The ecology of what we eat: creating a sustainable food system

written by Michael Pooley, 10th August 2021, in CEO Insights

Everyone is connected by food. And there is a deep connection between human health and the health of our ecosystem. On the one hand, we need to eat more healthily. On the other, we need to eat more sustainably. But a healthy diet isn’t automatically a sustainable one. Confused? So are many consumers. Such confusion can be a serious barrier to creating a sustainable food system.

What is a sustainable food system?

When it comes to the ecology of the food we eat, it’s important to focus not only on nutrients and human health. We also need to look at the overall food footprint, too. When these aspects are perfectly balanced, promoting personal and planet health, we can talk about a sustainable food system. Essentially, a sustainable food system needs to produce healthy food and protect the environment in the process.

Our modern-day diet, however, often does the opposite. Responsible for many preventable diseases and also for almost a third of our global carbon footprint, it’s unsustainable. And many consumers know this and are pushing for change.

Who has a strong appetite for sustainable living?

According to GlobeScan’s 2020 Healthy & Sustainable Living Study, GlobeScan’s 2020 Healthy & Sustainable Living Study, most people would like to adopt both healthier and more sustainable behaviors. This study of 27 countries was conducted in June 2020, during what was for many people the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the 27,000 people surveyed, over 50% say they feel guilty about their negative impact on the environment, an increase from the 43% found in a similar study last year. A majority, 74%, believes we should consume less to preserve the environment for future generations.

What I took away from the research is that the desire for a more sustainable food system is clearly there, indicated by the study’s upbeat conclusion: "Attitudes around the environment have intensified and there is appetite to do more to protect it," the study reads. "As economies rebuild post-pandemic, it is likely we will see a demand for a green recovery." And yet, barriers still exist.

"Ultimately, a sustainable food system comes down to cost, convenience and transparency"

Micheal Pooley, CEO

What prevents a sustainable food system?

The same study shows that desire to change is not enough. Only about one in four who said they agree there’s a pressing need to lead a more sustainable lifestyle had actually made major changes to their habits and diets. What’s stopping the other consumers?

Ultimately, a sustainable food system comes down to cost, convenience and transparency. Many consumers find it hard to tell what actions will have an impact, and also fear that the personal cost of such actions would be too high.

As one sponsor of the research, Cristianne Close of WWF International, highlights, sustainable living practices have to be made easier: "This new research from GlobeScan reveals most consumers are ready to make healthy and sustainable choices – as long as they are relatively easy and affordable."

Given the fallout from the pandemic, stakeholders in the food industry could be taking on more responsibility to support consumers who are trying to make the shift to sustainable options. As Close suggests: "As we recover from the global pandemic, brands and retailers have a unique opportunity to help forge a better future and help their customers live healthier, more sustainable lives." I couldn’t agree more. Stakeholders need to step up.

What does it mean to promote a sustainable food system?

One interesting development that recently came out of Europe may spur the industry and consumers alike to take more action. On 19 October last year, the EU pledged to develop a European sustainable food system. While the cornerstone of this initiative is "to provide sufficient, affordable and nutritious food within planetary limits", there is one guiding principle throughout the EU "farm-to-fork" strategy: The reduction of food loss and waste.

This is a principle that I personally believe is key to creating a sustainable food system: For instance, eliminating food loss and waste could alone prevent an estimated 4.5 Gt of CO2 emissions each year. Another reason: It would put more food on our tables. It’s simply astounding that we are still throwing away around a third of the food we produce globally.

There is therefore a need for an integrated holistic approach to create a more sustainable food system: Key elements will include sustainable end-to-end supply chains, a circular economy and a clearer focus on improving public health and public information.

Reducing food loss and waste is a productive place to make a start. For consumers and stakeholders.

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