Sustainable Nutrition is key to fixing our global food system. It can help food businesses, governments and other organisations align often conflicting internal strategies and a provide a lens for cross sectoral collaboration to resolve some of the world’s most urgent ecological and human health 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 unfit for purpose and that we have to fundamentally change the way we grow, distribute, eat and value 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. So we need a fundamental narrative and mindset shift from tonnes of a food per hectare to numbers of people fed and nourished per hectare.
Food businesses need to focus on strategies which focus sustainable nutrition outcomes – focusing on actions that can improve both planetary and human health – This cannot be a choice we must focus on actions that address both together. Sustainable nutrition is a concept that can help organisations align often conflicting internal strategies and a provide a lens for cross sectoral collaboration to resolve some of the world’s most urgent challenges. As this illustration shows, sustainable nutrition describes the overlap between sustainable food production and consumption bringing thinking and action on both areas. We have to produce more food sustainably, moving towards more regenerative production approaches whilst at the same time producing healthy and nutritious foods which improve human health.
We could, for example produce lots of foods sustainably, but if they are full of empty calories or have negative impacts on our own health then we have to question the production of these. Likewise, we could produce lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains which are great for our health, but if these are not grown sustainably ( for example using lots of pesticides) or have negative impacts on the health of the planet, on which our food system depends, then we won’t achieve the outcomes we are seeking.
A shift towards more sustainable diets is also key to achieving a wide variety of global commitments including the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the ambitions under the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions below 1.5oc, or the decade of action on nutrition, which aims to significantly reduce malnutrition and hunger.
It’s characterised by a number of principles including:
- More plants in our diets( especially fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, legumes,) – They are the perfect example of food with high nutritional value, lower environmental impact and better health outcomes. This includes the use of more indigenous and orphan crops
- Moderate amounts of dairy, poultry and fish; and small of red meat (Less but better meats/livestock products e.g. pasture fed, extensive regenerative livestock systems, recognizing in some part of the world consumption will need to increase to meet nutritional needs).
- Reduce consumption of foods high in sugars, salt and saturated fats, which provide empty calories with no nutritional value.
- 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;
- A regenerative approach to agriculture – One where agriculture puts more back into the environment and society than it takes out.
- Local and seasonal (shorter value chains that connect citizens with farmer)
- Safe and clean drinking/tap water in preference to other beverages, especially soft drinks
- Fish from sustainable sources (wild caught and farmed)
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.
For a more in depth description of sustainable nutrition please see my September blog here or download a PDF – Sustainable Nutrition: Key to Human and Planetary Health