Student perspectives on sustainable food production and diet choice

By Jennifer J. Perry, Rebecca Champagne, Delaney Greiner, Adwoa Dankwa, Angela Czup and Adoum Fadaya Arabi

School of Food and Agriculture, University of Maine, Orono ME



Globally, agriculture accounts for approximately 30% of greenhouse gas emissions (Vermeulen et al. 2012). Beyond our decisions to drive a hybrid car, turn down the thermostat or recycle, we make multiple choices about sustainability every time we sit down to a meal. In the context of food production and consumption, the concept of sustainability encompasses aspects of the ecological implications of production, processing and transport; nutrient density and contribution to a healthy diet; accessibility and affordability; yield and ability to meet global demand. In Organic and Natural Foods (FSN 555), a University of Maine food science course, graduate students studying different facets of food and agriculture (sustainable agriculture, nutrition, food science) learn about and discuss consumer trends in the food industry’s “natural channel.” Students are encouraged to form and defend individual, research-based opinions about movements such as “local” and “non-GMO” food and to discuss the merits of their positions within the context of the larger food system as well as how their research into these topics has affected their personal consumption behaviors. What follows is a synthesis of abbreviated writings focused on food-related topics. Each topic is addressed by multiple students, combining summaries of peer-reviewed literature and personal commentary with direct quotes from their classmates about the role that our food choices play in minimizing our environmental impact.

Topic: Meat consumption

It is widely recognized that meat and dairy products represent the most resource intensive production chains of any food (Godfray et al. 2018). Reducing demand for, and consumption of, animal products is one of the most widely cited strategies for increasing dietary sustainability and has been called for by non-governmental task forces focusing on human and ecological health (Macdiarmid et al. 2011). Students (none of whom identify as vegetarians or vegans) discussed this issue particularly with reference to the “plant protein” trend that has recently exploded in packaged goods and restaurant dining.  

Americans, on average, consume a much larger quantity of red meat per capita than people in any other part of the world (Pan et al. 2012). Whether this is a consequence of culture or convenience, there has been an increase in consumption during the past several decades (Daniel et al. 2011). Despite the scientific knowledge and research illustrating the dangers of red meat consumption with regard to human health (Pan et al. 2012) and the environment (Godfray et al. 2018), consumers seem unwilling to change dietary intake. Meat consumption has been rising swiftly all over the world primarily due to rapid population growth and an increase in wealth. Meat consumption is projected to double over the next 30 years, increasing particularly in low income countries as wealth throughout the world redistributes (Godfray et al. 2018).

In the history of the modern American diet, repeated attempts have been made by corporations and government policy to popularize alternative diets (Wheless 2004, 31-50). Low fat diets were commonly adopted in the 1940s for weight reduction, and became more popular in the 1950s when medical and government agencies began promoting this approach for heart health, causing this incredible stigma that fat (true to its name) made one fat (La Berge 2008). The use of “Fat-Free” as a marketing tool peaked in the 1980s while the obesity epidemic exploded (Mitchell et al. 2011). Fast forward to the 1990’s, and we find the exact opposite became true (Wheless 2004, 31-50). Carbohydrate consciousness, perhaps earliest and most notably espoused by Dr. Robert Atkins entered the public consciousness and “Sugar Free” was the new buzz term (La Berge 2008; Wheless 2004, 31-50). Another diet that has become widely adopted in recent years is the flexitarian diet. The term “flexitarian” was coined in 2009 and is commonly adopted as a way to reap the health benefits of a vegetarian diet while still eating meat when the cravings hit (US News & World Report, n.d.).

“Veganism does address animal agriculture issues, but … it does not address migrant worker rights and mistreatment.” – Student perspective

Modifying a diet or changing a person’s established schedule and routine is extremely difficult, especially in the minds of fully developed adults (Vilaro et al. 2018). Taking away hamburger and replacing it with a chicken or turkey patty, for example, has some positive effects on health, but the environmental impact is still relatively high (Pan et al. 2012). Food also has “guilty pleasure” qualities associated with it; eating is a social pastime and a way to de-stress for many individuals (Meule and Vögele 2013). If someone wasn’t already predisposed to chicken or turkey, and preferred it to red meat, the desire to consume red meat still exists, driving the development of “meat analogues” meant to look and taste like the real thing. This desire to simply substitute, without making any grandiose or lasting changes, paves the way to creating food items best suited to meet that need.

Activity in the “plant protein” arena has exploded in recent years, arguably culminating in the national release of what many believe to be the most convincing beef substitute to date. The “Impossible Burger” was created by Dr. Patrick Brown, in his own company known as Impossible Foods (Fellet 2015). Its production began in 1990, and only recently came to a point of public acceptance, after several consumer trials and safety evaluations. Dr. Brown has stated that the meat industry is extremely damaging to the planet and that people should absolutely eat less meat (Fellet 2015; Roos et al. 2013).

“From personal experience, if an Impossible burger and a conventional beef burger were placed in front of me, I would not be able to tell the difference.” – Student perspective

Often, the goal is simply to reduce, not to eliminate, the consumption of unhealthy food or a problematic behavior, but the extent of the reduction is frequently the point of contention. Some may consider replacing their daily hamburgers and hot dogs with chicken one day each week a reasonable solution for reducing red meat consumption, yet this does not have a strong impact on health or environmental sustainability (Meule and Vögele 2013; Pan et al. 2012; Roos et al. 2013; Vilaro et al. 2018).

“The benefit of living in the US is that we have access to a vast variety of foods. Food choice is a privilege, and those that have the luxury to choose should be mindful.” – Student perspective

For health and environmental reasons, red meat should be consumed far less than the current rate of per capita consumption in the U.S. The flexitarian diet has the potential to reduce the environmental impact of the standard diet by reducing the proportion of calories coming from animal products. Although this diet was originally created to capitalize on the health benefits of the vegetarian diet, it has been recently marketed towards increasing the sustainability of the planet by reducing meat consumption. Whether that means a couple meals a week without meat or reducing meat consumption to once a week, the goal of the flexitarian movement is to encourage more of the population to cut down on meat and to raise awareness about the importance of adopting a less resource-intensive diet to increase environmental sustainability (Wolfson 2019).


Topic: USDA Organic food labeling and sustainability

USDA Organic refers to a set of standards governing the production of agricultural products including, but not limited to, fresh produce, meat, dairy and packaged foods. Despite growing demand for organic foods, requirements related to organic certification are not well understood by consumers (Aarset et al. 2004). While organic agriculture is generally recognized to result in fewer negative ecological impacts, when compared with large scale conventional farming, strict adherence to the National Organic Plan does not guarantee this result. Students discussed the potential impacts of growth in the organic sector on the validity of values commonly associated with the word “organic.”

Consumer demand for organic products has skyrocketed in recent decades and continues to grow every year. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, consumer demand increased from just over $10 billion in 2005 to almost $35 billion in 2014 (USDA ERS 2019b). To many consumers, the organic seal means no pesticides, no artificial chemicals, eco-friendliness and highly nutritious (Bourn & Prescott, 2002). The motivations for choosing organic products vary from country to country. For example, in Germany, people choose organic based on health and ecological issues (Beharrell and MacFie 1991, Woodward and Meier-Ploeger 1999). In the Netherlands, “occasional organic buyers” patronize mainly for health reasons while “heavy organic buyers” do so for environmental reasons (Wandel and Bugge 1997). The word organic has been misconstrued to mean several things to consumers, such as small-scale, locally produced, and pesticide free.

“I think people need to understand that organic food production is not always small-scale.” – Student perspective

However, today’s organic food industry is a complex array of small- and large-scale food producers, local and global distribution networks, and a wide variety of products, including fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, and processed foods. Those who shop at local farmers’ markets know where their organic produce is coming from; consumers who purchase organic certified products in larger grocery stores or chain stores must carefully read labels to see where the food is produced. Additionally, with the surge in consumer demand this past decade, organic farms have not remained the idyllic small-scale backyard farm that many consumers imagine. For example, organic producers Earthbound Farm in California started as a two-and-a-half-acre farm in the mid 1980’s; today, they occupy about 30,000 acres and are one of the largest organic produce growers in the United States (Whitney, 2007). The explosion of consumer demand drives the scaling-up of operations like Earthbound, which results in greater consumption of inputs, such as water and fertilizer, to keep yields high and consumers happy.

“When you think about organic foods, you automatically believe you are benefitting the environment positively. It’s important to look more into the processing and sustainability of these organic ingredients as well.” –Student perspective

By definition, organic production is defined as an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on the minimal use of off-farm inputs and management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony. In organic production foods are grown without synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, modern genetic engineering techniques (including genetically modified crops), chemical fertilizers, or sewage sludge (USDA AMS 2018; Winter & Davis 2006). In order to be certified organic, farms must utilize some sort of crop rotation (USDA AMS 2018). The goal of this practice is to help promote the biodiversity of crops grown on the farm, mimicking a more natural ecosystem and moving away from the large monocultures often seen in conventional systems. Having a variety of crops can also promote diversity of beneficial insects, break pest cycles, and provide greater income for the farm. A meta-analysis of the scientific literature found that 327 of 396 publications pointed to higher biodiversity on organic farms over conventional farms (Rahmann 2011). And because organic farms do not use conventional herbicides, off-target effects on wildlife and local fauna could be little to none, helping increase species abundance and richness (Hole et al. 2005).

Organic certification also cannot be obtained unless a farm uses only non-synthetic fertilizers. This may include products such as animal manure or organically approved fertilizers like compost, fish meal, and seaweed extracts. Synthetic fertilizer uses in the United States, especially nitrogen fertilizers, have increased at an order of about 150% over the past few decades (Smith et al. 1998; USDA ERS 2019a) as conventional agriculture continues to grow larger and become more resource intensive. For example, use of a commonly used nitrogen fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia, increased from just under 1 million tons in the early 1960s to 3.8 million tons in 2015 (USDA ERS 2019a). Similarly, urea [nitrogen] fertilizer use grew from under 500,000 tons to 7.03 million tons during the same time period (USDA ERS 2019a). Research has found lower disease occurrence in soils amended with organic, as opposed to synthetic, fertilizer sources because of fertilizer source interactions with soil properties and soil health (Liu et al. 2007). Additionally, research has shown that use of synthetic fertilizers increases harmful insect populations. Yardim and Edwards (2003) found that pests such as aphids and invertebrate herbivores had higher populations where synthetic fertilizers were applied, likely because crops had decreased resistance to pest attacks via increased plant nutritional quality, and a reduction of metabolite concentrations that would allow the plant to better resist pest feeding.

Compared to conventional agriculture, there are some factors that make organic farming systems better for the environment. These systems do not use synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified seeds and have much greater biodiversity. However, organic food production may not be as environmentally friendly as some may believe. It is heavily reliant on soil tillage, has lower yields than conventional farming practices (Seufert et al. 2012), and may use organic pesticides (USDA AMS 2018). Additionally, not everyone has equal access to organic products or the means to purchase these more expensive goods. What is encouraging is the amount of research in organic systems being conducted around the United States, and the increased funding for agricultural research over the past few years. Organic farmers realize the need to make these systems more sustainable so that production can increase, and demand can be met.


Topic: Crop yields and access

The term “sustainability” is most often associated with minimizing ecological impacts. However, holistic discussion of dietary sustainability must integrate other concerns, including sufficient yield for the population and equity of access to a healthy diet. Students discussed the apparent conflict among these attributes of “sustainability” in the food system and how to strike a reasonable balance in their own lives.  

From a historical point of view, the Green Revolution of the mid-twentieth century, which comprised the widespread adoption of improved crop varieties in conjunction with use of synthetic fertilizers and greater mechanization, has increased agricultural production on a global level, resulting in higher outputs and lower prices for consumers (Evenson and Gollin 2003). But unfortunately it has done so at the cost of the degradation of the environment and natural resources, most notably contributing to decreases in soil fertility and runoff of excess agro-chemicals (Pingali 2012). Even after all these efforts, the FAO estimated that about 805 million people, or one out of nine, around the world were undernourished in 2014 (UN 2019).

Many opponents of conventional farming argue that organic agriculture should be the future of farming in the United States so that we can move away from genetically modified seed use and heavy herbicide reliance. But the reality is that organic farms tend to have lower yields—meta-analyses of comparisons between organic and conventional farms point to 5-34% lower yields in organic systems (Seufert et al., 2012). Organic farming would require more land to produce the same amount of food now supplied by conventional farms (Seufert et al., 2012). This tradeoff may result in more deforestation and clearing of land for farming. In extreme cases, the lower yield of organic farming could result in food shortages and an increase in the number of food-insecure people.

Another concern is that organic food can be very expensive. Access to organic food is not equitable, especially in low-income, urban areas where grocery stores tend to be small and do not stock a wide variety of products. Consumer demographic analyses currently show that a majority of organic food shoppers are white, have a higher level of education, and are in a higher income bracket (Dettmann and Dimitri 2010). Changing this demographic to be more inclusive could require better food education and food distribution to help lower income and minority groups have more purchasing power. Many Americans lack food education and would need assistance to learn how to properly prepare and cook some types of food.

“As someone who does research in organic farming systems, and who is also a college student with limited funds, I tend to fall in the middle of this argument. I love supporting Maine’s farmers and shop at the local market whenever possible. I believe organic farmers truly care about their production practices and want to meet the rising consumer demand in the best ways possible. However, I do not always have the means to have a 100% organic diet, and I know many, many others do not either.” – Student perspective

In the current circumstance of a changing climate, a more integrative approach to farming is needed, one that combines the productivity of conventional methods and the sustainability of organic methods. The goal is to produce enough food for the growing world population, while ensuring that our food production has minimal impacts on the already fragile ecosystem.

“What we spend our money on reflects our values, and if we are actually concerned with our current environmental crisis, we are responsible for making more informed decisions and lifestyle changes, despite any inconvenience.” – Student perspective

          The factors that contribute to dietary choices are complex and capricious. We very often talk, in both academic and informal settings, about the impact that these choices have on personal health. It is much less common for us to engage in conversation about the ecological ramifications of our eating behavior, despite the potentially huge impact of sustainable diets on the health of the planet. The students whose perspectives are presented in this piece spent a semester reconciling their own food consumption patterns and beliefs with objective science while considering how the values and opinions of their classmates might lead them to make different, but justifiable decisions. Their thoughts and combined writings demonstrate the sense of accountability that comes from exploring these topics in a cooperative setting.



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