Sustainable Nutrition: Rethinking Sustainability

Sustainable Nutrition is key to fixing our global food system. It can help food businesses align often conflicting internal strategies and a provide a lens  for cross sectoral collaboration to resolve some of the worlds most urgent challenges

2050 is a date which comes up frequently in every debate about food systems: it’s the year when the world population is estimated to reach 9.8 billion people. And the question that always follows is: how are we going to feed all of them?

It is my belief that our current food system is broken and that we have to fundamentally change the way we grow, distribute and eat food. Key to this, is the need to move away from a food system based solely on increasing yields with less impact (what I would call a ‘productivist’ approach), to one that reduces environmental impacts whilst optimising health and nutritional outcomes. It’s no longer good enough to just produce more food more sustainably. We need to ensure we focus more on the production of nutrient-dense foods in order to optimise nutritional and health outcomes.

Sustainable Nutrition_Global Goals

This is the concept ‘sustainable nutrition’, which recognises we need to change methods of production and our own consumption patterns, thinking in terms of the number of people fed, as opposed to the tonnes of food produced. It’s characterised by a number of principles including:

  1. More plants in our diets – They are the perfect example of food with high nutritional value, lower environmental impact and better health outcomes;
  2. Reduce consumption of foods high in sugars, salt and saturated fats, which provide empty calories with no nutritional value.
  3. Reduce food waste – Today, we already produce 30%-40% more calories than necessary but one third of all food grown globally is wasted somewhere across the food value chain;
  4. A regenerative approach to agriculture – One where agriculture puts more back into the environment and society than it takes out.

Reconnecting people with food

For sustainable nutrition to become mainstream, we have to reconnect people with food. In an increasingly globalised society, with the majority of us living within cities, it’s easy to forget where our food comes from and how it is produced. It’s this type of disconnection that is, I believe, resulting in unsustainable behaviours, like food waste, the obesity epidemic and the unrealistic expectation that food should become cheaper and cheaper.

Consumers, on their part, are already showing a clear desire to reconnect with food. Many are concerned about animal welfare, fair trade or organic agriculture. However, despite good intentions,  when it comes to choosing which product to place in their shopping baskets, decisions are more often than not,  based on cost and health, rather than sustainability concerns.

In my view, unsustainable food shouldn’t be a choice at all: retailers and manufacturers should only be offering sustainable products. As a society will have to start thinking about the ‘true cost of food’ and for foods which impose significant human and planetary health costs, consumers will need to be prepared to pay more for it.

A bigger role for governments

Over the next few years, governments and businesses will need to think about not only production efficiencies, but how they can influence consumer behaviours, if we are really to ensure the food we eat results in improvements to planetary and human health outcomes.

Governments need to play a significant role across many areas, if we want to create a truly sustainable food system and deliver the ambition as set out under the Sustainable Development Goals (a global framework for sustainable development which most countries have signed). This includes the use of agricultural subsidies, to support the horticulture sector for example, taxation, procurement policies or dietary advice that would encourage citizens to incorporate more and more plants into their diets.

Businesses can use sustainable nutrition to align their own strategies

Retailers and manufacturers also have a vital role to play. It starts with the need to implement sustainability strategies and embed them across their organisations, with sustainable nutrition at their heart. I am amazed at how many food businesses, including leading multinational brands, have a set of departmental strategies which often conflict and reinforce inter-departmental competition for resources. Sustainable Nutrition is an opportunity for  businesses to re-align their strategies so that sustainability, procurement brands, marketing and finance teams are guided by one sustainability strategy, embedded across their business DNA. For too long businesses have treated sustainability as a bit of an ‘add on’ – its time to remove CSR strategies and embed sustainability at the heart of their strategies. A  host of opportunities will emerge as a result, including how they can innovate in ways that maximise the nutritional content of foods at minimum environmental costs.

One example is the emergence of innovation to find more sustainable ways to produce proteins. This is already happening on two fronts. One is plant-based proteins, which can cater for the wider market of meat reducers rather than vegans and vegetarians. Tesco in the UK has recently employed a director of plant-based innovation, while many of the world’s leading food manufacturers I’ve been speaking to have R&D teams working to embed more plant-based proteins within composite foodstuffs.  .

Change requires new business models and collaboration 

Feeding almost 10 billion people with healthy, nutritious, sustainably-produced foods will be one of the key challenges of our time.It’s going to require radically different business models and new collaborations between business, governments and the civil society, which are already starting to emerge. Sustainable nutrition is a powerful lens for all those working in the food system, which will enable organisations to identify strategies leading to action and innovation. Through the lens of sustainable nutrition, I believe we can start reframing how we produce, consume, and value food. The prize could not be bigger – the need to feed some 10 billion people with healthy, nutritious food that is good for planetary and human health.


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