A sustainable food system is a type of food system that provides healthy food to people and creates sustainable environmental, economic and social systems that surround food.
Sustainable food systems start with the development of sustainable agricultural practices, development of more sustainable food distribution systems, creation of sustainable diets and reduction of food waste throughout the system.Sustainable food systems have been argued to be central to many or all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Moving to sustainable food systems is an important component of addressing the causes of climate change. A 2020 review conducted for the European Union found that up to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to the food system, including crop and livestock production, transportation, changing land use (including deforestation) and food loss and waste. Sustainable food systems are frequently at the center of sustainability focused policy programs, such as proposed Green New Deal programs.
There are many different definitions of a sustainable food system.
From a global perspective, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations describes a sustainable food system as follows:
A sustainable food system (SFS) is a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised. This means that:
The American Public Health Association (APHA) defines a sustainable food system as:
one that provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment. A sustainable food system also encourages local production and distribution infrastructures and makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all. Further, it is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities
The European Union's Scientific Advice Mechanism defines a sustainable food system as a system that:
provides and promotes safe, nutritious and healthy food of low environmental impact for all current and future EU citizens in a manner that itself also protects and restores the natural environment and its ecosystem services, is robust and resilient, economically dynamic, just and fair, and socially acceptable and inclusive. It does so without compromising the availability of nutritious and healthy food for people living outside the EU, nor impairing their natural environment
The study of sustainable food applies systems theory and methods of sustainable design towards food systems. As an interdisciplinary field, the study of sustainable food systems has been growing in the last several decades. University programs focused on sustainable food systems include:
In September 2019, the European Union's Chief Scientific Advisors stated that transitioning to a sustainable food system should be a high priority for the EU:
Although availability of food is not perceived as an immediate, major concern in Europe, the challenge to ensure a long-term, safe, nutritious and affordable supply of food, from both land and the oceans, remains. A portfolio of coordinated strategies is called for to address this challenge.
In January 2020, the EU put the transition to a sustainable food system at the core of the European Green Deal. The European Commission's 'Farm to Fork strategy for a sustainable food system', due to be published in spring 2020, is expected to lay out how European countries will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect biodiversity, reduce food waste and chemical pesticide use, and contribute to a circular economy.
In April 2020, the EU's Scientific Advice Mechanism delivered to European Commissioners a Scientific Opinion on how to transition to a sustainable food system, informed by an evidence review report undertaken by European academies.
Main article: Food systems
Industrial agriculture causes environmental impacts, as well as health problems associated with obesity in the rich world and hunger in the poor world. This has generated a strong movement towards healthy, sustainable eating as a major component of overall ethical consumerism.
Conventional food systems are largely based on the availability of inexpensive fossil fuels, which is necessary for mechanized agriculture, the manufacture or collection of chemical fertilizers, the processing of food products, and the packaging of foods. Food processing began when the number of consumers started growing rapidly. The demand for cheap and efficient calories climbed resulting in nutrition decline. Industrialized agriculture, due to its reliance on economies of scale to reduce production costs, often leads to the compromising of local, regional, or even global ecosystems through fertilizer runoff, nonpoint source pollution, deforestation, suboptimal mechanisms affecting consumer product choice, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Also, the need to reduce production costs in an increasingly global market can cause production of foods to be moved to areas where economic costs (labor, taxes, etc.) are lower or environmental regulations are more lax, which are usually further from consumer markets. For example, the majority of salmon sold in the United States is raised off the coast of Chile, due in large part to less stringent Chilean standards regarding fish feed and regardless of the fact that salmon are not indigenous in Chilean coastal waters. The globalization of food production can result in the loss of traditional food systems in less developed countries, and have negative impacts on the population health, ecosystems, and cultures in those countries.
Furthermore, the conventional food system does not structurally facilitate sustainable patterns of food production and consumption. In decision-making associated with the conventional food system, responsibility is in practice largely thought to rest with consumers and private companies in that they are often anticipated to spend time to – voluntarily and/or without external benefit – seek to educate themselves on which behaviours and specific product-choices are sustainable, in cases where such product-information and education is publicly available, and to subsequently change their respective decision-making related to production and consumption due to prioritized assumed ethical values and sometimes health-benefits, despite substantial drawbacks to such being common. For consumer such drawback may include higher prices of organic foods, inappropriate relative monetary price gaps between animal-intensive diets and plant-based ones and inadequate consumer guidance by contemporary valuations. In 2020, an analysis of external climate costs of foods indicates that external greenhouse gas costs are typically highest for animal-based products – conventional and organic to about the same extent within that ecosystem subdomain – followed by conventional dairy products and lowest for organic plant-based foods and concludes contemporary monetary evaluations to be "inadequate" and policy-making that lead to reductions of these costs to be possible, appropriate and urgent.
Main article: sustainable agriculture
At the global level the environmental impact of agribusiness is being addressed through sustainable agriculture and organic farming. At the local level there are various movements working towards local food production, more productive use of urban wastelands and domestic gardens including permaculture, urban horticulture, local food, slow food, sustainable gardening, and organic gardening.
Sustainable seafood is seafood from either fished or farmed sources that can maintain or increase production in the future without jeopardizing the ecosystems from which it was acquired. The sustainable seafood movement has gained momentum as more people become aware about both overfishing and environmentally destructive fishing methods.
Main article: local food
Main article: Sustainable distribution
Main article: Sustainable diet
The environmental effects of different dietary patterns depend on many factors, including the proportion of animal and plant foods consumed and the method of food production. At the same time, current and future food systems need to be provided with sufficient nutrition for not only the current population, but future population growth in light of a world affected by changing climate in the face of global warming.
Main article: Food waste
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food waste is responsible for 8 percent of global human-made greenhouse gas emissions. The FAO concludes that nearly 30 percent of all available agricultural land in the world - 1.4 billion hectares - is used for produced but uneaten food. The global blue water footprint of food waste is 250 km3, that is the amount of water that flows annually through the Volga or 3 times Lake Geneva.