From the carbon footprint of local food through efforts to make industrial monoculture more efficient to grassroots urban and backyard farming, there many different approaches to and philosophies about more sustainable food production. And that doesn't even take into account efforts to green the food distribution network or cut back on food waste.
But how can consumers tell what efforts are really worth rewarding, and how do we weigh up the relative values of localized production versus lower energy use on the farm versus biodiversity protection or workers' rights?
Thumbing through a recent issue of Scientific American I came across a fascinating 5-point-plan to feed the world by Jonathan Foley (behind a subscription wall unfortunately). From encouraging a shift away from meat and dairy (and grain-fed animal agriculture in particular), through maximizing efficiency of resource use, to gettig serious about tackling food waste, many of Foley's proposals will hardly be new. (Although his call to stop expanding the amount of land given over to farming will raise some eyebrows among the bigger-is-better crowd.)
But where Foley's article gets really interesting, I think, is his assertion that we need a LEED-type certification system for food and farming. While there have been vocal criticisms of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard in architecture and green building, it has at least been an attempt to connect the dots. From energy use to toxic materials to transportation options, the idea was to create a comprehensive rating system that incorporates different elements of the sustainability puzzle.
A LEED-system for food then, would attempt to reward producers, distributors and retailers for their various efforts to reduce their impact. From cutting down on fossil fuel use to promoting biodiversity, I could see great potential for a system that incentivizes best practice and provides a workable road map for improvement. But it would be a monumental task to develop, and would be wrought with potential pitfalls.
How would we ensure that small farmers and independent businesses are able to participate? (Or would the small, independent food industry simply keep on trucking outside of the larger corporate machine?) How would we weight the relative merits of one improvement over another? How would the certification be communicated to those making decisions? It's a fascinating conundrum, and one worth exploring, but right now it raises more questions than it does answers.
What do we think? Does a LEED-system for food have potential, or is it just pie-in-the-sky?