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Industrial vs. Sustainable Food: What It Means to You

Industrial Agriculture: What is it?

Here in the United States, most of the foods you find in the grocery store come from a relatively small number of industrial-style farms. These are the few farms that produce the majority of the food for the near 322 million people who live in this country. Often very large and highly specialized, these farms require large inputs of energy, pesticides, as well as synthetic fertilizers. Though these farms are putting food on the table for millions every single day, they are also impacting the environment, and may consequently be affecting your health as well.

Industrial agriculture feeds us, but harms the environment...and our health Click To Tweet

How Does It Work?

Industrial farms often favor the production of only one crop (corn, soybeans, cotton, etc) which limits habitat diversity and increases a crop’s vulnerability to damage from pests. Instead of naturally replenishing the nutrients in the soil after harvest, industrial agriculture uses chemical fertilizers to grow the next round of crops. In fact, in 2005, American farmers used more than 22 million tons of fertilizers! [1]

Chemical fertilizers are known to cause long-term depletion of organic matter and degradation of overall soil quality. This lack of soil management leads to a vicious cycle of more chemical use, pesticide resistance in insects, and pollution of surface and groundwater by herbicides and insecticides.

Industrial Farming and Your Health

In the last few decades, we have seen industrial agriculture create large, complex effects on our environment, economy, as well as our urban and rural communities. In an article published in Science magazine, authors discussed the havoc that industrial agriculture has wrecked on the world’s soil quality, and it isn’t good. According to the article, humans and industrial agriculture have disrupted a number of soil cycles so that they are no longer in balance. [2]

This is changing soil in ways that will affect our future generation, as well as the future climate. Imagine an ecosystem that was once full of life in support of nutrient dense food materials. Now imagine an imbalanced soil system that lacks the organisms, nutrients, and vitality that it once had. I would certainly prefer to consume fresh fruits and vegetables that were grown in healthy, balanced soil. Wouldn’t you?

This has led to the rise of the sustainable food movement.

The Meaning of Sustainability

Local and sustainable have become two of the top buzzwords surrounding our food in the last few years. So what does “sustainable” mean exactly? The dictionary definition of sustainability simply means the ability to be supported or upheld, and this can be applied to any working system. The issue of sustainability is particularly important when it comes to the world’s food system. What does sustainability look like when it comes to the way we grow and produce food?

Sustainable agriculture is typically defined a way of growing or raising food, including animals, in an ecologically and ethically responsible manner using practices that:

  • protects the environment,
  • safeguards human health,
  • provides fair treatment to workers, and
  • is humane to farm animals.

Typically, your small, local food producers are most likely going to be the ones utilizing this type of practice.

What does “sustainable” mean, anyway? Click To Tweet

Sustainable Farming Practices

Though there is no single set of farming practices that constitute sustainable agriculture, there are many methods that can be used to enhance sustainability. Farming in general is an “extractive” process, meaning that as plants grow, they take nutrients from the soil and turn it into plant matter.

Sustainable practices manage the health of the soil by replenishing the nutrients that were lost during harvest.

Soil is an ecosystem of its own — alive with bacteria, worms, and fungi, that maintain the nutrient value. An acre of healthy soil can contain 4 tons of organisms, which make up the soil’s ecosystem. This includes 900 pounds of earthworms and 1,500 pounds of bacteria! If managed properly, these organisms perform vital functions that aid in plant growth. Good sustainable practice involves managing the soil’s chemical, biologic, and physical properties by replacing what was lost after harvest, often through the use of compost. [1]

Sustainable vs. Organic

If organic food is produced without the use of pesticides or fertilizers, does that mean that it qualifies as sustainable? And if sustainable food protects the environment and is guided by ethical standards, does that mean it qualifies as organic? These two concepts are actually not interchangeable. They are independent from one another and have different definitions.

  • Organic refers to a food crop that was grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals that were raised without hormones or antibiotics. If the food is Certified Organic, the farming methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • Sustainable (by most definitions) signifies that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

Based on the definitions, organic is not always sustainable, and sustainable is not always organic. [3] Regardless, both organic and sustainable foods reduces your risk of exposure to pesticides, and are environmentally friendly and healthier than the conventional counterpart. Either way you look at it, both organic and sustainable embody the idea of a healthier, friendlier world.

Check back soon for the final article in this series to find out more about what makes the nutritional quality of sustainable produce and animal products stand out compared to their conventional counterparts, and how to go about integrating these concepts into your own lifestyle.


  1. Grace Communications Foundation. Sustainable Table: Environment. Accessed December 9, 2015.
  2. Amundson R, Berhe AA, Hopmans JW, Olson C, Sztein AE, Sparks DL. Soil Science: Soil and human security in the 21st Century. Science. 2015; 348(6235).
  3. Nestle, Marion. Defining Organic: The Difference Between Organic and Local. The Atlantic. Web. Published January 10, 2012. Accessed December 9, 2015.
Katrina Trisko

Katrina Trisko graduated from Boston University in 2013 with a degree in Dietetics and is currently completing her dietetic internship program through Teachers College of Columbia University in NYC, where she has finished coursework for a Masters in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

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