The impact that food production and consumption has on the environment has received increasing international attention in recent years, and it is easy to understand why as it is a huge problem.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the food sector accounts for around 30% of the world’s total energy consumption and accounts for around 22% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Also, up to one third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally – amounting to approximately 1.3 billion tonnes per year. Our food production and consumption has been associated with many environmental impacts, such as major drivers of climate change, excessive use of water, deforestation and ecosystem exploitation.
Traditionally, public health nutrition experts have been concerned with the association between nutrients and health outcomes. Thus, today’s health nutrition experts have to face new problems posed by the globalised food system. Consumers must see the value of the food they eat, nutritionally and economically, while also being aware of the environmental impacts of their choices. With a world population expected to reach about 9 billion by 2050 and with continuing degradation of the planet’s resources, how we produce and consume our food is becoming essential in the protection of our planet.
What is sustainable food? What are the key drivers behind unsustainable food consumption patterns? And what can be done to achieve sustainable consumption at international and national levels?
Sustainable food isn’t just about the food itself, it’s a combination of factors including how and where it’s produced, how it’s distributed and how it’s consumed.
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation defines ‘sustainable diets’ as:
“Those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”
But what does that mean in practice? To put this even more simply WWF’s Livewell principles for healthy low carbon eating recommend we - eat more plants, waste less food, eat less meat and processed food & buy food that meets a credible certified standard - like MSC for fish.
A growing population, increasing urbanisation and rising incomes result in a sharply increased demand for resource intensive foods. Animal-based foods are typically more resource-intensive and environmentally impactful to produce than plant-based foods and often contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt. The UN High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security observe that it is having considerable effects on our health by climbing rates of obesity worldwide – even in food insecure countries. Also, consumers’ increasingly resource intensive consumption patterns, in both developed and developing countries, have a major impact on global food price increases – disproportionately affecting poor consumers who are increasingly more exposed to the price fluctuations.
Finally, our ever-growing demand for resource intensive foods is adversely affecting the agroecological resource base, to the point of diminishing its productive capabilities. Land degradation, declining soil fertility, unsustainable water use, overfishing and marine environment degradation are all lessening the ability of the natural resource base to supply food.
While substantial environmental impacts from food occur in the production phase, households influence these impacts through their dietary choices and habits. This consequently affects the environment through food-related energy consumption and waste generation.
Although more people than ever before now understand that healthy eating is beneficial, few governments have made the connection between good nutrition and environmental sustainability, according to a study published (2017) by the United Nations, the Food Climate Research Network. The study found that only four countries - Brazil, Germany, Sweden, and Qatar - include sustainable recommendations in their dietary guidelines.
Nutrition and sustainability are of high priority in the global political agenda and their importance is reflected by the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); in particular goals 2, 3, 12, and 14. FAO recommend governments to integrate sustainable development goals into existing national plans by forming inter-ministerial committees and task forces to evaluate critical first steps and ensure that all departments of government work together productively to reach these goals.
Achieving interministerial coherence, at a national level, is challenging but critical. This becomes even more complex, yet urgent, in the international arena. Implementing the SDGs needs to be a society-wide endeavor, embracing not only central governments but also local government, civil society, and the private sector. Overall successful implementation will require transforming the way we live, work, produce, and consume - and each of us as individuals can make a contribution to that.