How to Think More Sustainably About What You Eat
By Robyn Albertyn
reviewed by juliana ascolani
“Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.” – The EAT-Lancet Commission
The way we think about food matters more than we think. We casually go about our days, which revolve around food: we go to the grocery store, prepare our food, and then eat it. But have you ever considered that your diet impacts climate change, malnutrition, and food insecurity? In this article, we’ll unpack why eating sustainably is beneficial for your holistic health and the planet’s health.
What is a sustainable diet?
After a long debate on what defines a sustainable diet, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Biodiversity International landed on this definition: “Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations”. The following criteria of a sustainable diet includes diets that nurture and protect the environment, and diets that are accessible, affordable, safe, fair, and nutritious for all human beings.
You needn’t search too far to find that achieving a sustainable diet comes with its own set of challenges. Author of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN) 2017 report, Maria Cristina Tirado-von der Pahlen writes, “nutrition and health….play a significant role in environmental degradation and climate change”. The complexity arises from the interdependent relationship between people and the environment; we are reliant on the environment for our source of food, and the environment depends on us to sustain it. Therefore, we can’t talk about what a sustainable diet entails without talking about the global population and the COVID-19 pandemic, the environment, nutrition, and food security — all of which influence our holistic health.
Let’s unpack four challenges that make a sustainable diet hard to achieve:
- Global population: The COVID-19 pandemic has created more challenges for the UN to eliminate hunger by 2030, although prior to the pandemic, their goals were already not on track according to the 2020 SOFI report. The UN has expressed dire concern about poor communities around the globe being affected by famines, and as a result, a pandemic of their own, called “the hunger pandemic” — all due to the impact of COVID-19. Oxfam International says “More people could die of coronavirus-driven hunger than from the virus itself”. In 2020, The UN reported that over 820 million people suffered from hunger and 110 million people had inadequate access to food security prior to COVID-19. The projections for the future are grim too as the levels of hunger are due to rise to 270 million (82% increase since 2019). Presently, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a vulnerable nation that represents one of the biggest food crises in the world because of pre-existing hunger drivers related to floods, heavy rains, insecurity, armed conflict, etc., according to the FAO news report. All the while, the global population is estimated to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. And although the earth has a sufficient food supply to feed all human beings on the planet, an estimate of 690 million people globally have suffered from malnutrition pre-COVID-19.
- Environmental concerns: Agriculture is the primary cause of biodiversity loss. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), “Agriculture already occupies about 50% of the Earth’s habitable land and is the principal driver of biodiversity loss”. Other concerns are excessive overuse and exploitation of wildlife, deforestation, and water scarcity, among other pervasive issues. This report discusses how our current food system uses a whopping 70% of our global freshwater. Additionally, global meat consumption is responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and is projected to increase to 80% by 2050 according to the UNSCN 2017 report. These concerns add stress on the environment and contribute negatively to the health of our planet because of unsustainable agricultural practices.
- Nutrition: Chronic hunger, malnutrition, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases (NCD) rates are all on an upward incline. This poses a health threat to our global population. According to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, in 2019: “21.3 percent (144.0 million) of children under 5 years of age were estimated to be stunted, 6.9 percent (47.0 million) wasted, and 5.6 percent (38.3 million) overweight, while at least 340 million children suffered from micronutrient deficiencies”. This multifaceted malnutrition problem is further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in developing countries. FAO Director-General Dongyu Qu tells the UN that “in the developing world, a child malnourished at a young age will be stunted for life”. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly shed some light on the jarring inequalities and juxtaposing realities that exist in our world.
- Food security: Food security is a broad topic that consists of these five dimensions according to the FAO: availability of food, access to food, utilization of food, stability, and malnutrition. The widely accepted definition by the FAO says that food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Food insecurity, on the other hand, “exists when people do not have adequate physical, social or economic access to food”. Therefore, the promotion of a healthy and sustainable diet can’t be divorced from accessibility and affordability. Wilson et al. discuss how “reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food…is a particular challenge for some low-income countries, but also has impacts for deprived groups in all countries”. COVID-19 has also intensified food insecurity in low-income families globally whose livelihoods have been profoundly affected by the pandemic.
All four challenges — the global population, the environment, nutrition, and food security — are interconnected. Accordingly, Tirado-von der Pahlen argues that “Climate change influences the key determinants of malnutrition, for example, food access, maternal and child care, access to health services, and environmental health”. Low-income families and populations living in developing countries are the most vulnerable to climate change and, consequently, malnutrition and food insecurity where nutritious food is inaccessible, unaffordable, and unavailable.
Although the challenges are multifaceted and require systematic change from the food production system, policy changes to consumer behavioral change, we can hold on to the hope that for every problem we face individually and collectively, there is a solution and actionable steps we can all take.
What can you do to eat more sustainably?
WWF recommends the following tips to address climate change, the food system, and malnutrition:
- Adopting a more plant-based diet: In the World Resources Institute (WRI) 2016 report, researchers reported that the demand for beef is estimated to increase by 95% by 2050. Consuming more plant-based meals lessens demand for meat and lightens the pressure on agricultural land that is used for livestock, which produces 14.15% greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more is that growing and eating more plant-based foods contributes positively to biodiversity and can help to reverse environmental destruction caused by outdated agricultural practices. Adopting a more regenerative agriculture system gives back to the environment instead of taking from the environment.
- Diversifying your plate and pallet: Adding a variety of different foods on your plate is not only good for the planet but also for your health. According to the WHO, “A healthy diet helps to protect against malnutrition in all its forms, as well as noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer”. A nutritious diet consists of 4 components according to the 2020 SOFI report: variety, adequacy, moderation, and balance. Try diversifying your plate and pallet by creating a rainbow plate. It’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but also packed with loads of nutrients. For more dietary guidance, check out WHO’s factsheet and FAO’s Eat Well Plate and WWF and Knorrs’ Future 50 foods.
- Avoiding food waste: Considering that a large population of people globally are chronically hungry, being mindful of our food consumption is so important, to say the least. Food waste amounts to an estimated 1.3 billion tons a year and has a carbon footprint of about 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year, from agricultural production to consumption. There are conscious actions we can all take to reduce this waste, starting with making a shopping list. Read more tips on how to reduce your food waste here.
- Reading labels: Palm oil is a commonly used vegetable oil found in many products from ice-cream to shampoos. Palm oil is massively responsible for deforestation and currently poses a threat to biodiversity from plants to animals. Biodiverse forests have now become a fragile ecosystem for species, including already endangered animals like orangutans and tigers whose habitats have been destroyed. What’s more is that palm oil contributes to air pollution, soil and water pollution, soil erosion, and climate change. WWF recommends looking out for these labels: Fairtrade, Freedom Food, MSC and ASC, and RSPO. It’s important to back these organizations to support and promote the production of sustainable palm oil.
Environmental health affects our health and vice versa. Becoming more dependent on plant-based foods for our consumption can reduce the pressure on the environment. By taking care of your body with plant-based foods, we’re ineffectually taking care of the environment and the vulnerable, marginalized populations of people who are suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition. We can all create positive changes by the little choices we make to improve our holistic health. We can start by informing ourselves to make conscious food choices and spreading the word — because this is important.
I’m a multi-passionate content writer from South Africa. Storytelling has always captivated me. I’m intrigued by how storytelling has been ubiquitous throughout history and how it’s evolved from drawings on rocks, to stories we now read on blogs, watch on Netflix, and engage with on social media. Storytelling carries great potential for collective transformation and global awareness. With this in mind, I’m continuously adapting my style of writing, using my background in English Literature, and immersing what I’ve learned in copywriting to create content that is engaging, educational, and empathetic. I’m an advocate for wellness for all, especially for the marginalised in society. I want to use writing as a platform to bring about change and healing for our global society. A vision of a healed, inclusive, and compassionate humanity drives and fuels my passion.
I am a health researcher who bridges data science and health research with direct experience in healthcare and university institutions, passionately and collaboratively pursuing the integration and synergy of all key areas of health and wellness. I believe in inclusion as the main pillar of our society, especially when it comes to health. Promotion and prevention in health empower people to adopt healthy decisions, thus I have been working during the last years in the development of inclusive and holistic health systems. What do I enjoy the most about my job? Realizing how we are making a difference in people’s lives, and seeing the result in their health journeys. I enjoy the challenge of questioning new paradigms and creating debate around them.
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