ORGANIC vs sustainable

If we want to approach food provision sustainably, then we need to be aware that sustainable and organic do not mean the same thing. I came across a fantastic article at The Balance: Small Business[i] website that describes the difference between the two terms well. No point doing something someone else has already done phenomenally well for us!  So, here it is:

Sustainable is not a certified label, most people consider sustainability a philosophy that describes planet protective actions that can be continued indefinitely, without causing damage to the environment. However, sustainability is observable and measurable via economic profit, social benefits for the community and environmental conservation.”

Sustainable is Small

Less is almost always more sustainable than more, no matter if you’re dealing with the stuff you own, the size of your home, or yes, even the size of the land you farm on.

A sustainable farmer may own less land and grow diverse crops to help enhance the soil and conserve land resources. A sustainable farmer might also experiment with vertical planting or allow animals to graze on cropland to save space.

Sustainable is Water Efficient

The organic policy doesn’t require that farmers or processors attempt to conserve water resources. Sustainable farming and processing methods do try to conserve water.

Sustainable farming methods may include using reclaimed water for some crops, planting drought-tolerant crop species or using reduced-volume irrigation systems. Organic policy says that reclaimed water can be used to water crops.

Sustainable is Energy Efficient

Most modern farms (even organic farms) and food processing plants are heavily dependent on non-renewable energy sources, such as petroleum.

Sustainable food farmers and processors know that the continued use of non-renewable energy can’t go on forever, and thus attempt to conserve energy now, not later.

A sustainable food system may rely partially on alternative energy sources such as wind, solar or water-based power.

Sustainable is Low Emission

If your goal is to help lower emissions, then local sustainable food, not organic food, is your best bet. Organic certification does not cover issues such as fossil fuel used for food production or food transport. Many organic food growers and companies ship organic food products thousands of miles from farm to warehouse to store and elsewhere.

Ideally, locally-grown organic food is optimal for health and low emissions. However, in terms of fossil fuel use only, organics can’t usually compete with locally grown sustainable food, unless an alternative fuel is used for transport trucks.

Sustainable is More Humane

Organic certification policy includes extremely limited rules about animal access to pasture. Organic livestock can spend a lot of time in confinement with little thought given to their overall well-being.

In a more sustainable livestock system, a farmer considers the well-being of livestock and will provide ample outdoor space so that animals can root, peck and graze naturally. A sustainable farm provides a more comfortable indoor space as well.

Human treatment of animals is something any farmer can or cannot choose to implement, but organic certification certainly won’t ensure decent animal treatment.

Sustainable is Eco-Friendly Packaging

Sustainable food means considering the final packaging. For example, you can grow perfectly organic strawberries, then place them in tiny plastic bins, then cover them with plastic shrink wrap, then wrap everything in a bigger box. That’s a ton of packaging and not so eco-friendly.

Another example is using glass over plastic. Plastic containers, made with non-renewable petroleum, are less eco-friendly than fully recyclable glass containers.

Sustainable packaging uses the least amount of resources necessary. Ideally, sustainable packaging should be 100% recyclable and printed with eco-friendly inks as well. Not all certified organic food is packaged in such a sustainable manner.

Sustainable Extends Beyond the Food

Organic certification is nice, but it doesn’t mandate that a farmer or company act sustainably and ethically. For example, farming decisions based on sustainability should extend to other issues, such as a paperless office, incentives for using less gas-based transportation, protecting community beyond the farm, and fair working conditions for workers.

True sustainability extends beyond basic farming goals into management and individual goals and lifestyle choices. Organic policy doesn’t cover much in terms of full company or full farm sustainability, but a truly sustainable business attempts to be eco-friendly in many ways, not simply with how food is grown.

This same website is also very useful in helping consumers avoid being scammed by companies selling what they call organic food when it isn’t, in order to bulk up prices; what a minefield!

Buying fish and shellfish

If buying fish, look for the MSC logo. If we carry on fishing the way we are, even with lines rather than nets, we will simply have no fish left and millions will starve. Those who are in a position to make further choices should either not eat fish, reduce the amount of fish they eat or choose certified sustainable fish. Do be aware that almost 100% of shellfish contains plastic, and farmed salmon is arguably the most toxic protein on the planet.

I don’t eat fish at all anymore myself, but we do currently have it once a week in Tops nurseries – until I can persuade colleagues and parents not to!  The Marine Conservation Society also has a lot of information on what fish is sustainable and what isn’t.

Whole foods

If you are buying whole foods, you won’t have a problem with palm oil, but be aware that around 50% of products in the supermarket have palm oil in them, which is neither healthy nor sustainable. Often, the palm oil is hidden in products you may not expect, such as non-dairy spread, vegan cheese, bread, pizza, crisps and ice cream.

[i] Chait, J. (2018). The Difference Between Organic and Sustainable Food [online]. The Balance: Small Businesses. Available from: