Food is considered sustainable when it has been produced, packaged, transported, and delivered in a manner that minimizes its environmental impact. Generally, efforts to improve food sustainability are focused on the sourcing, chemical makeup, and the presence of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and hormones. Sustainable food practices can also encompass animal and industry worker treatment, adding a socially sustainable element to the definition.
Local food is defined as how far away the food is produced before reaching the consumer. Standards for the distance of local food range between 100 and 250 miles. Some organizations, like Whole Foods, define local food by being within state lines.
Chicago has a vast history with urban farming, making it very easy to acquire local food made within the city itself. Additionally, there are many farms within 200 miles of Chicago, including farms south of Green Bay in Wisconsin, east of Iowa City in Iowa, north of Bloomington in Indiana, and west of Toledo in Ohio.
Chemicals (including herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc.) are used extensively in farming to prevent invasive plants and insects from interfering with farming. Chemicals can target specific plant species, types, or can be all-purpose killers. Although chemical applications are regulated by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, regulations are not strict and can be easily circumvented. Chemicals have long been criticized for being dangerous for human consumption and the environment. Therefore, sustainable farming practices typically include little to no chemical use.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an organic label that certifies a farms use of natural pesticides, as determined by law. However, the definition of what is “natural” and “synthetic” is a difficult one to make, and for this reason the organic label has come under fire. There is also a database of organic farms that provides information on USDA certified organic farms across the world.
GMOs are created through genetic engineering, where DNA from one species is spliced and added to the DNA of another species. This practice has come under fire for being unnatural in that it breaks regular evolutionary barriers to create a new product.
Non-GMO status is difficult to achieve. Because of natural evolutionary processes, genetically modified organisms and regular plants tend to mix, so the DNA gets passed around. Therefore, standards for Non-GMO take this into account; non-GMO really means there is very little modified DNA in the food. For the current standard, ingested food must have less than 0.9% modified DNA to be considered non-GMO.
Hormones are used in animal products to increase the quantity of meat per animal. Typically, this is done through growth hormones, such as rbGH. These hormones allow the animal’s body to grow faster and create more muscle and fat than typical. This practice has come under fire for its cruelty to animal health, as well as the potential effects on human health.
It is illegal to administer additional hormones to pigs and birds. In fact, only sheep and cattle are subject to additional hormones. The label “no hormones added” or “no hormones administered” may be included on a package if sufficient evidence exists for the government to conclude that no hormones were administered.