An illustration of a pig, chicken, sheep and a cow

Sustainable and ethical food production

Ensuring a sustainable supply of food for the world’s fast growing population is a major challenge. Food production is one of the key areas that requires action, alongside issues of food consumption, food waste, improved nutrition and food security.

Food production will need to increase by 70% to feed the larger, more urbanised and most likely better off population [1]. Food products will need to be ‘nutrient-dense’ to provide a balanced diet [2] and more food will have to be produced using less land. In addition, water and energy will become limiting factors.

What is sustainable food production?

Sustainable food production is “a method of production using processes and systems that are non-polluting, conserve non-renewable energy and natural resources, are economically efficient, are safe for workers, communities and consumers, and do not compromise the needs of future generations” [3].

Environmental impact of food production

Global food production methods must change to minimise the impact on the environment and support the world’s capacity to produce food in the future. As with other man-made activities, food production contributes to climate change, water scarcity, soil degradation and the destruction of biodiversity [3,4].

It’s estimated that 25% of total global greenhouse gas emissions are directly caused by crop and animal production and forestry [5]. Agricultural land covers 37% of the Earth’s land surface6 and together the crop and livestock sectors use 70% of freshwater resources [2].

The level of environmental impact of food production relates to where and how the food is produced and the local availability of natural resources, such as water and soil. Often there are trade-offs between environmental factors, and to date there is no simple set of principles to determine if one food product is more environmentally sustainable than another.

Actions to make food production more sustainable

The European Commission is assessing how best to lower the environmental impact of food production and to limit waste throughout the food supply chain [7]. By 2020, it aims to reduce the food chain’s resource inputs by 20%, through incentives for more sustainable food production and consumption.

Immediate progress towards this target can be made with current technologies and know-how but actions will differ by agricultural sector. Some actions to make food production more sustainable (as identified by the European Commission and in food company sustainability plans [8]) are:

1 Use natural resources efficiently For example; reduce fossil fuels, optimise water use, reduce pollution of waterways, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, maintain soils and increase biodiversity
2 Protect marine resources For example; implement sustainable fishing, eliminate by-catch and reduce pollution of the sea
3 Procure food ingredients from sustainable sources For example; develop sustainability schemes such as those by the Marine Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
4 Use environmentally efficient food packaging For example; optimise packaging use and use recycled materials with low environmental impact
5 Reduce food waste For example; use technical strategies to extend shelf life and reduce waste sent to landfill

The European Commission is undertaking further work on how we move towards a more resource-efficient and sustainable food system [9].

What is ethical food production?

Ethical food production includes consideration of people (workers’ welfare, whether on small farms, producer co-operatives, large estates or plantations), the environment (centred on environmental sustainability) and animals (mainly concerned with animal rights and welfare) [10]. Ethical production therefore considers animal welfare in addition to the three pillars of sustainable food production.

In the European Union the Lisbon Treaty recognises animals as sentient beings, meaning that they are capable of feeling pleasure and pain. As a consequence, the European Commission has adopted a new strategy to improve animal welfare conditions: the way they are housed, fed, transported and slaughtered [11]. Although there is no universally agreed definition of what animal welfare is [12] the World Organisation for Animal Health uses a summary of the Five Freedoms of animal welfare [13] as a guiding principle:

  1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
  2. Freedom from discomfort and exposure
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom from fear and distress
  5. Freedom to express normal behaviour

The environmental impact of agricultural food production is quite significant. Did any of the figures in this article surprise you?


The first four sections of this article were adapted from EUFIC’s article on ‘A Sustainable Food Supply’ as part of their Food Today series.

For the full list of references please see under ‘Downloads’ and further reading is provided under ‘See also’ - both found at the bottom of this Step.

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This article is from the free online course:

Trust in Our Food: Understanding Food Supply Systems

EIT Food