What is exactly food sustainability?
As a dietician and nutritionist with a primary focus on food sustainability, I’d like to present you with some solid evidences about our food production. We know that our food production, consumption habits need to change if we want the planet to become globally food sustainable.
The first question to ask ourselves is: Does my country know it?
The clock is ticking fast, and during the COP26 summit some countries (China & India) seem to ignore it, sadly. The measures agreed to stop the rise and limit the temperature to 1.5C.
The only good news for us is that we are seeing many initiatives worldwide to improve agricultural sustainability in the earlier stages of food production.
These efforts are minimal and we are nowhere near the recommended targets. Hence, the fact we have to not only educate our children, but also show the people to change their food consumption habits.
Kiss the Ground is a documentary narrated by Woody Harrelson that talks and walks you through the steps to cover sustainable ways of food production and soil regeneration along with plenty more options for us to eliminate carbon. Among the the best seen in 2021.
Bear in mind that this has the potential to not only save us, but safe live all together.
The non-sustainable food culprits
Intensive farming methods produce and release huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, increasing an alarming global warming rate situation.
We often hear that our food system is unsustainable. And to scare you ( just a bit) that is bad news. Put simply, we are using too many of our natural resources to produce enough food to feed the world. And these natural resources are running out as you saw in the video above.
To add to this problem, we have two major culprits, the pesticides industry and the global food production which are not helping us in the fight to our climate change.
You probably are thinking ” what about Auto and aviation industry?” Well, not the big polluters.
Is that true? Yes, just continue reading and /or watch the documentary mentioned above.
All of the above is leading the planet to serious deforestation, soil contamination or loss of organic land, loss of animal species and other types of new coming polluters. And we have recycling, plastic and food waste playing an enormous part.
Biodiversity is also in danger. The diverse types of bees, for example, have been affected badly. Bees, actually are the main link to a rich and sustainable food chain system. You may already know that these little workers are crucial to our survival, as they incessantly pollinate our crops, fruits and flowers.
If the bees disappear adding all the chaos described above, we will soon run out of food choices at some time or another.
But, what does this actually mean to me and you?
Glad you asked. Well, that is a great question that we try to explain here, so keep reading.
What is a sustainable healthy diet?
Can we say that sustainable food systems must be considered in a near future? But, how can we plan and create food sustainability (chain supply) and opt for a healthy diet when our food production is crumbling?
The term sustainability is actually interchangeable and can mean many things – there isn’t a universal definition. We also need to understand ‘how sustainable’ something is, can depend on where you live. Having said that, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) department of the United Nations definition is widely used:
‘‘Diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable foods are plant-based diets that are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems. Also economically fair and affordable to all. They are nutritionally adequate for all group ages, safe and healthy; whilst optimising natural and human resources‟ .
Although, the environmental, social and economic factors form the three pillars of sustainable food system. Although all of this will need careful development planning, from the ground up, helping analyse and explore environmental sustainability.
(Keep an eye out for more blog posts around ethical recipes and how to grow your own food!)
What can we do about changing our eating habits?
As global population levels are predicted to increase to 10 billion people by 2050, we must start changing the way we eat, but essentially the way we produce our food.
Well, for starters why not:
- Try adopting a more plant-based diet?
- Secondly, why not avoid food waste?
- And thirdly, why not trying to grow your own produce or eat as many local crops as possible
You would see that our future would be much brighter if we made our food chain supply greener.
So following that idea – Food production (packed and transported) can be reduced if we learn how to sow seeds and grow our own produce whilst nourishing ourselves better.
Our diets can be improved if we reduce meat consumption, *fats included in processed food. That has been proven by many food experts.
There are many sources available to you, see below.
Using better food sustainability practices will allow us to feed ourselves more healthily, reduce health issues whilst alleviating the environment of unnecessary stress as opposed to damaging it.
Does this feel like an impossible task?
It may feel that way, but I believe that food is medicine and can be powered by ‘knowledge’. By reading on you’ll begin to get an understanding of some of the concepts of what a sustainable food system means and what you can do about it
Big environmental impact?
The pic below shows how resources are used, resulting in harmful end products such as greenhouse gases and plastics. As mentioned earlier, this blog will focus on how we consume and use food products.
Figure 1. The different stages of food production. These rely heavily on several natural resources such as fossil fuels and fresh water.
Brazil for example, composed of a vast green land that has a super rich biodiversity in the shape of the Amazon rain forest is in danger – these include hundreds of thousands of insects and plants, some of which have the potential to treat or solve human diseases.
Recently, the equivalent of 370 football pitches have been destroyed under the banner or creating food and employment. The sad thing is, they are doing it the wrong way.
How do they measure the health of our planet?
Scientists use many environmental markers (aka metrics) to give us an indication of the extent of the damage being inflicted on the planet.
The following are the most tested:
- Land use
- Fresh water use
- Impact on air, soil and water quality
- Impact on the diversity of living creatures in an area (i.e. ecosystems)
- Greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) which impact climate change
All or a number of these considered together gives us a solid picture of the environmental footprint of the food industry. A metaphor for the total impact that something has on climate change.
These footprints can now be so much more specific – an example is looking at the water or the carbon footprint of our produced food.
The food’s carbon footprint is the greenhouse gas emissions produced by growing, rearing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking and disposing of the food you eat.
When talking about the food’s water footprint we are referring to the amount of fresh water needed to feed, grow the product.
What is sustainable nutrition?
The challenge that we need to overcome as consumers is that, at present, we don’t have many food labels or information at the ‘point of sale’ to see how much our food choice can impact the environment.
However, this handy table (Figure 2 ‘environmental markers of each food group’) gives you an idea of the water and carbon footprint of different food sources.
It shows us the ‘trade-offs’ between the metrics.
Why and how do we start?
For example, beef and lamb you eat have high carbon footprints and low water footprints, however, nuts have high water footprints and low carbon footprints. This is why you’ll hear so many more debates as to know which food systems are more viable to us.
Other ask ‘what foods are more sustainable?’
Yet, some advanced countries start thinking and ask themselves: traditional dairy versus plant-based milk or nut versus chicken etc. It’s not always easy or clear to many people, but for sure, we should think (as a priority) of cutting meat and processed foods from our diets.
Public health England (PHE) in the U.K. for example is telling people how to reduce meat consumption. But U.K. Tv screens still display crap food on a daily-basis. It is difficult to accept the unofficial side of things.
Whether you believe it or not, food sustainability matters to us all and we have to make difficult decisions based on science!
Figure 2. ‘environmental markers of food groups’
You can see from figure 2 (above) that red meat and dairy have high carbon footprints, needing lots of square meters and are resource intensive. As you can see from the above image cows alone release tonnes of methane into the atmosphere just from burping.
Also, the conversion of food grain into meat is inefficient – nutrients/calories are lost in the conversion of grain to animal protein. Plant foods (plant proteins/ alternative kinds of milk) are known to be more resource efficient and have very lower carbon footprints.
So, try picturing this information and understanding the inputs of food production but also the outcomes to help guide your choices. Ultimately, we need to reduce the amount of animal protein we consume and increase plant proteins as these have a lower environmental footprint.
What type of sustainable food can we look for?
Most types of beans are widely available and considered sustainable food on the market. Here are some more healthy sustainable food examples:
- Organic fruits
- Leafy greens
- Eat more fruits & green variety
- Use less fatty foods
- Buy seafood and trout- responsibly sourced
- Grow your own produce
Why do our choices matter?
Your shopping habits and behaviours can make a real difference to the future of this planet. Imagine millions of tonnes of food, produced meat, palm oils etc. and what that means for our environment?
Less is more.
I believe that we can all start experimenting by not buying, or reducing unsustainable food produced, as 85% of current food affects animal welfare and the planet. Sustainable agriculture for example can feed billions of individuals.
Our food choices are mostly based on views and or habits and that can influence the food industry due to the supply and demand effect. Of course, changes need to be made at policy and production level too.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the word of mouth that you the consumer has!
What benefits can we get from eating and living more sustainably?
Eating more sustainable food can bring some incredible benefits, including saving money and ultimately improving your health.
Here are some examples:
- Eating a rich plant-based diet is better for our health and is just as affordable, if not cheaper than meat containing diets.
- Growing your own food, even if it’s just herbs or tomatoes on your window sill, will save money and the amount of plastic used in wrapped products.
- Throwing away food equals throwing away money! So careful weekly meal planning and versatile quick cooking methods (use all sorts of ingredients) can be financially rewarding.
- Using your energy efficiently at home by batch cooking or using energy-efficient induction hobs will also save on gas and large electricity bills.
Living a sustainable life can be so easy and rewarding when we all make just a few small changes. The hard part is to start. But, I’d suggest you choose two or three ideas from above and try new types of food.
Then, think more about the results of making healthy food batches but also sustainable food recipes for the all week. The food choices you made for yourself and your family can either make a big or small impact on your environment. Also, rethink, share, ask or talk on social media about the environmental impact your supermarket have on the food chain supply including food waste and animal welfare.
*Fats -Eating moderate amounts of polyunsaturated (and monounsaturated) fat in place of saturated and trans fats can benefit your health.
Please share this hashtag #foodsustainabilitymatters.