In the Sydney food scene, sustainability has been gathering popularity. The term has soared in status throughout the city’s kitchens, and more and more restaurants, cafes, products and providores are claiming the tag. Sustainable follows on from a host of other food trends that favour more conscious culinary choices, such as organic, free range and local. But while we are probably all accustomed to the organic produce section at any given supermarket, the definition of what constitutes truly sustainable fruit, veg and meat is not nearly as accessible.

For founder of Marrickville’s Feather and Bone butcher Grant Hilliard, sustainability is about mapping and minding our food’s journey from paddock to plate, and back again. Hilliard founded Feather and Bone with his wife in 2006, and the business treats sustainable and ethical food practices as key. “What we really need to look at are patterns of production, distribution and consumption,” he says. “They’re the elements that come into play in a sustainable system.”

While sustainable is associated with ideas such as free range, local produce and biodynamic farming, the concept is more concerned with the whole picture. At Feather and Bone, this involves supporting a cycle of quality and food consciousness that starts from the soil up. “The greatest amount of bio mass that any farmer looks after is beneath the ground in the form of bacteria and fungus,” he explains. “Getting that bacteria and fungus in balance is the job of the farmer, so you can run the engine of the soil. If you have no oxygen in the soil and no organic matter in the soil, it collapses. It cannot sustain life.”

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Indeed, at the very heart of sustainable food production is a desire to actively preserve ecosystem diversity and species longevity. Commercial, consumer-driven farming prioritises high quantity and low cost – a shaky system where someone or something inevitably suffers along the way. Land is churned over and genetic diversity of livestock, vegetables and grains is inevitably compromised. Hilliard explains that mono-culture farms – single-purpose, industrial-grade operators generating food purely as a commodity – have removed variety in species. “In the last 100 years we’ve lost an enormous amount of different varieties of food,” he says. “We need to go back to mixed farms. Genetic diversity is critical and the only way you can encourage that is to reward farmers that actually rear animals and grow crops this way.”

Smaller, local farmers tend to be those growing greater varieties of produce. Like Hilliard, Martin Boetz started The Cooks Co Op as a way of promoting more sustainable farming practices. The executive chef left his post at Longrain to take up 28 acres of rolling green farmland in Sackville along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. “The idea behind The Cooks Co Op is really to support local farmers that have been growing food here for a very long time,” he says. “They’re going out of business because people aren’t aware of the beautiful bounty of produce we have.” Boetz supplies top Sydney restaurants with the fruit and veggies he grows himself, as well as regional produce grown by his neighbours.

For Boetz, the story of your food, and its journey from soil to plate is far more important than whether or not it wears a stamp of organic certification. “Organic’s organic – but the majority of it is really just generic food,” he says. “If you know that the beetroot you’re buying today comes from 40km out of Sydney, and it comes from a reputable farm, then you’d want to support them.”

Both Boetz and Hilliard agree that quality, taste and flavour are the bi-product of sustainable practices. Feather and Bone never set out to simply sell Sydney’s tastiest meat – the quality is merely a happy result of the food’s journey. “We can say: this is a cow, was grown on this farm and is this breed. It was grown by this person, it fed on these grasses and it was this age when it was killed. And we aged it here for five weeks,” he says. “The fact that it’s delicious is a result of the decisions that one makes prior to that.”

Sustainability shifts the focus away from the end point and the consumer, and throws light on the bigger picture, the whole story. Rather than purchasing produce with a generic stamp of health, sustainability advocates transparency without cutting corners.

“Sustainable to me means knowing where the produce comes from. Knowing the story behind the produce,” adds Boetz. “Those little stories – and then having passion about the stories that you do tell.”

Eating sustainably in Sydney

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Kitchen by Mike
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The Commons
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The Sandwich Shop

This article was developed in partnership with Green Villages. If you want more info on sustainable food choices, such as how to grow your own crop on your balcony, how to cut down on food waste, or where to find the freshest produce in Sydney, visit its website, Green Villages, run by the City of Sydney, aims to grow a more sustainable Sydney by connecting and inspiring Sydneysiders.