Healthy Farms, Healthy Foods

Courtesy Mary Vogt


By Elana Richman

Overflowing baskets of corn at farmer’s markets, weekly shares of organic produce for members of local community supported agriculture, and sun-warmed tomatoes eaten straight from the garden vine; delights of summer that make Sierra Club members feel good about the food they eat. 

But despite the bounty of locally and organically grown food available during Pennsylvania’s growing season—and the most earnest efforts to preserve food for the winter months—it’s hard to eat sustainably year round.

So what exactly constitutes sustainable food? According to the Sierra Club, sustainable foods are produced in ways that are environmentally sound, socially just, humanely raised, healthy, and economically viable. Following these guidelines, even a seemingly simple meal can raise questions. For example, in a rice and bean burrito, were the beans purchased in a can that was shipped thousands of miles to market? If so, raw materials and fossil fuels went into manufacturing the can, processing the food, and shipping it to market. Was the cheese produced from the milk of factory-farmed cows given medically-unnecessary antibiotics? In that case, our waterways were inevitably polluted. Was the corn grown locally, but with pesticides? Then toxins that can seriously harm the ecosystem and threaten our health were released into the air, soil, and water. Were extra miles put on your car in order to purchase local food from different vendors? Then you’re as compromised as the rest of us who are doing our best to live and eat sustainably.

The big question is does going the extra mile to eat locally and organically really make our consumption of food more sustainable? Likely. According to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, most food travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate, which makes driving to your local farmers market a better bet. As for organic, it may not only be better for the environment, but it’s also better for our health. According to a recent article in Time magazine, several studies indicate that produce grown organically contain more nutrients than produce grown conventionaly. This is just the sort of press that has those of us weighing food miles against personal health concerns vacillating between organic produce shipped from the opposite coast; food grown sustainably, but encased in layers of plastic; food grown locally, but with pesticides; and more affordable products of unknown origin.

Happily, the market is now responding to the demand for environmentally sound foods, which means there are increasing numbers of options for eating sustainably. Each year more farmers markets showcase the wares of local growers, and organic products are now available in many mainstream grocery stores. But not everyone has the luxury of making these choices, in large part because the cost of sustainably raised food is out of reach for many Americans, especially now that food prices are on the rise. Because of this, the Sierra Club and our Chapter’s sustainable agriculture committee are advocating for increased access to sustainable products for all.

To help us reduce our impact on the planet, our Chapter’s Healthy Farms, Healthy Foods campaign isaddressing two primary areas related to factory farming. The first is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs); the second is the overuse of antibiotics in meat production. Most meat is now produced in CAFOs, where animal waste is over-applied to land or stored in waste lagoons, which can leak or overflow, polluting groundwater, rivers and drinking water.  According to the EPA, hog, chicken, and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and has contaminated groundwater in 17 states. 

And because of the close and unsanitary conditions of the animals in CAFOs, antibiotic use is rampant. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of antibiotics and related drugs are used feed for factory-farmed animals, in some cases simply to promote animal growth. In Pennsylvania, Sierra Club has been calling for a ban on non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in animal feed for years, and a recently introduced bill in the state legislature could address this issue if passed.

Until animals for meat are raised in environmentally sound ways, the best bet for your health and for the health of our planet is to eat less animal products and more food that is locally and organically grown.

Learn More

The Sierra Club's campaign to protect America's water from factory farms—one of the organization's four national priority campaigns—is committed to keeping factory farm pollution out of America's drinking water, lakes and rivers, and eliminating the threats that CAFOs pose to our public health and rural heritage.

To learn more about Sierra Club’s mission to promote sustainably-produced foods. For help locating sustainably-produced food in your area, see A buyers guide to eco-friendly foods.

Elana Richman served as an intern for the Chapter and now works for the Pennyslvania Land Trust Association.

Published August 2008