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The rice harvest in Nueva Vizcaya, the Philippines, by ILO in Asia and the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

An overview of food system options

There are many options for sustainable and efficient use of natural resources and reduced environmental impacts in food systems. Much of what you read below will be or has already been covered in more detail in this course. As you read this article, follow along using the diagram below to see where in the system these options generally occur. Important to note: almost all options to intervene in food systems are very context-specific.

Options for sustainable and efficient use of natural resources and reduced environmental impacts in food systems Options for sustainable and efficient use of natural resources and reduced environmental impacts in food systems (UNEP, 2016).

Options to increase resource efficiency in primary food production

Sustainable intensification

Sustainable intensification is a strategic objective of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It involves simultaneously improving the productivity and sustainable management of natural resources. The core idea of sustainable intensification is to make better use of existing resources (e.g. land, water, biodiversity), so as to not undermine the capacity to produce food in the future.

From a biophysical perspective, there are many ways in which crop yields could be increased. These include improving soil fertility (e.g. through integrated nutrient management), adopting improved crop varieties, improving water management (including use of rainwater), and improved pest and weed management (e.g. through biological or integrated pest management).

Points to consider:

  • Behind each point of intervention there are many ways of achieving the indicated objective. For example, "increased crop yields" or "increased feed efficiency" could be reached by dozens of different measures, often also influencing the use of other resources.
  • Many options are not measures in themselves, but the outcomes of specific actions. For instance, “increasing crop yields” is an outcome of actions such as using improved seeds, better weed control, better fertilization, and so on. The set of actions chosen to achieve the objective may involve trade-offs, such as loss of biodiversity when multiple varieties of a crop are replaced by a single, improved variety.
  • Increase feed efficiency of livestock and improve grassland use

    Farmed animals consume around 35% of the total crops produced on arable land. In addition, grassland and other forages are being used, as well as large amounts of co-products (such as oil meals) and by-products (such as molasses). An increase in feed efficiency could help reduce demand for feed crops and thus ease pressure on all natural resources needed for crop production (land, minerals and water).

    Concrete measures to increase overall feed efficiency include improving feed composition, reducing feed losses, better storage of feed, and improving animal health. “Overall feed efficiency” indicates that it is not only about the individual animal’s performance, but that aspects such as mortality, reproductive performance and longevity are important, too.

    Reduction of food losses

    A final overarching option at the farm level is the reduction of pre- and post-harvest food losses. Improving crop protection worldwide helps reduce losses to pests, disease and weeds, thereby increasing the input use efficiency of production. Substantial losses also occur post-harvest, i.e. in drying and storage. This represents a vast amount of food, along with the wasted cost and effort of producing it. Food losses can be reduced by better storage techniques (including cooling by natural techniques), on-farm processing, and better transport from rural areas to urban areas.

    Options to increase resource efficiency along food systems

    Reducing food waste

    Reducing waste could have a significant effect on reducing resource use as well as on food availability. Some food “waste” could still be used for human consumption; for example, many grocers will reject fruits and vegetables simply because they fall short of specific standards for size, shape and colour. Food waste (as well as by-products) can also be used as feed and thus converted into high-value products such as meat and dairy. Finally, food waste can also be used for bioenergy or (in the form of compost) as a soil amendment. Recycling food waste can also ensure that the minerals used in their production are not lost, but go back into the soil.

    Less resource-intensive (more ‘sustainable’) diets

    A shift towards less resource-intensive diets would contribute to a significant reduction in resource use and environmental impacts of food production.

    Main components of such a shift are:

  • Reducing the total food (energy) consumed: Overweight and obesity are related to an excessive intake of total energy. Lowering this intake will not only be beneficial for human health, but also reduces total food demand.
  • In regions with currently high consumption rates of meat, dairy and eggs: Reducing the consumption of these products to a “moderate” level. As many livestock products contain saturated fats, a reduction in their consumption will also have health benefits.
  • Reducing the intake of certain beverages such as soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, as these have generally low nutritional value but require high resource use (especially for transport, packaging and cooling).
  • Options outside the food system

    Reducing the use of biofuels is an option largely beyond current food systems, but as their production requires similar resources as food (land, water and minerals), they should be briefly mentioned here. Biofuel crops (mainly maize, sugarcane and oil seeds) now occupy around 4–5% of the global cropland area. Their production and use is often stimulated by legislation that requires biofuels to be blended into petroleum-based fuels. A lower production of biofuels would in principle make more land available for food production and reduce the need for new cropland.


    UNEP (2016). Food Systems and Natural Resources. A Report of the Working Group on Food Systems of the International Resource Panel. Westhoek, H, Ingram J., Van Berkum, S., Özay, L., and Hajer M.

    Image Source: “The rice harvest in Nueva Vizcaya, the Philippines” by ILO in Asia and the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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    This article is from the free online course:

    Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

    Stockholm Environment Institute