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Food - sustainable food supplies

The potential for Sustainable Food Production

Key words

Local food sourcing - A method of food production and distribution that is local, rather than national and/or international. Food is grown (or raised) and harvested close to consumers' homes, then distributed over much shorter distances.

Organic produce -Food which is produced using environmentally and animal friendly farming methods on organic farms. Artificial fertilisers are banned and farmers develop fertile soil by rotating crops and using compost, manure and clover. It must be free of synthetic additives like pesticides and dyes.

Permaculture - A system of agricultural and social design principles based upon or directly using patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.

Sustainable food supply - Food that is produced in ways that avoid damaging natural resources, provide social benefits such as good quality food and safe and healthy products, and contribute to local economies.

Urban farming - The growing of fruits, herbs, and vegetables and raising animals in towns and cities, a process that is accompanied by many other activities such as processing and distributing food, collecting and reusing food waste.


The case of Almeria and many other modern farming methods show that although we can produce enough food for places to be food secure and keep people fed, many of our methods are unsustainable and have a negative impact on the environment.

Many people are now concerned about having sustainable food supplies and limiting their impact on the environment.  This links to the idea of sustainable development - development that meets the needs of the present without limiting the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This means that sustainable food supplies are those that are produced in ways that avoid damaging natural resources, provide social benefits such as good quality food and safe and healthy products, and contribute to local economies. Some of the ways we can do this are discussed below.


These ideas tie in with the idea of developing a permaculture.  The word permaculture refers to permanent agriculture, or agriculture that we can use for ever. Permaculture involves developing agricultural systems that co-operate with nature rather than working against it.  An agriculture that respects the plants and animals that are produced.  Examples of permaculture include using organic farming, farming in the urban environment, making fish and meat supplies sustainable, eating seasonally and reducing food wastes.

1. Organic farming

The UK’s organic farming sector is worth £1.95 billion (Soil Association, 2016). Perhaps organic agriculture is the way forward to reducing chemical and crude oil use and making our farming more sustainable.    Organic farming is a much more sustainable method of producing food because;

• It reduces the intensification of food production allowing the land to “rest”
• It encourages a more local approach
• Artificial fertilisers are largely banned
• Farmers develop fertile soil by rotating crops and using compost, manure and clover.
• Strict regulations, known as ‘standards’, define what organic farmers can and cannot do – and place a strong emphasis on the protection of wildlife and the environment. 
• It uses biological pest control rather than pesticides.  This is where natural predators are used to kill insects that damage crops, a ladybird can eat more than 5000 aphids in its lifetime for example.


2. Urban farming initiatives

Growing food in the UK is nothing new.  People have been farming in UK cities for hundreds of years and were encouraged to do so in WW2 when food was short.  Urban farming can be very productive, with some estimates saying it can be 15 times more effective than large scale farming.  Urban farming is small scale in its nature, with people being allocated small plots of land on which to produce food.  Food can also be produced on rooftops (known as green roofs, this can include bee keeping, on trees in parks, in people’s back gardens and allotments of land.  This type of farming is healthier for people, is local so cuts food miles, saves people money and encourages people to think about where their food comes from.

The northern UK town of Middlesbrough launched an urban farming scheme which encouraged many sectors of the community including school children to grow their own food. All of this in one of the UK’s most industrial cities. The US city of Seattle is establishing the Beacon Hill Food Forest which will be full of edible plants and fruit trees.

The photograph shows a 1.5-acre urban farm in Chicago. It is provided rent-free, to this non-profit initiative. It shows how it is possible to grow lots of food even in a small space.

Figure 37 - An urban Farm in Chicago, By Linda from Chicago, USA (New crops) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

3. Fish and meat from sustainable sources

Producing both fish and meat for human consumption can have big impacts on the environment and is viewed by many as unsustainable. The meat industry is unsustainable in many ways.  Feeding animals grain consumes a lot of resources, animals can be kept in very poor conditions in enclosed spaces, and keeping animals at such high numbers produces a lot of methane and CO2.  Grazing livestock outside in the UK can be a good way of keeping this sustainable as the land can only support so many animals and it also maintains things like moorland landscapes.  The more sustainable way forward is to use free range methods where the animals are more free to roam around fields within the farm.  We have developed labelling systems too where people know how their food has been produced.


Fishing can have a really big impact on our marine environment. The fish themselves, sensitive habitats, endangered species and the marine food chain need to be maintained to keep the oceans healthy and productive. To have sustainable fisheries means that fish populations should be able to recover their numbers in the long term allowing fishing activity to be at a level which ensures it can continue indefinitely. This can be done by;

a) Ensuring sustainable fish stocks by using data in the form of catch records and stock surveys. This data collection and research must be ongoing to ensure that the fishery can respond to declines in fish populations by reducing the level of fishing.
b) Minimising environmental impacts of fishing – for example, drag net fishing or trawling for shell fish destroys the entire sea bed ecosystem, encouraging diving is much more sustainable.  Dolphin friendly nets have been encouraged in tuna fishing too.
c) Stopping Illegal fishing – This is where people fish in areas they are not supposed to and ignore limits or quotas put on fish catches.  The illegal fishing industry is estimated to be worth US$10-23.5 billion annually, this illegal fishing threatens the sustainability of fish stocks, the health of marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of those who fish legitimately.
d) Managing fishing practices – here local authorities can work with the fishing industry to encourage ways of fishing that ensure long term stocks.


4. Seasonal food consumption

There is a growing movement in the UK for people to eat seasonal vegetables and fruit wherever possible, in order to reduce the food miles.  Seasonal food involves producing food locally without the need for expensive heated greenhouses or imports of food from thousands of miles away. This would mean not eating strawberries at Christmas time that have been produced in Morocco for example.

Local food sourcing is also becoming more and more popular.  The red tractor logo appears on lots of food stuffs now to show that the food is produced in the United Kingdom.  Red Tractor Assurance exists to maintain, develop and promote standards throughout the whole food industry.

5. Reduced waste and losses

In many HICs a huge amount of food is wasted.   If you look at the graph opposite the food waste part of the graph relating to consumption shows a huge contrast between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.  In Europe most of waste is related to consumption, where people have bought their food and either allow it to go to waste in storage or throw out food.  This is an issue with education and management of food by consumers.  This section is larger than production, handling and storage, processing and distribution and market combined! In the LICs as found in Sub-Saharan Africa, most of the food loss is through production and handling/storage, representing an issue for the way food is grown and then handled. 

According to in the UK;

• We throw away 7 million tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year in the UK, and more than half of this is food and drink we could have eaten.
• Wasting this food costs the average household £470 a year, rising to £700 for a family with children, the equivalent of around £60 a month.
• If we all stop wasting food that could have been eaten, the benefit to the planet would be the equivalent of taking 1 in 4 cars off the road.

42.4 kg of avoidable food waste found in New Zealand household rubbish bins in 2014 By Love Food Hate Waste NZ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This food waste is also a problem because it contributes to the filling up of our landfill sites where we store our waste.
We can reduce the amount of food waste and loss in many ways;

1. Plan your weekly shop – by planning what you will cook throughout the week before you go shopping reduces impulse buys and unnecessary purchases which leads to less waste
2. Reduce portion sizes – this means that people don’t overeat and also that there is no waste left on the plate that will go directly into the bin.  Taking smaller portions several times can also reduce this waste.
3. Buy “ugly” fruit and vegetables – these are fruit and vegetables that do not pass supermarket “norms” for appearance, a knobbly carrot for example, but are perfectly edible.  This stops this food getting landfilled
4. Store food correctly – using your fridge and cupboard space correctly to prevent food going off.  For example, most fruit and vegetables are actually preserved better outside of the fridge
5. Keep the fridge clutter free - use the "first in, first out" principle: After you buy new food, move the older products to the front so you consume them first.
6. Treat expiration and sell-by dates as guidelines - many foods are perfectly edible after the sell by date, use your senses of sight and smell to judge if a food can be eaten or not.
7. Use leftovers the next meal or day rather than throwing them away
8. Compost waste so you can reuse the compost in your garden – this reduces waste going to landfill.

Food loss can also be reduced.  In my LICs issues relating to the farming are largely technical and can be resolved.  Many problems arise after the food has been harvested, including loss of food due to poor pest control, lack of adequate storage facilities, poor access to refrigeration and “cold chain” storage and poor marketing.  These all result in food loss in areas that are often food insecure.  If we invested in these areas more food would reach consumers and GDP for these countries would rise.

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