Sustainable food systems support nutrition and the environment, Mason professor says

In This Story

People Mentioned in This Story
headshot of woman

Kerri LaCharite is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies of George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services. She writes and teaches about sustainable food systems, urban agriculture and the effects of agriculture-based learning on eating behaviors. She recently answered questions about food consumption, sustainable agriculture and the environment.

What are the environmental concerns related to food consumption?

There are many environmental impacts from the way we choose to feed ourselves. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with U.S. food supply chains are predominantly from food production, with much smaller contributions from food transportation and retail.

Other impacts include threats to biodiversity, decreased bee and bird populations due to pesticides, freshwater salination, overexploitation of fish stocks, deforestation, emergence of pesticide-resistant weeds, depletion of phosphorous, and groundwater contamination.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed, despair, or even apathy with so many environmental crises. But we can all take simple actions to make changes and help the environment.

What is meant by the term “sustainable food system?”

A sustainable food system is one that addresses the needs and limitations of humans and the Earth. It implies long-term permanence capable of maintaining productivity indefinitely. While this definition can be a bit ambiguous, it is purposeful.

A sustainable food system must be specific to place. What is grown and eaten in the mountains of Vermont would and should be different than the Balinese rice paddies, or the semi-arid climate of Arizona. Growing practices would also be different in these different areas.

What is urban agriculture and how does it fit into sustainability?

Urban agriculture is growing food in urban areas. This can be in yards, collective community gardens, rooftop farms, and vertical farming, either indoors with soilless farming techniques like hydroponics and UV lighting or growing vertically up buildings.

Sustainable food systems are all about expanding local food systems and overlapping with national and global food systems to increase resilience.

Q: How does nutrition fit into concepts of sustainability?

What is healthy for the environment is healthy for humans. Changing food consumption behaviors to reduce the consumption of meat and animal products can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and some of the risks of the typical American diet, like Type 2 diabetes.

How can people contribute to sustainability on an individual basis and as a collective?

The biggest action that all of us can do to decrease global greenhouse gases is eat less meat and animal products. Sustainable healthy diets include vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, Mediterranean diet, New Nordic diet, meat reduction, and following USDA dietary guidelines. Even eating meatless one day a week can offer environmental benefits. Collectively making small steps can make a big impact on the environment and our health.

What is food policy and why does it matter?

We need food to be available, accessible, affordable, sustainable, and nutritious. This is a tall order. As a global society, we should not make healthy food and sustainability a luxury. Food policy at the national level, such as laws affecting agriculture, and at the local level, such zoning for urban agriculture and community gardens, can incentivize and mandate sustainable food systems.

What if the U.S. invested as much money in research and development for sustainable agriculture as it does in conventional industrial agriculture? The cost of sustainable and organic food might go down. What if we required a certain percentage of food in our schools, jails, universities and other government institutions be procured regionally, and sustainably?  Policy enables collective action for all and tries to serve our values as best it can. It can make lasting impact.

Reach Kerri LaCharite at

For more information, reach Anna Stolley Persky at

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. In 2022, Mason celebrates 50 years as an independent institution. Learn more at