Recently, our minister preached on perfection. Basically, his message was perfection is a noble goal, rarely achieved. I view the pursuit of sustainability much the same way. Worthy of pursuit. Seldom understood. Rarely achieved.

A number of companies in the food sales business have been moving toward sustainable

Photo from Green Biz article

Photo from Green Biz article

food. In his article  Inside McDonald’s Quest for Sustainable BeefJoel Makower reported that McDonald’s will begin purchasing verified sustainable beef in 2016. He noted that the “story is remarkable not just because of its scope and scale, but also as a case study on what it takes to nudge a large and entrenched industry toward sustainability in today’s global marketplace.” McDonald’s is of the biggest meat buyers in the world, and other companies are already beginning to follow.

It may be less surprising that Whole Foods is also working towards more sustainable product lines. Last year, they began labeling the sustainability of fish being sold. They label both organic and locally sourced foods, and use the

Photo from Civil Eats article

Photo from Civil Eats article

name of the farms supplying local products. Most recently, the company began working with the Global Animal Partnership to develop a five-step animal rating standard for the meats that they sell.  According to a Civil Eats post, by September 2014, Whole Foods will unveil its three-step system for produce and flowers and rank items as “good,” “better,” and “best,” depending on the methods of production. Whole Foods has developed an index which examines 10 different aspects of production including, worker treatment, human treatment of animals, food safety and ecosystem protection.

What makes the quest to label sustainable foods such a challenge is that the criteria for the sustainability of specific foods is not defined. In the 1990 Farm Bill, Congress defined the term sustainable agriculture as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs;
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
  • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

However, without sustainability criteria for specific food products, farms and companies use

Photo by Abbie Fentress, Harvest Media

Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson,
Harvest Public Media

their own definitions, as discussed in a recent article, Retailers Look to Sell Sustainability of Food.  Without a legal criteria, McDonald’s has pledged to  achieve its “aspirational goal” of buying 100 percent of its beef from “verified sustainable sources.” It is not an empty pledge. McDonald’s is already sourcing its palm oil, fish, and coffee beans from certified sources that achieve verifiable environmental criteria. It is just that all the “verifiable environmental criteria” vary so much and few consumers have time to track all this information down.

A major challenge for the local food movement, though, is that the alphabet soup of sustainability terms (without widely accepted definitions) may cause consumers to distrust the local food movement as gimmickry and lose enthusiasm for it.  Others will rely on a close relationship with farmers, with whom they can ask questions about the raising of food, rather than support indirect sales which are vital to the success of so many farmers.

A friend of mine is always paraphrasing a proverb, saying: don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. The sooner that we can develop good definitions of sustainable terms, the better.