Dining and Drinking
10 Terms Every Sustainable Food-Lover Should Know
A green foodie glossary.
Chefs and food lovers have long been some of America's loudest health and environmental advocates. But over the last ten years, farm-to-table dining has spread from the elite tables of Northern California to the counters of national burrito chains. Today, even casual diners are expected to understand their lunch's impact on their health and the health of the planet. That's why we've created a series called conscious cuisine found here and distributed through the Conde Nast Media Network in Bon Appetit and WIRED. This series explores the complex relationship our meals have with the ecosystem at large. Be warned, you may never look at an apple the same way again.
Do you know the difference between heritage turkeys and free-range ones? Between "wild crafted" and "vine-ripened"? "Biodynamic" and "biodiversity"?
When it comes to the sustainable food movement—which aims to keep the planet healthy enough to keep feeding its residents—knowing what "organic" means just doesn't cut it anymore. If you want to understand the latest debates about the relationship between food, health, and the environment, these are the ten terms you need to know now.
1. Biodynamic farming is an agricultural approach similar to organic farming based on the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. It factors in solar and lunar phases, crop rotation, natural fertilizers and mystical elements. Some of its recommendations, like composting, are no-brainers. Others might be a little less conventional, but adherents swear some of these methods result in more vibrant plants.
2. Cash crops are agricultural products such as coffee, cotton and fruit, which are sold for a profit in the global commodities trade—not consumed by farmers and their neighbors. In the past, these crops only occupied a small fraction of a farm's land, but nowadays, particularly in developed countries, they make up nearly all crops.
3. Flexitarians are people who mostly abstain from eating meat, but do make some exceptions. Strict vegetarians may consider it cheating, but flexitarians say it's a more reasonable approach to the overall reduction of environmental waste and animal cruelty.
4. Foodsheds are the geographic regions that produce all the food for a certain population. A local foodshed is more sustainable than our current global foodshed, which requires food to travel thousands of miles before consumption, pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while the food grows stale.
5. Heritage livestock are breeds that grow up slowly and have a long lifespan. They're also the ones that existed before industrial agriculture. "Heritage" has yet to become an official USDA certification, but heirloom breeds like Berkshire Pork, Bourbon Red turkeys, and Araucana chickens are catching on because food industry influencers are fans of their flavor.
6. Intensive farming produces the largest crop yield possible, usually with the use of high-efficiency machinery and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which increase the risk of run-off and other environmental hazards. There are some pros, like lowering the cost of food for consumers, but intensive farming increases the risk of environmental hazards and is ultimately less sustainable than small-scale or subsistence farming.
7. Monoculture is the planting of a single crop over a large area, like your front lawn or the corn and wheat fields we associate with farms. Without cover crops or crop rotation, a monoculture can be easily destroyed with a single pest or disease, necessitating stronger and stronger pesticides. It's opposite of "biodiversity," which many sustainable food advocates hope to achieve.
8. Transitional refers to the three-year period during which farmers must employ organic methods, such as increasing crop diversity and using compost on their land, before they can be considered a certified organic grower. More farmers are transitioning for financial reasons—people are willing to pay more for organic products—as well as environmental ones.
9. Vine or tree-ripened describes fruit that has fully matured on the vine or tree, as opposed to commercial fruit, which is often picked firm and green to avoid bruising during handling and transportation. Unlike some commercial fruit, vine-ripened fruit isn't sprayed with ethylene gas to speed up ripening for sale.
10. Wild crafted refers to food, plants or herbs grown in their natural habitats and carefully harvested so the source remains intact. Though far more unpredictable, wild-crafted products are considered nutritionally superior to ones that have been cultivated on farms, organic or not.
With these ten terms, you'll get closer to making the most well-informed eating choices. But watch out, the next big thing in healthy and environmentally friendly dining is always just around the corner.
Claudine Ko, formerly a food columnist at Jane, has written about dining and food for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Post. She serves as writer and reviewer for Conde Nast in this series.