Sustainable Nutrition: The Urgency of Regenerating Human and Planetary Health

Sep 1, 2020 | 0 comments

Sustainable nutrition is a powerful lens for all those working in the food system, which will enable governments, businesses, investors and civil society organisations to identify strategies, programmes and interventions that lead to action, innovation and investment. Through the lens of sustainable nutrition, we can start reframing how we produce, harvest, distribute, market, consume and value food. The prize could not be bigger – the need to feed some estimated 10bn people on our planet with healthy, nutritious food that is good for our bodies and our planet.

Sustainable nutrition, which is based on regenerative agricultural practices and healthy, sustainable, and culturally respectful diets, is key to the restoration of planetary and human health and well-being. We confront two intertwined and interlinked crises that result from a 21st century food system, which is not fit for purpose:

i) A human health crisis
Unhealthy diets containing foods with too many unsaturated fats, sugars and salts, and low in fruits, vegetables, nuts and pulses, are responsible for the greatest health burden worldwide and in most regions and are now the main cause of 11m avoidable deaths each year, implicated in diseases such as obesity, strokes, diabetes, respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Today, 2.1bn people are overweight and obese, 2bn have nutritional deficiencies and about 821m are still suffering from hunger. In the UK, 30% of us are overweight and another 30% of us are obese, yet despite eating all this extra food, we are still not well nourished. The regular National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows the UK population continues to consume too much saturated fat and not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre. It shows we are not getting enough minerals, such as iron or vitamins including folate, Vitamin A and D. In terms of fibre, we should be consuming 30g of fibre per day and yet, on average, we are only getting 18g. Our diet is in need for an urgent overhaul from a health perspective.

ii) A planetary health crisis
In terms of the sustainability challenge, we only have one planet– and yet if the 7. 8 billion people who currently live on the planet, consumed as many resources as the average person in Western Europe does, we would need 3 planets. We are using resources faster than they can be replenished. Our food system is estimated to contribute 21–37% of total net anthropogenic GHG emissions and, according to WWF, 73% of forest and habitat loss, which in turn in contributing to the 6th greatest mass extinction of species that our planet has ever seen. Our diet is in need for an urgent overhaul from a sustainability perspective.

These crises, now combined with an economic crisis following Covid-19, highlights the need and urgency of transforming the way food is grown, harvested processed, distributed, marketed, consumed and disposed of. A dietary transition, combined with agricultural practices which restore, rather than degrade, our soil, environment and health and improve livelihoods must be the priority of governments, businesses, producers and citizens. The COVID-19 epidemic is further exposing the fragility of our food system and poses some fundamental questions about how our diets (and levels of obesity)  have contributed to the epidemic and how future diets can build resiliency and food security as well as improving human and planetary health.

Within the UK we are only 52% self-sufficient in food, with just 23% of the fruit and vegetables eaten in Britain grown here. This is crazy.  As a result of COVID-19, consumers have been looking for more food that is made within their communities. In the last few months, consumer appetite for foods grown locally has boomed. We need more initiatives that support the next generation of British and local food makers and have to produce more of our own food, particularly healthy and nutritious foods, such as fruit and vegetables that are better for planetary and human health. Why import apples from New Zealand when they can and should be grown in the UK?

Sustainable nutrition must be lens for action, innovation and investment

Food businesses need to focus on strategies which develop sustainable nutrition outcomes and actions that can improve both planetary and human health. This cannot be a choice – we must address both these issues simultaneously. 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 Figure 1 shows, sustainable nutrition describes the overlap between sustainable food production and consumption (what we eat) bringing thinking and action on both areas. We must produce more food sustainably, moving towards more regenerative production approaches whilst at the same time producing healthy and nutritious foods which improve human health.

Sustainable Nutrition: The overlap between sustainable food production and consumption

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 is 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, which create net positive and regenerative impacts, whilst optimising nutritional and health outcomes. We need a fundamental narrative and mindset shift from the current framing predicated on optimising ‘tonnes of a food per hectare’ to one based on optimising ‘numbers of people fed and nourished per hectare’.

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 must question the production of these foods. 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 if they use lots of pesticides or exploitative working practices, then we will not achieve the outcomes we are seeking.

Sustainable nutrition is key to achieving a wide variety of global commitments including the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, the ambitions under the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions below 1.5℃, or the UN  decade of action on nutrition, which aims to significantly reduce malnutrition and hunger.

What does sustainable nutrition look like in practice?

Sustainable nutrition is characterised by several principles including:

  • More plants in our diets, especially fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, and legumes – they are the perfect example of food with high nutritional value, lower environmental impact, and better health outcomes.
  • A diversity of food including the use of more indigenous and orphan crops.  
  • Moderate amounts of dairy, poultry and fish and small amounts of red meat (high quality e.g. pasture fed, extensive well-managed regenerative livestock systems, recognising that in some parts of the world consumption will need to increase to meet nutritional needs).
  • Reduced consumption of foods high in sugars, salts and saturated fats, which provide empty calories with no nutritional value.
  • Reductions in 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 food – shorter value chains that connect citizens with farmers who receive a fair price.
  • Safe and clean drinking/tap water in preference to other beverages, especially soft drinks.
  • Fish from sustainable sources (wild caught and farmed).
  • Breast milk in favour of formulated milk.

Putting sustainable nutrition at the heart of business strategy

Retailers and manufacturers have an opportunity to put sustainable nutrition at the heart of their business strategies. Sustainability, health and nutrition must not be separate, often conflicting strategies – they should be embedded across the business, with interventions and initiatives which tackle all three. Sustainable nutrition will drive financial, brand, social, health and environmental benefits. Many food businesses 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 strategy, embedded across their business DNA.

A dietary transition, combined with
agricultural practices which restore, rather than
degrade, our soil, environment and health
and improve livelihoods must be the priority
of governments, businesses, producers and

Examples of sustainable nutrition innovation

There are many examples of businesses using the principles behind sustainable nutrition to improve human and planetary health. Last year Knorr, which is part of Unilever, partnered with WWF to produce the Future 50 Foods Report, which identifies 50 foods we should eat more of to promote a more healthy and sustainable global food system. A ‘Future 50 Foods Cookbook’ has just been released featuring plant-based ingredients, such as ube, red cabbage, pumpkin flowers, orange tomatoes and many more, which are good for you and good for the planet.

There are signs food businesses are paying more attention to so called orphan or forgotten crops, which comprise a multitude of species that are currently largely neglected by major research funding bodies and global food manufacturers/retailers. These include crops such as millets, amaranth, pigeon peas, sorghum etc. Although these species have long been overlooked, interest is now growing amongst the food industry in their potential to contribute to food and nutritional security and improved livelihood options for farmers. Today 75% of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species and yet there are over 70,000 edible plant species on the planet!

In recent years, a number of agri-food businesses have recognised that there is increasing vulnerability and risk in sourcing key ingredients within their supply chains and that opportunities exist to look at new ingredient sourcing of plant products, driven by consumer interests in health and sustainability.  One such example is Naturex’s Ultimate Spirulina extract, which contains 100% natural algae and can be used to replace artificial blue or green colourings in foodstuffs.  As well increasing interest in algae as a foodstuff, expect to see ingredients such as seaweeds, hemp, heff and the water lentil enter the market.

Take the water lentil (also known as duckweed, which you often see floating on ponds), for example,  which is now being grown on massive aquafarms by companies such as Parabel. Tasting slightly sweeter than normal lentils, they are highly nutritious and packed with omega 3 fatty acids, fibres and other micro-nutrients. They can double their biomass every 24 hours and can be harvested daily so have the potential to provide both a healthy and sustainable form of protein. Water lentils are a high source of Vitamin A, B Vitamins, iron and calcium, and an excellent source of antioxidants. They have just recently been found to contain a natural source of vitamin B12 – a vitamin very rarely found in plants!

The water lentil produced by Parabel

Some food businesses are paying increasing attention to the concept of regenerative agriculture approaches that improve soil health, biodiversity, carbon storage, nutrition and livelihoods. It is no longer good enough to produce more food with less impact – we need to grow food and put more back into our environment and society than we take out. Organisations like Danone are heavily investing in regenerative agriculture, using agricultural practices such as no till farming, intercropping, cover crops, greater diversification, precision inputs and biological rather than chemical fertilisers. There is a renewed focus on soil health too with an emerging body of evidence that suggests improving soil health can improve gut health.

Governments must step up to the plate

Government has singularly failed to step up to the plate when it comes to supporting sustainable nutrition. Whilst business and civil society can do much to change behaviours and business models, there is a real urgency for policy reform to ensure sustainable nutrition principles are mainstreamed within practice. In the UK there is a real opportunity through the development of a new food strategy. Last year, the then Environment Secretary Michael Gove, appointed Henry Dimbleby to conduct this year-long review of government food policy and to set out his recommendations within six months of its completion. His first report has just been published and focuses recommendations on poverty and trade, in light of the challenges from Coronavirus, ahead of a full report due in 2021. Government will then publish an ambitious, multi-disciplinary National Food Strategy, the first of its kind for 75 years, in the form of a white paper.

Government has a real opportunity to place sustainability and health at the heart of food and farming policy in the UK. We need:

  1. An integrated food strategy with sustainable nutrition at its heart – the UK Government must act on Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations and not just produce a white paper in response. As part of this we need a cross departmental policy response, rather than one which sits primarily as the responsibility of DEFRA.
  2. Food Based Dietary Guidelines with teeth – there needs to be a review of the Government’s Eatwell Guide, to ensure the latest evidence on health, nutrition and sustainability are reflected in any guidance. Government must align procurement, investment, educational and agricultural strategies with this new advice.
  3. Marketing and labelling – the Government should apply advertising restrictions in foods high in saturated fats, salts and sugars, particularly targeted at children, and food labelling should include nutritional information addressing environmental and social aspects.
  4. Agricultural Reform – agricultural subsidies must incentivise the production of sustainable, healthy and nutritious foods, with a shift from subsidies which encourage the production of more foods to the use of subsidies based on public money for public goods (healthy and sustainable foods).
  5. International Trade – trade cannot and must not reduce standards. There is a need to assess and consider the health, sustainability, animal welfare and nutritional quality of foods within international trade agreements, domestic subsidies and trade policies. Prioritising health over short-term economic gain can lead to greater economic gains in the long term. Policy instruments that reduce the price of fresh fruit and vegetables can particularly benefit the poorest citizens.

Collaboration and new business models

Feeding a forecast global population of 10bn people in 2050, with healthy, nutritious, sustainably produced foods is one of the defining and urgent challenges of our time. It is going to require radically different business models and new collaborations between business, governments and civil society, which are already starting to emerge. Looking at the global sustainability, health and nutritional challenges that we will confront in the future, there is a strong business, ethical and moral case for sustainable nutrition.  How companies respond to these complex challenges – some of which have the potential to threaten a company’s license to operate – is becoming increasingly vital as customers, investors and governments continue to pay closer attention.

Sustainable nutrition is a powerful lens for all those working in the food system, which will enable governments, businesses, investors and civil society organisations to identify strategies, programmes and interventions that lead to action, innovation and investment. Through the lens of sustainable nutrition, we can start reframing how we produce, harvest, distribute, market, consume and value food. The prize could not be bigger – the need to feed some estimated 10bn people on our planet with healthy, nutritious food that is good for our bodies and our planet.

This article was first published in the Journal Food Science & Technology (FS&T) on 31st August 2020. A PDF version of this document can be downloaded here. For Marks webinar focussed on sustainable diets please see here. If you are interested in exploring these issues in more detail or workshops on sustainable nutrition please contact Mark directly.

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Written By Tasting the Future

Mark Driscoll is a freelance sustainable food systems consultant focussing on food systems transformation initiatives. He works with businesses, funders and civil society organisations on a range of food systems projects. This includes research work, strategy & policy development, project management and media work. He is a passionate advocate and champion of food systems transformation which gives citizens access to healthy and nutritious foods within environmental limits.

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