Words, Phrases & Concepts Related to Sustainable Food Systems

Food systems are complex and dynamic, consisting of an intricate web of relationships affected by many factors. A variety of terms and measures are used to describe these systems, their processes and relative health. This glossary offers one starting point for understanding some of the terminology used. Several other resources found in this guide may be helpful as well, including the Food System Wiki glossary.

The capacity of actors in a system to manage resilience, either by moving the system toward or away from a threshold that would fundamentally alter the properties of the system, or by altering the underlying features of the stability landscape (change the positions of thresholds, and the ease of movement of the system). (Resilience Alliance)

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, where animals are confined for more than 45 days per year. The EPA determines whether an agricultural business is a CAFO based on regulations created by the Clean Water Act, and special permits have to be given for the owners to operate a CAFO legally. Enforcement of these regulations has not been very strict, which has caused problems in communities where they are located.

Cage Free
Birds raised without cages. Does not guarantee that birds were allowed access to the outdoors or pasture. Birds may be raised in large flocks in commercial confinement facilities. There is no single, universally accepted definition or independent verification of “Cage-Free” claims.

Capacity Building
Enhancing the ability of individuals, organizations or communities to address their own long term needs.

Carbon footprint1
A representation of the effect human activities have on the climate in terms of the total amount of greenhouse gases produced (measured in units of carbon dioxide).

Carrying Capacity1
Carrying capacity is the theoretical equilibrium population size at which a particular population in a particular environment will stabilize when its supply of resources remains constant. It can also be considered to be the maximum sustainable population size; the maximum size that can be supported indefinitely into the future without degrading the environment for future generations.

Certified Organic
In the US, use of the term "organic" is restricted to certified organic producers (except growers selling under $5,000 a year, who must still comply and submit to a records audit if requested, but do not have to formally apply). The National Organic Program (NOP) administers the standards, managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (PDF) and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Related Terms: Organic Farming

Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR)
Research that is conducted as an equal partnership between traditionally trained "experts" and members of a community. In CBPR projects, the community participates fully in all aspects of the research process. CBPR projects start with the community. (Wikipedia description of CBPR)

Community Capacity
The knowledge, skills, participation, leadership and other resources needed by a community to effectively address local issues and concerns.

Community Food Assessment (CFA)
A collaborative and participatory process that systematically examines a broad range of community food issues and assets, so as to inform change actions to make the community more food secure." From (now defunct) Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) publication What's Cooking in Your Food System: A Guide to Community Food Assessment.

Community Food Security (CFS)
A condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance, social justice, and democratic decision-making (WhyHunger).

Community Garden
A plot of land that is gardened by a group of people to produce fruits, vegetables, flowers, and sometimes chickens for egg production. Community gardens exist in a variety of settings, urban and rural, on vacant lots, at schools or community centers, or on donated land. Food may be grown communally, or individuals or families may have individual garden plots or beds.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)1
A community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or "share-holders" of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) An advanced and intensive form of hydroponically-based agriculture. Plants are grown within a controlled environment so that horticultural practices can be optimized. (Cornell CEA)

Direct-to-Consumer Marketing
Methods used by growers to market and sell products directly to consumers, enabling them to compete outside the supermarket system and other large wholesale market channels. Includes farmers' markets, farm stands, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture, pick-your-own farms, Internet marketing, and niche marketing.

A seal or logo indicating that a product has met a set of environmental or social standards.

Ecological Footprint (EF)1
Term introduced by William Rees in 1992 and elaborated upon in his book, coauthored with Mathis Wackernagel, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, New Society Publishers, 1996. A measure of how much land and water is needed to produce the resources we consume and to dispose of the waste we produce. Related term: Carbon footprint

Economic Gardening
An innovative entrepreneur-centered economic growth strategy originally developed by the city of Littleton Colorado, based on the belief that small local entrepreneurial firms are the engine for the creation of sustainable wealth and new jobs. More attention is paid to the unique attributes and resources of a given community, and the “complex biological and interrelated factors of building an environment conducive to entrepreneurial activity: intellectual stimulation, openness to new ideas, the support infrastructure of venture capital and universities, information and community support.” (from U.S. Small Business Administration report, The Small Business Economy For Data Year 2005).

Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT)3
An electronic system that allows participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to authorize transfer of their government benefits from a federal account to a retailer account to pay for fresh foods. A growing number of farmers markets are equipped with the technology to accept SNAP benefits.

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
A diverse set of inter-dependent actors within a geographic region that influence the formation and eventual trajectory of the entire group of actors and potentially the economy as a whole. Entrepreneurial ecosystems evolve through a set of interdependent components which interact to generate new venture creation over time7. Within an ecosystem, start-ups, established businesses, research institutions and others can interact and mutually benefit from each other's ideas, knowledge and connections. Formal accumulation of knowledge and the conceptualization of previous experiences contributes to improving the virtuous cycle.

In economics, benefits or costs that are not included in the market price of goods or services. For example, the cost of natural resource depletion, pollution and other environmental and social factors are externalities that often are not factored into the market price of a product.

Fair Trade
An organized social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers get better trading conditions and promote sustainability. The movement advocates the payment of a higher price to producers as well as higher social and environmental standards. (Wikipedia description of Fair Trade).

Farmers' Market4
A common facility or area where several farmers or growers gather on a regular, recurring basis to sell a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and other locally-grown farm products directly to consumers. Related Term: Certified Farmers Market -Some states offer or require certification of farmers markets to ensure that the products sold are produced by the farmers themselves.

Farmland Preservation/Protection1

Land that produces our food and provides us with scenic open space, wildlife habitat and clean water is increasingly at risk from urban sprawl and rural subdivisions. According to a 1997 American Farmland Trust study, every state in the nation is sacrificing irreplaceable agricultural resources to urban sprawl. We are converting a total of 1 million acres a year, and while the quantity of top-quality agricultural land being lost varies from state to state, the process of conversion increases the pressures on agriculture even beyond the acres that are actually taken out of production. Actions to reverse this trend are being taken on many levels. Tactics include focusing on policies related to property tax relief and protection from nuisance lawsuits for farmers, purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs, special agricultural districts where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected, comprehensive land use planning, and farm-friendly zoning ordinances.

Food Desert
Geographic areas that lack convenient and affordable access to a range of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and high quality sources of protein.

Food Circle1
A dynamic, community-based and regionally-integrated food systems concept/model/vision. In effect, it is a systems ecology. In contrast to current linear production-consumption systems, the food circle is a production-consumption-recycle model. A celebration of cycles, this model mirrors all natural systems and is based on the fact that all stable, biological and other systems function as closed cycles or circles, carefully preserving energy, nutrients, resources and the integrity of the whole.

Food Miles1
The distance food travels from where it is grown or raised to where it is ultimately purchased by the consumer or end-user. Local food systems can reduce ‘food miles’ and transportation costs, offering significant energy savings. Consumers also benefit from fresher, better-tasting, and more nutritious food, while more food dollars stay within rural communities. Related terms: 100 Mile Diet

Food Policy Councils (FPC)
Officially sanctioned bodies comprised of stakeholders from different elements of a state or local food system. Food policy councils allow collaborations between citizens and government officials to examine the operation of a local food system and provide ideas or recommendations for how it can be improved. They are considered a key aspect of community food security. (OregonHunger.org)

Food Security
Access by all people at all times to affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food, derived from non-emergency sources and produced through sustainable practices in order to lead healthy and productive lives.

Food Sovereignty
Communities achieve food sovereignty when they democratically control what they eat, how it is raised and by whom, and how profits in the food system are distributed. Food sovereignty encompasses the rights to food, adequate nutrition and resources necessary for each person to be able to feed him or herself with dignity and in culturally appropriate ways. Fulfilling these rights requires community action to overcome barriers imposed on some people because of gender, income, race, religion and class. Under conditions of food sovereignty, food is produced using sustainable practices and never used as a weapon or denied because of social conflict. (La Vía Campesina)

Food System Assessment (FSA)
A comprehensive “picture” of the way a particular area grows, processes, distributes, consumes, and disposes/reuses its food. It documents the specific ways to strengthen the links between the economic, environmental, and social aspects of the food system.

Food Systems Council (FSC)
A grassroots network focused on educating the public, coordinating non-profit efforts, and influencing government, commercial, and institutional practices and policies on food systems. They help the community to explore its own food system, assess what is possible, and build programs for change. "While FSCs share the same primary goal as FPCs, to examine the operation of a local food system and provide recommendations for how it can be improved, they are different from FPCs in that they are generally a coalition of grassroots groups and non-profit organizations addressing local, regional, or state food systems issues and are not official advisory bodies to city, county, or state governments" (WhyHunger)

Most often attributed to Arthur Getz in his 1991 Urban Foodsheds article in Permaculture Activist [Vol. VII, no. 3], uses the analogy of a watershed to describe "the area that is defined by a structure of supply." Getz used the image of a foodshed to answer the question of "where our food and regional food supply system works." Inherent in this concept, he emphasized, was "the suggestion of a need to protect a source, as well as the need to know and understand its specific geographic and ecological dimensions, condition and stability in order for it to be safeguarded and enhanced."

Free Range3
Free-range, free-roaming, and pastured imply that a product comes from an animal that was raised unconfined and free to roam.“Free-range” claims on beef and eggs are unregulated, but USDA requires that poultry have access to the outdoors (not necessarily actually spending time outdoors) for an undetermined period each day.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)3
Plants and animals whose genetic make-up has been altered to exhibit traits that they would not normally have, like longer shelf-life, different color, or resistance to certain chemicals. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism. Genetic modification is currently allowed in conventional farming.

Global Food System5
A concept developed around the vast influences of trade, globalization, labor and market competition in the way it effects the production, distribution, pricing and consumption of food worldwide.

Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)1
GAP approach aims at applying available knowledge to addressing environmental, economic and social sustainability dimensions for on-farm production and post-production processes, resulting in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products. Based on generic sustainability principles, it aims at supporting locally developed optimal practices for a given production system based on a desired outcome, taking into account market demands and farmers constraints and incentives to apply practices.

Grass Farming/Grass-based Farming1
Grass-based production relies on pasture or rangeland to supply the protein and energy requirements of livestock. Grazing and forage feeding replace high grain diets, close confinement and feedlot-finishing during most or all of an animal’s lifetime. The producer focuses on pasture plant and soil management, and proper stocking density and rotational grazing. Related terms: Grass-fed; Pasture-based; Pasture-raised; Pastured poultry; Free-range; Intensive grazing

Heirloom crop varieties, also called farmers’ varieties or traditional varieties, have been developed by farmers through years of cultivation, selection,and seed saving, and passed down through generations. Generally speaking, heirlooms are varieties that have been in existence for a minimum of fifty years.

A term applied to breeds of livestock that were bred over time to be well-adapted to local environmental conditions, withstand disease, and survive in harsh environmental conditions. Heritage breeds generally have slow growth rates and long productive lifespans outdoors, making them well-suited for grazing and pasturing.

High Tunnels
Also called high hoops or hoop houses. Temporary, covered (e.g. translucent plastic or polyethylene fabric) structures that extend the growing season. Constructed in the field in order to protect crops from the weather (rain, wind, cool or warm temperatures) and, in some cases, pests. High tunnels offer an intermediate level of environmental control—a growing system between row covers and greenhouses. In comparison to greenhouses, they are unheated, provide less climate control, and are less expensive (Source: eXtension.org)

Growing vegetables and fruits (such as lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers) in water with nutrients washing over the roots of the plants.

Industrialized Food System5
A wide range of activities and disciplines in modern food production. From a consumer perspective, the industrialized food system might be equated with corporate farming. As such, it represents large-scale, vertically integrated food production businesses, seen as the source of a range of effects (some undesirable) on the environment, on food quality, and on society in general.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)1

An ecologically based approach to pest (animal and weed) control that utilizes a multi-disciplinary knowledge of crop/pest relationships, establishment of acceptable economic thresholds for pest populations and constant field monitoring for potential problems. Management may include such practices as "the use of resistant varieties; crop rotation; cultural practices; optimal use of biological control organisms; certified seed; protective seed treatments; disease-free transplants or rootstock; timeliness of crop cultivation; improved timing of pesticide applications; and removal or 'plow down' of infested plant material.

Kitchen Incubator
A shared-use commercial kitchen where caterers, street cart vendors, farmers, and producers of specialty/gourmet food items can prepare their food products in a fully licensed and certified kitchen. The kitchens, often sponsored by an umbrella nonprofit organization, provide start-up businesses the opportunity to explore food production without the high cost of buying their own equipment or constructing their own building. Kitchen incubators usually offer technical assistance in food production as well as general business management skills, networking opportunities among entrepreneurs, and the opportunity to form shared services cooperatives for marketing, distribution, and supply purchasing. (New Farm Options- University of Wisconsin Extension Service). Interactive map of incubators in the US available from CulinaryIncubator.com.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)1
A quantification of the level of energy and raw materials used as well as the solid, liquid and gaseous wastes produced at every stage of a product's life or process. LCA can be conducted for a whole process or for part of a process. Conducting an LCA can be complicated, therefore it is important to set boundaries for the study.

Local/Community Food System1
A community food system, also known as a local food system, is a collaborative effort to integrate agricultural production with food distribution to enhance the economic, environmental, and social well-being of a particular place (i.e. a neighborhood, city, county or region). One of the primary assumptions underlying the sustainable diet concept is that foods are produced, processed, and distributed as locally as possible. This approach supports a food system that preserves local farmland and fosters community economic viability, requires less energy for transportation, and offers consumers the freshest foods. Related terms: Foodshed, Food Circle, Food Miles

Food and other agricultural products that are produced, processed, and sold within a certain region, whether defined by distance, state border, or regional boundaries. The term is unregulated at the national level, meaning that each individual farmers market can define and regulate the term based on their own mission and circumstances.

A person who exclusively or primarily eats foods produced within a predetermined radius from his or her home.

Logic Model
Representation of how an activity (such as a project, a program, or a policy) is intended to produce particular results. Showing logical relationships among resources invested, activities, and benefits that result, as a sequence of events.

100 Mile Diet
Eating food products produced within a 100-mile radius of where the consumer lives.

Organic Farming1
A production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds and other pests. Related Terms: Certified Organic

A contraction of "permanent agriculture," the word "permaculture" was coined by Australian Bill Mollison in the late 1970s. One of the many alternative agriculture systems described as sustainable, permaculture is "unique in its emphasis on design; that is, the location of each element in a landscape, and the evolution of landscape over time. The goal of permaculture is to produce an efficient, low-maintenance integration of plants, animals, people and structure... applied at the scale of a home garden, all the way through to a large farm.

Any area that has some unifying feature. Typically, but not necessarily, smaller than a country (e.g. county, state, watershed).

The ability to persist, innovate and transform into more desirable configurations in the face of change. The capacity for self-organization, to learn and adapt. Related terms: Adaptability

Rural Communities6
Places (incorporated or unincorporated) with fewer than 2,500 residents and open territory.

Seed Bank
A seedbank stores seeds as a source for planting in case seed reserves elsewhere are destroyed. It is a type of gene bank. The seeds stored may be food crops, and/or those of rare species to protect biodiversity. (Wikipedia description of seed banks)

Seed Saving
Collecting seeds for replanting in the future. Seen by many as an essential indigenous capacity for local and regional food systems.

Seed Sovereignty
The freedom to collect, re-grow, save and distribute seed, free of legal and practical restrictions, as a necessary foundation for healthy, equitable and resilient food systems. Asserted as a response to the monopolisation of seeds (as well as DNA) by agrochemical firms, and regulation on seeds favoring such firms, as an act of resistance and social empowerment. One of the most notable proponents of seed sovereignty is Dr. Vandana Shiva, and the participatory research initiative she helped start, Navdanya.

Seed Stewardship
Process of saving seeds with the purpose of maintaining or improving that seed’s health and resilience. It also includes the act of saving and selecting a variety over a period of many seasons, with the end goal of passing it on to others in the future. (Seed Ambassadors Project)

Social Capital
The idea is that social networks can be a valuable asset, enabling people to commit themselves to each other and common goals, knitting the social fabric necessary to build strong resilient communities.(Wikipedia description of social capital)

Social Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurial approaches to organize, create, and manage ventures to address social problems and make social change. Social entrepreneurship focuses on creating social capital, but need not be incompatible with making a profit. (Wikipedia description of social entrepreneurship). Learn more about social entrepreneurship at Cornell Center for Transformative Action.

Slow Food
An international movement begun by Carlo Petrini in Italy seeking to preserve cultural cuisine, advocate for the consumption of wholesome, local foods, and to enjoy the food available within a short distance. The movement combats a global food system associated with “fast foods.” (Slow Food USA website).

Slow Money
An international movement to build local and national networks, and develop new financial products and services, dedicated to investing in small food enterprises and local food systems, connecting investors to their local economies and building the nurture capital industry.(Slow Money Alliance)

Sustainable Agriculture5
Integrates three main goals: environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and prosperous farming communities. In general, sustainable agriculture addresses the ecological, economic and social aspects of agriculture. To be sustainable, agriculture can operate only when the environment, its caretakers and surrounding communities are healthy.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program (USDA)1
SARE is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's primary means of studying and publicizing sustainable agriculture practices. Through a competitive grants program that works with teams of agencies, organizations, and farmers, more than 3000 projects have been implemented.

Value-Added Product
A raw agricultural product that has been modified or enhanced to be a product with a higher market value and/or a longer shelf life. Examples include fruits made into pies or jams, meats made into jerky, and tomatoes and peppers made into salsa.

Fruit that has been allowed to ripen on the vine or tree. Many fruits that are shipped long distances are picked while still unripe and firm, and later treated with ethylene gas at the point of distribution to “ripen” and soften them.

Wild (or Foraged)
Items gathered growing wild in the fields or woods. Can include ramps, (wild leeks) dandelion greens, morel and puffball mushrooms, fiddlehead fern heads, wild asparagus, strawberries, blueberries and a variety of nuts.

Sources for the Glossary Terms:

1. USDA National Agriculture Library - http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/sustainable-agriculture-definitions-and-terms-related-terms

2. American Farmland Trust -http://www.farmland.org/programs/localfood/farmlingo.asp

3. USDA AMS Farmers Market Glossary of Terms -http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5078261&acct=frmrdirmkt

4. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service -http://www.ams.usda.gov

5. Why Food Security Learning Center Local & Regional Food Systems Glossary -http://www.whyhunger.org/programs/fslc/topics/local-a-regional-food-systems/glossary.html

6. USDA Economic Research Service -http://www.ers.usda.gov/

7. Cohen, Boyd, Sustainable Valley Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, Business Strategy and the Environment, v.15, iss.1 2006