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What do we mean by ‘sustainability’?

Find out what experts mean when discussing sustainability and how it affects your trust in food.

Sustainability is a concept that emerged towards the end of the 20th century in response to a growing awareness of the environmental impact of human activity on the planet, and a recognition that our natural resources are becoming depleted. At the beginning, sustainability meant being able to continue to grow and harvest a sustainable yield to feed the population forever. However, the concept of sustainability has now expanded, covering not only the concern for human livelihood, but also the preservation of the species and ecosystems [1].

These are some definitions of sustainability:

  • Economic development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs [2].
  • The use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them [3].
  • The possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever [4].

Global policies on sustainable development are now using the concept of ‘Planetary Boundaries’. This is a framework of nine boundaries; which are based on scientific research that has demonstrated the environmental limits of earth systems (such as climate change, water usage and pollution) within which humanity can thrive [5,6].

Three pillars of sustainable development

When developing global policies for systems of sustainable development is it important to integrate the three pillars of sustainability [7]:

  • Economic: ie profits and financial performance – nothing else can be guaranteed if the enterprise cannot sustain itself
  • Environmental: ie efficient use of natural resources with low environmental impact
  • Social: ie human well-being, equity and social responsibility

All three pillars need to be in (dynamic) balance or the system is unsustainable.

Global Food Security and sustainable diets

Balancing these three pillars of sustainable development is particularly challenging in the context of global food security. Food security is “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” [8].

The infographic was created by Aanand Tank, an undergraduate student from the University of Reading’s Typography and Graphic Communication department.

The challenges in food security are linked to the fact that the global population is increasing by 83 million people every year and is projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050 [9]; as well as a host of other complex problems including the increase in food staple prices, skewed global distribution of food, the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and the problem of food waste.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines sustainable diets as: “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources” [11]. See under ‘See also’ for further information about food security.

Within the broad area of sustainability, this Week will narrow on sustainable and ethical food production; concentrating on the production of food through the improved and sustainable management of natural resources, water, crops, livestock and other components of farming systems.

Why might consumers choose to buy food that has been produced sustainably and ethically?

Recently, consumers have started to understand and care more about the links between the food we eat and the impact of its production on social, environmental and of course health issues [12].

Food producers and retailers have responded to this growing interest and have started to provide consumers with information about the methods used to produce their food through an increasing number of sustainable food labels, including: fair trade, low carbon footprint, natural, biodynamic, organic and assurances relating to animal welfare among others [13]. However, it is important for consumers to understand exactly what these sustainability labels mean [14] in order to have trust in the production processes used.

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.

© EIT Food
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