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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds The environmental impacts arising from the way we produce food are really very well recognised now. And huge efforts are being deployed to figure out how to produce food in ways that produce fewer environmental impacts, that are more land efficient, that use less by way of fossil fuel inputs and fertiliser inputs, and that optimise inputs in relation to outputs. But there is a growing body of evidence that says that while these production side approaches are absolutely essential, by themselves, they’re unlikely to be sufficient if we are going to rise to the double challenge of addressing the environmental impacts caused by the food system while also feeding a growing population.

Skip to 1 minute and 8 seconds So of course, the ultimate driver of production is our consumption, is our demand for food. And increasingly, the research community is starting to conclude that there are limits on how far we can address our environmental challenges through production side measures alone. There’s a growing interest on how we might reorientate diets in ways that place less pressure on the natural resource base, but that also deliver on our health objectives. So this concept of sustainable, healthy diets are, where are the win-wins? How can we conceptualise dietary patterns that are good both for health and for the environment and focuses very much on the quantities of animal products that go into our diets.

Skip to 2 minutes and 8 seconds So when we think about dietary patterns, what are the principles of good health? I think the first thing to say is that people have to be in energy balance. That is, they’re not consuming energy in excess to requirements in excess to the energy they’re expending. Second is that people are hugely adaptable, and diets are extremely varied across the world, so it’s impossible to define an ultimate healthy diet. But there are general principles that bear out, and one is that diets that are healthy tend to be those that are rich in plant products. So fruit and vegetables, unrefined whole grains and tubers that are low in animal products.

Skip to 3 minutes and 5 seconds Because although diets that contain animal products can certainly be compatible with good health and these are very micronutrient-rich food, beyond a certain quantity, they do no further good, and they may do harm. So the World Health Organisation has recently come out with fairly conclusive evidence that processed animal products tend to be– processed meat is associated with cancer. Well, that is causally linked to cancer. And red meat, there is a probable association as well. And then we also have to think about this in relation to the environmental impacts of food to identify where there may be synergies.

Skip to 4 minutes and 5 seconds So if you look at the principles of diets that have lower environmental impacts, they tend to be those that are richer in plant-based products and more moderate or scanty in animal products. So there’s a clear synergy going on there. And the synergy’s not perfect. So if, again, you go back to the question of fish and aquaculture products, fish are a food that is extremely good for your health. But at the same time, overfishing is causing major environmental problems, and unsustainable systems of aquaculture are also causing a range of environmental problems. So there are certain trade-offs that we have to navigate. Not all fruit and vegetable production is sustainable by a long way.

Skip to 4 minutes and 57 seconds And for some populations, access to meat and milk can make a really important difference to their nutritional well-being. But generally speaking, the broad principles of dietary patterns that are both sustainable and healthy are, don’t eat more than you need, base your diets around unrefined whole grains and tubers and fruit and vegetables, and consume animal products in low to minimal quantities.

Sustainable and healthy diets

As we have seen, improving consumption and diets are as key to sustainable food systems as more resource-efficient agricultural practices. In this video, Dr. Tara Garnett, of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, explains the connections between our food consumption and health, as well as the associated environmental impacts.

Is there a way to achieve a “win-win” situation in which our dietary patterns place less pressure on natural resources, while also giving us the nutrients and calories required for good health? This video explores the opportunities, challenges and trade-offs to achieving sustainability goals at both ends of food systems.

Image Sources: “Burmese meal” by -AX- / CC BY-NC 2.0 and “Ecologically grown vegetables” by Elina Mark / CC BY-SA 3.0.

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This video is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute