What we eat matters. It matters to our own personal and our family’s health and to the health of our environment and the society we live in. Through food we can influence so many things and make a considerable positive impact on our present and our future just by buying and consuming our food mindfully. Following the principles of sustainable diets makes a great difference to our world. But what is a ‘sustainable diet’?
As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), ‘sustainable diets’ are “those diets with low environmental impacts that contribute to food and nutritional security and to healthy lives for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, are nutritious, safe, and healthy, and optimize resources.”
It is scientifically accepted that our modern food supply systems are destroying the environment. It contributes to 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and is the leading cause of deforestation, land use change and biodiversity loss. Today agriculture accounts for 70% of all our water use and is one of the main reasons of water pollution. Unsustainable fishing is depleting our seas and causing major damage to the marine environment. Even more urgently, the consequences of climate change are making food production harder worldwide. According to a report by the WWF, adopting a more sustainable diet can reduce food-based greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30%, agricultural land-use by at least 41% and wildlife loss by up to 46%.
Basically, maintaining a sustainable diet means to:
–minimize pathogens, toxins, antibiotics, hormones and other agents in the food we consume
-reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use, chemical pollution
–preserve biodiversity, diversity of crops, livestock and resources
-avoid deforestation, overfishing and overhunting
–avoid racial, gender and class inequalities
So what does this mean for us, the consumer? To implement such dietary principles into our lives and to continue a healthy and sustainable relationship with food, it is of paramount importance to eat a variety of foods: Wholegrains, nuts, legumes, large amounts of fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry, meat and fish. The health benefits of consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables and a diverse diet across all food groups is well known. Sustainable diets are based on balanced, unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods. This not only reduces health risks but also cuts the environmental impact of food production practices.
Sustainable diets also require buying food on a local level to create and sustain more self-reliant food networks, support local economies and to improve the environment. Buying directly from food producers at farmers’ markets or online, not only helps preserve small businesses and sustain rural communities, it also cuts down on fossil fuel consumption, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, as it reduces the distance our food travels considerably. Actively reducing food waste is also necessary.
Principally, sustainable diets are built on and respect local culture, culinary practices, and consumption patterns. They value the way food is sourced, produced and consumed. Sadly, not only do poorer communities have limited economical and geographical access to healthy foods across the world, farm workers are disproportionately people of colour, immigrants and minorities. To build a sustainable, fair and healthy food supply system these issues must also be at the forefront of our consuming habits.
As we choose our next meal, what we are going to cook tonight or going to buy, we can have a positive influence on ourselves, the environment and our community just by choosing sustainable foods, eating more plants than meat, minimizing processed foods and prioritizing health by ensuring a balanced and varied diet.