Where does our food come from, and how does that food get to us? These may not be questions we ask ourselves when we purchase our groceries from the supermarket or sit down to eat our meals. But our food goes on an incredible journey before it gets to us in its final form. Food is life energy, recycled carbon crafted by the sun, water, air and soil. We are what we eat, we are part of the Earth that feeds and nourishes our bodies. When designing a sustainable diet, we must determine the environmental impact of the food we eat – what goes in and what goes out. In nature, waste nourishes new life, but the way human beings live, eat and generate waste destroys life. Our diets must consider the environmental, social, economic and ethical factors to be sustainable.
Designing the sustainable diet involves determining the environmental impact of our food. It’s a question of inputs and outputs: energy IN and waste OUT. How much energy and resources are required to grow or produce the food we eat? How much waste is generated to grow or produce the food we eat? What foods take the least amount of energy and resources to grow or produce? How much processing does a food go through before consumption? Where has the food or ingredients been sourced from, locally or internationally? The sustainable diet must have an environmental, social, economic and ethical dimension.
An environmental – social – economic – ethical model
The three pillars of sustainability is a tool to define sustainability, and the model usually consists of three factors – environmental, social and economic. All pillars must be strong enough to support the entire system as a whole. If one pillar is weak, the system is unsustainable.
The sustainable diet must have the three pillars, or an environmental, social and economic dimension, but it must also have a fourth dimension or pillar – an ethical one.
Defining the sustainable diet
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization’s (UN FAO) definition, from their 2010 publication ‘Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity – Directions and Solutions for Policy, Research and Action’ is a good starting point:
“Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. 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.”
Sustainable diets have four dimensions or pillars – environmental, social, economic and ethical.
The sustainable diet must have low environmental impact.
Agriculture and food production contributes 29% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s nearly one-third of total global greenhouse gas emissions every year. In The Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition’s Double Pyramid model, fruit and vegetables have the lowest environmental impact; grains, pulses, eggs and dairy products sit somewhere in the middle; while meat, poultry and fish have the highest environmental impact.
It makes sense to ensure most of our diet consists of fresh fruit and vegetables, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.
The sustainable diet must contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. The sustainable diet must be economically fair and affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy.
The World Health Organization considers food and nutrition security to be a basic right of every human being. Food and nutrition security means ensuring people have access to sufficient, safe, affordable and nutritious food for an active and healthy life.
Food and nutrition security protects the most vulnerable, poorest communities from malnutrition, and ensures future generations will enjoy the same benefits and opportunities as we do today.
The sustainable diet must protect ecosystems and biodiversity.
Nutritious food and clean water depend on healthy, robust ecosystems, which depend on biodiversity. Biodiversity is the variety of life – the plants, animals, minerals and insects of the Earth. The modern industrial agricultural model relies on excessive quantities of artificial fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, a finite resource.
Fossil-fuel based fertilizers increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which contributes to climate change. Modern agricultural practices degrade soil, pollute water and create dead zones in the ocean. Droughts and floods caused by climate change reduce harvests. It’s a vicious cycle.
The sustainable diet must optimize natural and human resources.
Modern industrial agricultural methods use natural, finite resources indiscriminately. Renewable resources including plant fibres, wind and solar energy may provide the basis for a sustainable agricultural model.
Subsistence crops are food crops grown primarily to be consumed by a family or community.
Cash crops are food or non-food crops grown, harvested and sold for cash domestically or via export. Profits generated from cash crops and exported devastate local people and local economies.
Growing crops for both sustenance and to generate income for communities may provide a more sustainable and ethical model.
The ‘Environmental Warrior’ diet
The only truly sustainable diet is one consisting mostly, preferably three-quarters, of fresh fruit and vegetables. This is our baseline. I follow my 3-6-9 Guideline. Every day I aim to have at least 3 servings of fresh fruit, 6 servings of cooked vegetables and 9 servings of raw salad vegetables.
But we can’t live on fruit and vegies alone – we need other nutrient-dense foods for bulk, texture and satiety. Build on the baseline by adding high-quality animal and/or plant proteins, wholegrain complex carbohydrates and essential fats to the diet. Add flavour with herbs and spices.
Ten elements of the sustainable diet
The sustainable diet consists mainly of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Fruit and vegetables have the lowest environmental impact and require the least amount of energy and resources to grow.
A diet high in fruit and vegetables protects against chronic, degenerative disease. If we eat well, we won’t get sick as often, reducing the burden on social and medical services, creating a more sustainable society.
Plant-based diets have their own ethical issues, although this would only apply in an agricultural model that relies on mechanization, not hand harvesting, and where monoculture crops destroy entire ecosystems.
The sustainable diet consists mainly of organically grown or produced foods (fruit, vegetables, grains, eggs, dairy products and meat).
Organic farming builds healthy soil through polyculture and crop rotation, not monoculture and single-species plots. Contrary to popular belief, organic farming does not preclude the use of pesticides.
Organic farming favours biological pest control and uses fewer or less toxic versions of pesticides derived from natural sources, not synthetically manufactured ones derived from fossil fuels (a finite resource).
Organic farming employs more people than conventional, industrial agriculture because it doesn’t rely on mechanization for planting and harvesting, a wonderful social benefit.
The sustainable diet includes seafood from sustainable sources.
With the current industrial fishing model depleting many fish stocks and consumer demand for seafood expected to increase, the ocean, we must commit to sourcing our seafood sustainably, if we wish to continue eating it. We only need to eat oily fish 2-3 times a week to obtain the Omega-3 necessary for heart and brain health.
Choose seafood from sustainable sources including Good Fish or Fish 4 Ever, consult the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide, or choose products certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Eat small, herbivorous fish low on the marine food chain, or source Omega-3 from marine algae.
The sustainable diet excludes highly processed food and junk food.
Processed food and junk food tends to be more resource- and energy-intensive to produce and usually contains high levels of salt, sugar and fat, genetically modified ingredients and fractured or fragmented ingredients.
Processed food comes in packaging that cannot be recycled and often contains plastic particles that don’t biodegrade. Single-serve, individually packaged, highly processed products create unnecessary waste going into landfill.
The term ‘junk food’ is really a misnomer because junk food isn’t food, it’s rubbish. Junk food cannot build a healthy, vibrant, living mind, body, spirit or planet.
The sustainable diet doesn’t include animal products at every meal, and includes at least one meat-free day a week.
It requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water to produce one calorie of beef compared to chicken, and 160 times more land compared to rice or potatoes. Grazing cows as food animals requires deforestation of large areas of land to create pasture.
Check out Meat Free Monday for recipes and inspiration.
The sustainable diet aims for minimal or zero waste outcomes.
If our diets consist primarily of fresh, unpackaged, organic, seasonal and locally grown fruit and vegetables, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions in production and transport.
Packaging requires an enormous amount of energy and resources to make for something we discard. One third of the food produced for human consumption every year is thrown away, food that could be used to help feed others.
Growing fruit and vegetables over farming meat produces less waste. A decaying apple can be composted, while cow excrement from industrial feedlots is stored in manure lagoons.
The sustainable diet contains a greater percentage of food grown locally and in season.
Choosing locally grown, seasonal foods over foods grown offshore and out of season minimizes energy, resources and costs required to produce, transport and store food over long distances and timeframes.
Local food is picked at the peak of its ripening, ensuring vibrant colours and intense natural flavours. Locally grown food supports local economies and local communities.
The food miles concept calculates the environmental impact of food, how far food travels before it reaches the consumer, and how the waste is recycled or disposed of in landfill.
The sustainable diet supports indigenous communities and small-scale producers.
Small-scale food production benefits local communities, while modern industrial food production benefits multi-national corporations that return profits and benefits to shareholders. Small-scale businesses allow retailers and farmers to create an economic livelihood for themselves, their families and their communities.
We can choose Fairtrade-certified products that give farmers and workers in developing countries better working conditions and stable prices for their labour and product.
We can support indigenous communities by purchasing products that help to create economic livelihood through sustainable management of the Earth’s botanical assets, including Loving Earth and Niugini Organics.
The sustainable diet excludes genetically modified food, antibiotics and added hormones.
The argument around genetically modified food is complex and a debate on this highly charged issue is beyond the scope of this post. I’m against the genetic modification of food and agree “we tamper with nature at our peril”.
I’m concerned we don’t have conclusive evidence about potential long-term negative effects of genetically modified food on health.
Antibiotics and growth hormones are given to animals to prevent infection and disease and encourage their rapid growth, but this antibiotic residue remains in meat, which is ingested by humans.
The sustainable diet makes animal welfare first priority.
If fruit and vegetables form the basis of our diet, we will eat (and need) less animal products.
Intensive farming methods are cruel and cause suffering to animals, reducing sentient beings to commodities and economic units. Life is sacrificed for profit.
Animals are also forced to eat food nature has not physiologically designed them to eat. Cows are ruminants, and digest grass, not grain. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians, and thrive on insects, grubs and fly larvae. Cows and chickens must be raised on pasture, not in feedlots.
Smaller-scale farms need to become the new norm.
Food is fuel and nourishment for our bodies and our brains, but also gives us pleasure, provides connection and inspires creativity. Food can either create a healthy body, mind and planet, or it can destroy our health and pollute the Earth that supports all life. Our diets should have low environmental impact, conserve energy and resources, and protect and sustain healthy, robust ecosystems. All life needs biodiversity not only to survive but to thrive.