, in the U.S., food products travel on average 1,500 miles from source to the consumer. Limiting consumption of food shipped by air, which is by far the most energy intensive means of transporting food and other goods, as well as taking a look at the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service's database for information on "food miles" is step in the right direction.

Infrastructure that promotes consumption of seasonal and locally-sourced produce could be an effective strategy for creating sustainable agriculture. While policy is an essential piece of sustainable agricultural systems, the fruits of such policies will take planning, resources, and time; but that's no reason to sit back and bide your time. As we eagerly await implementation of these policies you can start being a part of the solution by making simple changes in your daily routine.