Updated: Feb 10
Have you every heard the term ''sustainable"? Sustainability is defined by the ability to exist constantly. Often when we think of sustainability we may think of sustainable energy, reducing pollution and recycling. So you may wonder: what does nutrition have to do with sustainability.. SO MUCH. In this article, you will learn how our eating habits impacts our planet and how you can play a role in helping our planet!
How has food industry change in the last centuries?
Even if we don’t directly see it, food industry is a part of our everyday life. This huge, complex and diverse industry includes the area of agriculture, manufacturing, food processing, marketing, wholesale, food distribution, food service, grocery, markets, regulation, research and development. Of course, it has not always been like that.
For thousands of years, humans were only relying on agriculture. Everybody was raising their own crops, livestock and went fishing for their seafood. Especially after the Second World War, new technologies starting to arise, more convenient food started to be accessible and the phenomenon of globalisation has allowed access to food from all over the world. Therefore, the last half-century has been marked by a huge increase in food demand and production (5).
What is the impact of increase food demands on our planet?
This rapid growth isn’t without consequences. Currently, production practises to feed 7.6 billion people are causing a lot of damage to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, in addition to contributing to climate changes and drain water resources (6). Food producers are faced with great challenges regarding availability of land, water and energy. Moreover, there is now no doubt of the harmful effects of industrial food production on the environment, which put a lot of pressure on producers to improve their practices (5).
What is sustainable nutrition? And why should I care?
Swanson and al. came with a very complete definition of sustainable nutrition: “Nutritional sustainability is the ability of a food system to provide sufficient energy and the numbers of essential nutrients required to maintain good health of the population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their nutritional needs (1). More than three billion people are malnourished and a large part of the world population (7 billion) is eating a low-quality diet. This number could get worse, since it is estimated that we will be near to 10 billion people on our planet by 2050 (2). In the last years, we’ve all heard of the climate change crisis. Did you know that agriculture is the biggest cause of global environmental change? This includes deforestation to harvest more fields, desertification, damage to coastal reefs and marine ecosystems (2). In fact, food production is responsible for nearly 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It uses 70% of our freshwater sources and 40% of world land (2). Moreover, it constitutes the biggest factor threatening species with extinction and such changes in our environment could lead to catastrophic shifts in ecosystems (2). Therefore, the risk of human mortality, conflict and food insecurity increases. There’s an urgent need to reflect on how food is produced and what we eat.
Do I have to be plant-based to follow sustainable nutrition?
In August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report of 1000 pages on the state of land health and climate changes. Of all the facts mentioned in that report, at the level of food, two beneficial actions can be posed to slow down the effect of climate change: reducing meat consumption, especially from industrial production, and reducing food waste (3).
If we take a look at the graphic below for the IPCC report, we see the demand-side mitigation of each diet. Basically, the longer is the blue line, the more CO2 is '' saved '' from the atmosphere. According to the report, a plant-based/vegan diet would be the best way to reduced carbon emission from food production (3). Vegetarianism isn’t too far behind, followed by the flexitarian diet (not completely plant-based, but limiting meat and dairy).
However, when some people talk of being on a strict plant-based/vegan diet, we will often hear reactions such as: '' But I looove cheese! '' or '' Meat is so good, I can’t help it ''. Cutting animal products seems completely impossible for a lot of people and they may be discouraged thinking that it is the only solution to improve their carbon impact related to food. However, you can still have a beneficial impact by simply reducing your animal product consumption without completely eliminating it. Take a look at some at the graphics below published in the New York Time in April 2019.
You can see that some foods require a lot more resources than others. Without cutting them completely, you can reduce some of them or try a bean burger rather than beef one for your next BBQ! How about trying a soy latte in your favourite coffee? There are so many plant-based recipes on the Internet, it’s a great opportunity to learn new cooking skills. Remember, baby steps are better than no steps! Check out my article on plant-based diet to learn things you need to know before transitioning!
Will it cost more money if I follow a sustainable diet?
Some people think that a sustainable diet is more expensive... In fact, according to data from USDA in 2014, a pound of beans cost roughly $1,07 compared to a pound of beef that cost $5,28 (11). By switching for some plant-based protein in your grocery cart, you can actually reduce your food expenses! Having a sustainable diet doesn't have to be expensive.
Better practices: What can I do to reduce my impact on the environment?
In addition to reducing animal product consumption, there are several other actions you can take to reduce your climate impact.
When we want to eat strawberries, we don’t ask ourselves, '' Is it the time of the year for strawberries? ''. No, we go to the grocery store, we buy strawberries and for most of us, we won’t think any further. On average, our food travels 2500 km before reaching our plate (4). Indeed, transportation largely contributes to greenhouse emissions. Also, because it has to stay fresh up until it reaches grocery store, a lot more packaging, such as single-use plastic, and preservatives are used, which decreased the nutritional value in the long-term (4). Therefore, trying to buy food as local as possible is a great way to reduce our carbon footprint. Buying from local farmers also stimulates local economy.
According to the FAO, the different methods used in organic farming, including crop rotation, cover crops and the use of organic fertilizers have a beneficial effect on the fauna and flora of the land by improving their composition, structure and stability (10). Organic farmland also generates soils with a higher carbon content than conventional cultivated soils, thus favouring a reduction of erosion (9). With regard to organic farming, there is a decrease in nitrate leaching in agricultural areas due to the lower animal density per hectare (9). In conventional agriculture, the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers pollute groundwater, causing major problems for both crops and the health of populations (10). Due to the non-use of pesticides and GMOs, the grouping of farms and plant crops in the same production company, the use of rotational farming methods that optimize soil fertility and quality, it has been proven that organic production can have a positive impact on biodiversity (10). However, organic foods often require more lands, which isn’t better on a climate perspective. Despite all these effects, the higher cost of organic food is a major barrier. So, what should we do? Buy 100% organic foods, half and half? Go take a look at my last article on organic foods to have more detailed information about it!
Reduce food waste?
Can you believe that, globally, about 30% of our food is going to garbage? Even worse, 63% of that food could have been eaten (7). By not using effectively our resources and wasting them, we worsen the problem of resource depletion, we create more pollution and so on and so forth. This is even more nonsense if you think that 820 millions of people are suffering from hunger every day while we throw away so much food (8). Here are a few tips you can try to reduce your food waste:
Meal planning: if you plan properly want you’re going to eat, there’s less risk to buy unnecessary food that will end up in the garbage;
Frozen vegetables and fruits: they don’t go bad as fast as fresh products and they have the same amount of nutrients (or more!!). Keep a bag of frozen vegetables that you can quickly steam on a busy night to make sure you have veggies or a bag of frozen fruits for a quick and nutritious smoothie in the morning!
Buy smaller amount of fresh food: we tend to overestimate the amount of food we will eat in a week and they often go bad before we eat them. In the end, it will be more economical and more eco-friendly to go more often at the grocery story, rather than wasting food (and your money!).
Put food in chronological order in your fridge. This is called the First in First out method. The oldest foods go in the front, so you can see them easily and use them before they go bad;
Cook and freeze: You made a huge lasagna and you won’t eat it all in one week? No problem, keep in your fridge what you’re planning to eat and freeze the leftovers. You’ll have a good comfort food in reserve.
Try apps such as Flashfood and Food Hero on your phone. These apps are affiliated with the grocery store and they put on sale (sometime up to 75% off!) food that is about to be thrown away. You can reserve them on the app and pick them up on the same day.
Reduce plastic/garbage waste
We can reduce food waste as seen above, however we can also reduce plastic/garbage waste. Have you heard of the initiative "Zero Waste"? This initiative promote reducing waste in your household.
Here are some ways to reduce your waste:
- Use reusable bags when grocery shopping!
- Pick foods in the bulk section and use reusable bags/containers. This will save you money as you don't pay for packages and save on plastic!
- Bring your own mug when going out for tea/coffee. And don't use plastic straws
- Don't use plastic water bottles. Buy a reusable bottle and carry it around with you!
- Get rid of disposable in the kitchen:
- Compost!! This will reduce waste + you are use compost as fertiliser for your garden!
In conclusion, there is an urgent need to rethink and change our way to produce food in order to slow down global warming. Several solutions are at our fingertips, such as eating fewer animal products, reducing food waste, buying local, trying organic foods once from time to time and composting. We also have to find the balance between eating what is good for our planet, having nutrition dense food and keeping it budget-friendly!
I hope this article was helpful! How will you make your nutrition more sustainable?
Questions? Comments? Don't hesitate to reach out!
Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Thank you Myriam Beaudry (Nutrition Student), for this AMAZING article.
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(2) Boston, 677 Huntington Avenue, & Ma 02115 +1495‑1000. (2015). Sustainability. Consulté 25 octobre 2019, à l’adresse The Nutrition Source website: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sustainability/
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(4) Cohen, L. R. (2016). Eating Local : Why You Should Bother! Consulté à l’adresse Food Services website: https://ueat.utoronto.ca/eating-local-bother/
(5) Godfray, H. C. J., Beddington, J. R., Crute, I. R., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J. F., … Toulmin, C. (2010). Food Security : The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Science, 327(5967), 812‑818. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1185383
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(7) Food Waste in Canada – Love Food Hate Waste Canada. (2017). Consulté à l’adresse https://lovefoodhatewaste.ca/about/food-waste/
(8) FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS. (2019). L’état de la sécurité alimentaire et de la nutrition dans le monde 2019 : Se prémunir contre les ralentissements et les fléchissements économiques. FOOD & AGRICULTURE ORG.
(9) Contribution des systèmes de production biologique à l’agriculture durable—Rapport d’étude. (2011). 152.
(10) Organic Agriculture : Comment l’agriculture biologique préserve-t-elle l’environnement ? (2017). Consulté à l’adresse http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/fr/
(11) The Health Benefits of Beans. (s. d.). Consulté 15 novembre 2019, à l’adresse Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website: https://www.pcrm.org/news/exam-room-podcast/health-benefits-beans