Stories / Impact

Impact ABCs: Sustainability

Maggie Borden

November 09, 2016


As James Beard famously said, "food is our common ground." We all share the experience of considering how to feed ourselves and our families—what to buy, what to make, when to eat. Those decisions may seem subjective and straightforward, but as you move beyond the quotidian and start thinking about how that meal gets to your plate, things get a little more complicated. The passionate cooks and eaters of tomorrow need to not only know how to whip up a delicious meal, but also what our choices mean for our food system as a whole. That’s why, in support of the JBF Impact Programs, we present this ongoing series on common food-policy terms: Impact ABCs. So dig in, get invested, and learn how you can make a difference in improving what’s on our global table.


When we talk about sustainability, we’re thinking in the long term, and how the choices we make today impact our ability to continue to produce food in the future. A broad philosophy that encompasses many aspects of the food system, sustainability can refer to practices based on preserving the environment, protecting the rights of farmers and workers, treating animals humanely, and more. Congress defined “sustainable agriculture” in the 1990 Farm Bill as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that meet America's need for food and fiber and enhance the natural resources that food growing depends upon. These practices also include efficient use of nonrenewables, keeping production economically viable, and enhancing both the farmer's and society's quality of life.”

Anna Lappe, a 2016 JBF Leadership Award honoree and leader in advocacy for more sustainable food worldwide, broadens the definition a bit in an interview with Martha Stewart Living: “I like to say that sustainable agriculture is a production system that's good for the environment and for people, that's humane to animals and to food and farm workers, that supports thriving rural and urban communities. In other words, it's the production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare. It's a way of food production that generates abundance while ensuring future generations can do the same.” Some examples of sustainable practices include reducing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by swapping for alternatives like crop rotation and cover crops, or improved water management to avoid runoff into nearby streams or rivers.

USDA-certified organic producers are operating under a sustainable model, but sustainability itself is a much larger concept, with shifting perspectives and priorities depending on the area of the food system you’re dealing with. And supporting sustainable practices is not limited to just farmers, fishers, and ranchers—learn from our Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alums how, as diners, eating older animals can help the fight for sustainable meat, and how your sushi order can promote sustainable seafood.

Learn more about the JBF Impact Programs.


Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.