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The components of a healthy and sustainable food system

This article discusses how to meet the increasing demand for food and provide healthy diets for the global population.
The Components Of A Healthy And Sustainable Food System
© CSIC

There is growing evidence suggesting that population-level dietary changes could improve both health and environmental sustainability.

Sustainable health

A key factor for achieving sustainable health both today and in future generations is the use of “sustainable diets”, which have a low environmental impact contributing to food and nutrition security and healthy life.

Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair, and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe, and healthy, while optimizing natural and human resources.

The relationship between nutritional value and environmental impact

In this context, the Double Food and Environmental Pyramid proposed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, highlights the relationship between the nutritional value and the environmental impact of different foods in the Mediterranean diet.

Foods with a lower environmental impact are recommended in higher quantities (fruits and vegetables) by nutritionists for their health benefits, while foods with a high environmental impact should be consumed in moderation.

Therefore, the Mediterranean diet could be considered a healthy and sustainable diet.

1 Figure 1. The double food and environmental pyramid model was developed by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) Foundation.

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Reversing diet-related diseases and environmental pressure

There are several potential ways to slow, and possibly reverse, the increases in diet-related non-communicable chronic diseases and environmental pressure.

One of these strategies is the transition to diets with a smaller proportion of calories from animal source foods and to diets where caloric consumption is sufficient to meet metabolic requirements.

Many studies have shown that reducing meat consumption can reduce greenhouse emissions while remaining nutritionally adequate.

Low-meat diets

For instance, global adoption of a low-meat diet that meets nutritional recommendations for fruits, vegetables, and caloric requirements is estimated to reduce diet-related greenhouse emissions by nearly 50 % and premature mortality by approximately 20 %.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Food systems “encompass the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food products that originate from agriculture, forestry or fisheries”.

A Sustainable Food System (SFS)

A Sustainable Food System (SFS) delivers food security and nutrition for all without compromising the economic, social, and environmental bases to ensure food security and nutrition for future generations.

An SFS is profitable (economic sustainability), has benefits for society (social sustainability) and has a positive/neutral impact on the environment (environmental sustainability).

1 Figure 2. The impact of Sustainable Food Systems. Source: © FAO, Sustainable food systems.

The fast-growing population, the increasing need for nutritionally correct diets and the depletion of food sources posit an immense challenge for the global food system, which is currently a major source of poor health and environmental degradation.

The principles of economy

A potential strategy to achieve sustainable nutrition and health can be formulated by following the principles of economy, which involves “the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value-added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy”.

The food processing industry

To increase the eco-sustainability of the food processing industry, co-products should be exploited before they become waste. Dealing with food waste is of great importance to combat hunger, raise income and improve food security in the world’s poorest countries.

Food waste

Until a few decades ago, food waste was not considered either a cost or a benefit. Food waste was used as animal feed brought to landfills or sent for composting.

However, to maximize the benefit for the environment, society and economy, FAO is currently developing a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the reduction of food loss and waste and has proposed an inverted pyramid setting priorities on how to best reduce food waste and save natural resources.

First, it is of great importance to distinguish between food loss and food waste, which are defined as follows:

  • Food loss: decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers and consumers.
  • Food waste: decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers.

The first recommendation proposed by FAO is to avoid generating food loss or waste (FLW) in the first place. Then, when waste cannot be prevented, excess food should be donated to people in need.

The next option is to use food waste in animal feeding, fuel conversion, composting, and finally, the least preferred option, incineration.

1 Figure 3. The food hierarchy was proposed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, 2019). FLW, Food losses and waste.

A multidisciplinary approach

To contribute to sustainable health, technical, economic, and scientific strategies using a multi-disciplinary approach are needed for the development of sustainable FLW biorefinery to develop food ingredients. These respond to the nutritional and sensory demands of the consumers.

Shifting dietary habits and incorporating food by-product-based ingredients in our diet is a significant challenge for cultural, political and economic reasons. Actions from governments, the food industry and individuals are required to achieve a sustainable food system and health.

Food is the best medicine for sustainable health and active ageing. Food should be safe, tasty, nutritious and good for the planet.

Authors: Dr Dolores del Castillo and Dr. Amaia Iriondo-DeHond

© CSIC
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Nutrition for Health and Sustainability

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