Sustainable Food Systems …

…What do we mean?

Food is essential to life. The food we eat affects our own health, but producing and consuming food has a huge impact on the world’s resources. The way our food is produced has a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use, pollution, and the impact of chemicals such as pesticides.

Many of the current, industrial-scale food production systems compromise our ability to produce food in the future. Agriculture, including fisheries, is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss. In many regions , water extracted by irrigation for food production exceeds the amount that can be replinished by rainfall.

Our food system is driven by1 :

Population and affluence: Global population is projected to increase to nearly eight billion by 2030 and more than 9 billion by 2050, with an even faster growing middle-class, creating demand for more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resource to produce. At the same time, a significant share of the world’s population is suffering from under-nutrition or malnutrition.

Food prices : While here in the UK we demand lower and lower food prices, food prices globally are close to record levels. Land is becoming the most sought-after commodity as the world shifts from an age of food abundance to one of scarcity.

Changes in diet: There has been a move towards unhealthy diets and the consumption of more heavily processed foods. Europeans consume too many calories, too much fat and sugar, and salt.

Food waste: It has been estimated that between 1/3rd and 1/2 of all food produced around the world is lost or wasted (i.e up to 2 billion tonnes of food). In the EU, food waste is expected to rise to about 126 million tonnes a year by 2020, from a baseline of 89 million tonnes in 2006, unless action is taken to halt this trend .

Changes in the supply chain: In Europe, our highly industrialised, agro-economic model is focused on providing food at the lowest possible price. More buying power, therefore control of the supply chain, is being concentrated in the retail sector. Primary producers, farmers and other food producers, have an increasingly subordinate role.

Fisheries: According to the European Environment Agency, “most fish stocks of commercial importance in European waters [i.e. around 75 %] appear to be outside safe biological limits.”

Water: More than 1.4 billion people live where water cannot meet the agricultural, municipal, and environmental needs.

Biodiversity loss: current global extinction rate is 1000 to 10000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate.


So what might a sustainable food system look like?

A sustainable food system is not just about the food itself. It’s a combination of factors including how the food is produced, how it’s distributed, how it’s packaged and how it’s consumed.

A sustainable food system:

  • Accounts for the public health impacts across the entire lifecycle of how food is produced, processed, packaged, labeled, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed of
  • Should contribute to everyone’s health and wellbeing
  • Conserves, protects, and regenerates natural resources, landscapes, and biodiversity
  • Meets our current food and nutrition needs without compromising the ability of the system to meet the needs of future generations
  • Provides equitable access to affordable food that is health promoting and culturally appropriate
  • Empowers food workers and consumers to participate in decision making in all parts of the system
  • Supports high animal welfare, sustains our wildlife, natural resources and environment for generations to come.
  • A healthy, sustainable food system strengthens the relationships between all sections of the system – from production to waste disposal.

How can we make sustainable food choices?

While as individuals we might not feel able to influence politicians and policy makers directly there are still many ways that we can choose to eat more sustainably, and our individual choices as consumers can force change upon suppliers and move the food system in a more sustainable direction.

  • Raising animals for food is an industry with one of the largest carbon footprints. Reducing the amount of meat and dairy we eat is a good first step
  • If you cannot give up meat and dairy completely, use some of the money saved by eating less to spend that little extra on sustainably reared meat and ethically produced cheese and eggs
  • Eat foods that are in season AND local. Seasonal foods usually haven’t had to be artificially ripened in greenhouses, which are often fuelled by fossil fuels. Locally sourced foods reduces food miles
  • Reduce food waste; by buying and cooking only what you need
  • Grow your own herbs, fruit and vegetables. That way, you’ll know exactly what’s gone into producing them and have no food miles!

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