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The Growing Demand and Need for Sustainable Foods 

By Katie Morell

Dori Ross is on the frontlines in the fight to normalize sustainable agricultural practices. She is founder of Tonewood, a Waitsfield, Vt., company that sells products made from maple syrup produced from local, small-scale farms.

The company, a supporter of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont, also sponsors a maple tree adoption program, where consumers can "adopt a tree" for $175 and provide some financial support to two small-scale maple farmers.

When she's not working, Ross frequents nearby farmers markets and enjoys interacting with regional growers. Even when she travels with her husband and three children, she makes sure to go to a local market.

“We are food tourists," she says. “My preference is always to buy organic, local produce to help support local economies."

She looks for opportunities to support sustainable farming, or environmentally sound farming methods that consider conservation of natural resources, public health and community impacts, and animal welfare. The mission of this methodology is to cultivate a farm that can be useful to society indefinitely. 

Ross exemplifies the commitment in everyday life that BBVA Research economists say is key to combat environmental challenges and world hunger.

The BBVA Research report titled The Growing Appetite for Sustainable Foods, notes the world's population is expected to jump to 9.7 billion by 2050, up from 7.4 billion in 2016. To keep pace and feed that many people, agricultural production will need to increase between 70 percent and 100 percent in developing countries by 2050, according to figures cited in the report.

So how do we do that?

The BBVA Research report identifies three key pillars needed for success: changes in consumer behavior, increased innovation in farming, and support for farm friendly policies. 

Does local mean sustainable? 

Proponents of sustainable living urge consumers to buy local because, in theory, if a food is grown or raised within your immediate geographic area, it reduces transport distances (and extensive use of fossil fuels) and increases the likelihood that it was grown or raised on a smaller family farm. 

However, the term local isn't synonymous with sustainable because it doesn't indicate how the food was grown and produced. Meat from a factory farm nearby may be local, but it may not be sustainable. Vegetables sold at a farmers market may be local, but that doesn't mean they come from a farm following sustainable agriculture guidelines.

According to the USDA, a sustainable farm employs methods that consider the environment, the public, and animals' welfare. For instance, a sustainable farm would: 

  • Limit or refrain from using chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified seed.
  • Rotate crops and rely on pasture-based animal husbandry.
  • Raise animals without reliance on growth hormones or nontherapeutic antibiotics.
  • Focus on quality rather than quantity.
  • Sell directly to consumers through farmers markets, roadside stands, pick-your own arrangements, or through subscriptions. 

“At the very minimum it can be defined by three principles," says Dr. Sean Clark, professor of agriculture and natural resources at Berea College in Berea, Ky. “The practices need to be environmentally sound, economically viable for the people who produce the food, and socially viable, allowing people to afford high-quality, nutritious food." 

Small-scale farming 

But small-scale farms that sell directly to consumers account for just 0.4 percent of total U.S. agricultural sales, according to the nonprofit group Farm Aid.

Ross said she became especially passionate about supporting small "sugarmakers" in her region after learning of their struggles to remain competitive. Her company, Tonewood, now relies on small-scale sustainable maple farmers in Mad River Valley, Vt., for the maple syrup Tonewood uses to produce the single-estate syrup, maple cubes, maple candies, maple cream, and other items it sells online. 

“I recognized that the small sugar maker is under economic pressure because there is a lot of corporate money in factory farming, and the maple industry is big business for those types of farms," she says. “What's at risk is not only the viability of small-scale farming, but also the culture and history of age-old maple farming." While Ross acknowledges that it is easy to access sustainably grown products at home (“I'm in a bubble in Vermont; everything is so accessible," she says), others around the world struggle to affordably support local practices and, in many developing countries, even gain access to locally grown food. Ross may be a positive example of how to support sustainable food, but the numbers around this type of agriculture worldwide paint a challenging landscape. 

Challenges in food production 

To help understand possible fixes, it is important to distill the reality of the situation, starting with the fact that agricultural production has completely changed since the 1950s. 

According to the BBVA Research report:

  • Groundwater irrigation — and pesticide and fertilizer use — has tripled in that time frame, leading to more runoff into lakes and rivers and greater risk of pollution.
  • Soil has eroded at a faster rate than it has been replenished.
  • Indiscriminate livestock grazing has resulted in serious resource degradation. The BBVA Research report says overgrazing can eliminate hardy grasses and create dry soil conditions, which can lead to the disappearance of certain vegetative species, the erosion and compaction of rangeland soils, and the loss of food and space for native wildlife species. 

"We see that some farmers allow livestock to graze, but fail to replenish soil," says Amanda Augustine, junior economist with BBVA Research and a co-author of the report. "When they do that, it may not impact them directly right now, but it negatively impacts future generations that cannot farm on that same land."

The challenges extend to food production on sea as well. According to the BBVA report: "The populations of some popular species have fallen by as much as 90 percent, and the World Wildlife Foundation estimates that the global fishing fleet is two to three times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support. " 

Some big companies have stepped up to help combat overfishing and illegal fishing. Google, for instance, is partnering with two nonprofit organizations to help track and locate illegal fisheries. And Birdseye and McDonald's recently pledged as part of a proactive, industry-led agreement not to use fish caught in fragile arctic marine habitats. 

Food waste is a contributor

Even if we fix some of the problems with agriculture and fishing practices, the issue of food waste still looms. The USDA reported that in 2010 a whopping 31 percent of total food produced ($162 billion value) went to waste. 

In North America alone, each person wastes around 200-250 pounds of food per year, the BBVA Research report says. Food waste happens in a variety of situations including: 

  • In the field. If market prices are less than it costs to harvest and transport a crop, a farmer may decide to leave it unharvested and let it rot.
  • In stores. Some produce is discarded in stores because of color and appearance.
  • In restaurants. Half-eaten meals and untouched baskets of bread go straight into the garbage.
  • In homes. Consumers buy more food than they need, and then let it spoil. 

It all adds up and results in higher prices and more greenhouse gas emission, says Augustine. 

Encouraging signs 

Augustine says reversing these trends won't be easy, but it seems the public is becoming better informed about where their food comes from and how it is produced. 

For instance, the BBVA Research report found that 22 percent of the U.S. population purchases organic foods whenever possible, 16 percent only buy locally grown produce, and 24 percent only buy in-season produce, which suggests growing interest and concern about how food is grown and produced. 

And those numbers are likely to increase, thanks to the Millennial population, says Kristin Nikodemski, the brains behind The Dirt on the Dirt, an online community of organic gardeners. 

“We are finding that Millennials grew up aware of sustainable lifestyles and are more likely to question things when it comes to big agriculture," Nikodemski says. “They are getting more involved and want to know where their food is coming from. It is also interesting that the garden center industry has exploded in the last five years, and food gardening has become one of the fastest growing categories." 

According to the National Gardening Association, Millennials increased their spending on food gardening to $1.2 billion in 2013, up from $632 million in 2008. Beyond just Millennials, the association found that food gardening among urban households increased from 7 million in 2008 to 9 million urban households in 2013. 

Improvements in AgTech—from aquaponic systems to smart soil sensors to methods to use shipping containers with LED lights for urban farms — are also encouraging. 

In 2016, venture capital firms invested $4.6 billion into AgTech research and development efforts, a staggering 400 percent increase from 2013 levels, according to BBVA Research. 

“I think about technological change in the agriculture space a lot," says Clark, the professor of agriculture and natural resources at Berea College. “We [the world] are not going to move away from land-based agriculture, and I'm not convinced it is a solution that will feed the world, but I think it will play a bigger role moving forward."

What YOU can do 

The average American citizen can do several things to support a move toward widescale sustainable agriculture, including:

  • Lobby government officials. Push for dedicated resources to help small farmers. Subsidies for local farmers could help offset costs for them and for consumers, thereby making sustainable food more affordable and accessible. 
  • Change your diet. As Clark says, “eat lower on the food chain—more grains, fruits and vegetables and less meat. " The meat industry needs grains to feed animals, and land for grazing and generates a substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide. 
  • Plan meals, buy less, and compost leftover food you won't eat. You can also ask for smaller portions at restaurants and donate uneaten food. Says Augustine: "Remember that when you waste food, you aren't just impacting yourself, but everyone else because it impacts prices and the environment. Try to only purchase what you think you will make and eat at home."
  • Shop at farmer's markets. Typically the food offered at farmer's markets is seasonal and grown by smaller, family farms, not large industrial farms. (To find farmer's markets close to your home, visit the USDA website for a listing.) 
  • Plant your own garden. Want to start your own garden at home? Nikodemski recommends starting small with one or two plants, maybe squash or cucumbers. “Those bear a lot of fruit," she says. “Then, consider purchasing high quality soil and taking notes so you can document what works and what doesn't for next time."

Augustine is optimistic that progress can be made with a shift towards sustainable agriculture, even on the smallest scale.

"I think we can feed the world with sustainable agriculture," she says. "It just needs widespread support, and I think that starts on the local level." 

Details you need to make a smart decision

Reports prepared by BBVA Research are not offers to sell or solicitations to acquire or dispose of an interest in securities. Estimates made by BBVA Research are subject to change due to economic fluctuations. BBVA Compass does not independently verify or warranty the accuracy of statements made by BBVA Research.