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What are sustainable food systems?

YINI - What are sustainable food systems?

Feeding tomorrow’s world with ever-growing population has already become a global challenge. According to the UN nations’ predictions, we will be 9.5 billion in 2050 [1]. According to the FAO, global agri-food systems produced 11 billion ton of food in 2021, but yet, about 10% of the world population still suffer from hunger and malnutrition [2,3]. Thus, adopting a policy of transition to a more sustainable food production system means building resilient agri-food systems.

What is a food system?

A food system is a complex entity. Taken as a whole, food systems encompass primary production but also food supply chains ending with distribution to retail outlets or consumers [2]. A food system represents all the elements, activities and actors involved in production, processing, preparation, distribution, and eventually consumption of food [3]. It also includes all the inputs needed and the outputs generated at each link of the chain.

The actors in the food system are very diverse:

  • primary producers who provide inputs
  • post-harvest, storage, food processing and transportation services
  • distributors, wholesalers and retailers of food products
  • and finally, households and individuals, as final consumers.

A food system also includes more abstract but equally essential dimensions: food choices and cultures. The values, beliefs and social norms around food, carried by consumers around the world, play an important role in shaping what people eat and what they demand from food, and therefore directs the functioning of the food system [4].

The current global food systems are not sustainable

Many institutions agree to say that our current food production system is unsustainable and must be reoriented towards resilient, quality production that preserves the resources of the planet. Food production accounts for 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 70% of water use and a huge loss of marine and continental biodiversity [2].

“Global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience. […] A radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed. Without action, the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.” – Prof. Johan Rockström, for the Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019

Our global food system is indeed focused on quantity and productivity, but not enough on quality. Thus, the latter need to be repositioned “from feeding people to nourishing people well” [4]. Feeding the world’s growing population, expected to count nearly 10 billion people in 2050, will require widespread changes in the way we produce our food, especially in the face of mounting pressure from climate change. Yet, these mutations in food production must also encompass the aim of reaching global nutritional and health needs for the population. 

Sustainability in food production: a story of resiliency

A transition towards more sustainable food systems underpin an essential environmental dimension. Water and soil resources are extremely strained by agriculture and livestock production, which are sources of GHG emissions all around the globe. A sustainable food system is based on the four dimensions that define sustainability in the FAO and WHO reports [2,3,5]:

  • provide safe and nutritionally-dense foods that are included in a balanced healthy diet, in order to lessen the malnutrition burden worldwide
  • be culturally acceptable by the populations
  • be inclusive and ethical
  • have a low impact on environment and preserve biodiversity and natural resources, ideally produced and consumed locally [5].

In a report published in 2019 [6], EAT-Lancet considers some key aspects we need to aim to change our food system into an eco-friendly production:

  • use no more land than it does currently
  • safeguard existing biodiversity
  • reduce water use and manage water responsibly
  • substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution (coming from fertilizer use)
  • produce zero carbon dioxide emissions
  • cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

While the environmental aspect seems to be among the most urgent, becoming more resilient and sustainable involves being able to deal with crises and challenges at many scales, like conflicts or humanitarian crisis. Thus, sustainable food systems must be able to cope with risks and uncertainty, such as the onset of the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak in 2020. FAO focuses its agenda on these resilience objectives, which it defines as “the capacity over time, in the face of any disruption, to sustainably ensure availability of and access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for all, and sustain the livelihoods of agrifood systems’ actors”.

Hence, key actions led by government and public policies to change the food system would be associated with addressing the malnutrition burden [2,3]. A sustainable food production must indeed provide individuals with nutrients they need to protect and improve their health to avoid the onset of diseases. To be successful over the long term, sustainable diets need to be adapted to local food habits and cultures, and should also be a source of pleasure, warmth, and sharing.

Foster short circuit production systems and reduce food waste and loss

Relying on local production for staple foods may be one of the best solutions to ensure food security. Food chains have indeed become longer over the last decades, always moving the final consumer further away from the initial producer [4]. The journey of food from the farm to the table consumes energy. This energy consumption is not limited to agricultural production, but is related to transportation, processing, packaging, distribution, retailing, and preparation… All of these elements of the food system produce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Thus, switching to local and seasonal consumption is a first step to consuming more sustainably.

On the other hand, nearly one-third of food produced in the world currently goes to waste. In the European Union countries, this represents an average of 173kg of wasted food per capita and year [7]. Food waste is a widespread phenomenon, occurring at many levels in the food chain production [8]:

  • During harvesting
  • In the processing of the agri-food industry
  • Retailers, wholesalers and supermarkets
  • Consumers (mainly households) and food service providers (restaurants, collective catering)

To achieve more sustainable food production and distribution, EAT-Lancet recommends at least halving food losses – this will require major changes in food storage, transport, processing and packaging (especially in low-income countries), as well as informing consumers, food retailers and restaurant owners on how to reduce their food waste (especially in higher-income countries) [6].

Healthy and sustainable consumption is achieved by adopting sustainable diets

The development of sustainable food production systems is part of a global trend towards healthier and more sustainable diets. Among these, flexitarian diets but also diversified territorial diets (TDDs) allow to integrate this more sustainable diet.

The TDDs, specific to a region, include mainly seasonal and locally sourced foods and present a flexitarian model that combines a high proportion of plant-based foods, low amounts of meat but moderate intake of poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products [9].

Scientists are currently exploring the options, developing regenerative agriculture models in order to preserve and renew resources while providing reliable and safe access to healthy foods for all. The global aim is to pave the way to make informed decisions about guiding agriculture and food industries for a sustainable future.

To go further:

[1] United Nations. Population Division, World Population Prospects 2019, Graphs / Profiles. [Online]
[2] FAO. 2021. In Brief to The State of Food and Agriculture 2021. Making agrifood systems more resilient to shocks and stresses. Rome, FAO.  
[3] Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393(10170):447-492.
[4] Einarsson, Rasmus et al. “Healthy diets and sustainable food systems.” Lancet (London, England) vol. 394,10194 (2019): 215.
[5] Burlingame B, Dernini S. Sustainable diets and biodiversity: Directions and solutions for policy, research and action. Food and Agriculture Organization. 2010.
[6] Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. EAT-Lancet Commission Summary report: Food in the anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393(10170):447-492
[7] Scherhaufer S, Moates G, Hartikainen H, Waldron K, Obersteiner G.O., Environmental impacts of food waste in Europe, Waste Management (2018); 77: 98-113.
[8] Papargyropoulou E, Lozano R, Steinberger J. K, Wright N, bin Ujang Z; The food waste hierarchy as a framework for the management of food surplus and food waste; Journal of Cleaner Production, (2014); 76:106-115,
[9] Luis A Moreno, Rosan Meyer, Sharon M Donovan, Olivier Goulet, Jess Haines, Frans J Kok, Pieter van’t Veer, Perspective: Striking a Balance between Planetary and Human Health—Is There a Path Forward?, Advances in Nutrition, 2021; nmab139

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