Sustainable Food and Diets
Sustainable food and diets for long-term health
Sustainable food and diets for long-term human health is a fine vision. But it contrasts starkly with reality today, afflicted by the intertwined global crises of sustainability and malnutrition.
Modern food production unsustainable
Modern farming, which maximizes production of a very small number of crops, has become unsustainable. It has destroyed swathes of natural habitat and ecosystems worldwide. It emits some 30% of the world’s GHGs, pollutes and depletes groundwater, and impoverishes soils.
Moreover, the globalization of the food market and highly volatile food prices make access to food for the poorest increasingly difficult and dramatically reduces farmers’ incomes.
In fact, modern farming fails to feed people sufficiently or properly. Malnutrition affects over one-half of the world’s inhabitants: 1bn face food insecurity and under-nutrition leading to nutrition deficiency, while about 2bn suffer from diet-related chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, etc. as a result of unbalanced diets. And because malnutrition affects human health, it also affects economic growth and perpetuates poverty.
Producers and consumers need to change
The global population, currently 7bn, is set to rise to 10bn by 2050. And, as developing countries grow richer, they will put further demand on food production – particularly livestock farming.
More wild habitat will be turned over to farming if no solution is found to increase productivity. Clearly that will be an unsustainable proposition if agriculture fails to question its yardsticks of yield and profitability and to think in terms of responsible environmental stewardship.
Indeed, both consumers and producers need to change their behaviours and values. It is critical to develop new system-based approaches with a holistic perspective to deliver economic, health-related, and environmental outcomes within social frameworks that foster positive patterns and modes of production and consumption.
Avenues to explore
Ecology may hold a key. It views farming systems - which are ecosystems in themselves - on a landscape scale, i.e. as part of ecosystems that may stretch over vast areas. Furthermore, it considers biophysical and socio-economic factors and the short and long terms.
Traditional forms of farming – e.g. the pastoral model – may offer insights into the stewarding of natural resources. However, regardless of the model, it is critical to bear in mind constraints of locality and custom and not to assume that traditional practices are necessarily sustainable.
Another avenue could be to rethink farming systems and manage them to produce the diverse output they currently fail to provide. Growing crop combinations could give higher yields and greater nutrient diversity than environmentally damaging monocultures. Such an approach would enhance environmental sustainability and food and nutrition security. It urges cross-disciplinary collaboration among nutritionists, agronomists, ecologists, and local communities.
The production of sustainable diets and foods must also ensure the economic viability and health of farmers, of course. Sustainable food systems need supportive policies that frame large and small-scale, global and local production.
Policy frameworks should also support the education of consumers as to the importance of making dietary diversity part of a healthy lifestyle that includes physical exercise.
Long-term health is conditioned by multiple determinants – production modes and practices, diet, physical activity, the environment, education, and psychological and social well-being. It can be achieved only through imaginative, holistic approaches that combine disciplines from the natural and social sciences to address the multiple dimensions of malnutrition and sustainability.