Sustainable Food Terms You Should Know

Written by SDT Editors

“If our field is “to advance”, we must – without displacing creativity and aesthetics – make sure our terminology is clear.” – Jef Raskin

We’ve all heard terms like organic, grass-fed, and sustainable–but what does these terms really mean? Many have concrete definitions that are used to evaluate and certify various processes and foods, while some are more general ideas about best practices. We’ve compiled a list of the 12 essential terms you should know as a responsible consumer.

CAFO: Confined Animal Feeding Operation
CAFO is an acronym meaning Confined Animal Feeding Operation. The term designates the practice of confining and feeding livestock, in contrast to free-range practices. CAFOs are designated and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and require special permits. They tend to have significantly negative environmental impacts on water quality, in particular.

CSA: Community Supported Agriculture
CSA is an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture–an increasingly prevalent business model where consumers buy agricultural products directly from local farms. Commonly known as a “farm share,” members purchase shares from the farm upfront and receive a portion of the produce over the course of the season.

Food Alliance Certified
Food products may be certified by the Food Alliance according to criteria primarily addressing environmental impact, ethical practices, and avoidance of artificial hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides.

Free Range
Free range is a loose term generally meaning that animals (typically poultry) are not raised in confined spaces. The USDA has defined “free range” only as it applies to poultry and with the meaning that the birds in question have five minutes of open-air access daily.

Genetic Engineering
Genetic engineering is the process of modifying the DNA of plants and animals to engender desirable traits–such as increased growth rate and size and drought resistance, among other things.

GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism
Abbreviation for Genetically Modified Organism. Plants and animals that have been genetically engineered are often referred to as GMOs. Many sustainable farmers advertise that their products are GMO-free or Contain No-GMOs. This is due to widespread controversy over genetic engineering.

Animals that are allowed to graze and consume their natural diet of grasses are termed grass-fed. Grass-fed animals are not fed grain, animal by-products, or treated with artificial hormones.

Hormones stimulate growth and metabolism in animals. Recently, synthetic hormones have been developed to increase agricultural productivity. This has been a matter of controversy among consumer protection and sustainable agriculture advocates who have pointed out significant risks with artificial hormones–perhaps most notably rBGH or recombinant bovine growth hormone, which stimulates production of milk in dairy cows but also increases incidence of udder infection and birth defects.

Monoculture is the practice of cultivating a single crop. Monoculture became popular with the rise of large-scale industrial farms, but has been demonstrated to deplete soil quality as well as increase risks from pests and disease.

Meat and poultry products labeled “natural” cannot contain artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, or ingredients. However, that does not include hormones or antibiotics, nor does it indicate that the product was raised sustainably, humanely, or organically.

USDA Organic Certified
Organic foods must meet USDA’s stringent organic standards and be third-party certified. Organic foods cannot be treated with synthetic fertilizers, hormones, or antiobitics, genetically modified, or raised on non-organic feed. Outdoor access to pastures is another requirement.

Sustainable products, practices, and agriculture are those that preserve the resources used for future generations. Sustainable agriculture is generally focused on avoiding detrimental ecological effects and ensuring the welfare of workers and communities–thereby securing the future of food production and consumption.

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