The Malta Independent 24 September 2023, Sunday
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What is food sustainability?

Tuesday, 22 November 2022, 11:09 Last update: about 11 months ago

Prof. Renald Blundell, Emma Camilleri

Sometime this week one of us has probably gone to the supermarket to buy their favourite brand of cereal, coffee or biscuits. As they walked down the supermarket aisle, they either based their choice on their perception of the brand, taste, price and/or quality. However, food sustainability wasn't likely to be at the forefront of their decision-making, even for those trying to lead a more-planet-friendly life.

Can you imagine yourself being one of the 829 million people going to bed hungry every single night? Over the course of the last three years, food insecurity has risen from 135 million to 345 million. To make things even worse the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, economic inflation and the Russia-Ukraine war have all exacerbated the global food crisis. However, our actions are powerful and influential. We have the ability to take the first step together towards change.

What we buy and consume sends a prevailing message to the food market chain. It tells companies what we like and don't like. We are the ones that set in motion change. Thus, what is the starting point to overcoming a global food crisis? We must push toward food sustainability and a healthy sustainable diet. But what do we really mean by this?

Becoming a buzzword, sustainability is not a new word. However, most of us overlook its true meaning and importance. Food sustainability does not consider the manufacturing, packaging, distribution and consumption of food only. It takes into consideration several other factors. In short, it means that food is produced in a way that protects the environment and makes efficient use of natural resources, ensuring the farmers can support themselves while also enhancing the quality of life of communities that produce food, including animals and future generations. Food sustainability centres around sustainable food systems which should deliver nutrition and food security for everyone in a way that is economically viable and socially beneficial. In other words, it considers resource usage, environmental impact and animal agriculture without neglecting health, social and economic impact.

Unfortunately, famine and malnutrition have increased throughout the year. This urges to bring about a profound change to the global food and agricultural systems. Currently, as proven by many reports, many food production practices contribute to air pollution, create non-potable water and land erosion among others. These all worsen the global climate crisis situation. Thus, one cannot only feed off the sources provided by the planet without thinking about the consequences. We need to move away from "intensive" commercial farming that is dependent on international trade, fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics to kill off diseases in plants and animals. We should not be negligent to the impact on the community by mass producing food. Thus, if we make and promote sustainable food choices, we can ensure that our demands and needs are met ensuring global food and nutrition security for present and future generations.

As stated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) a healthy diet "helps to protect against malnutrition in all its forms as well as non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer". In simpler terms, a healthy diet emphasises the incorporation of healthy nutritious food such as fruits, vegetables, low salt and low saturated fat food avoiding foods which are fried and have colourings and/or preservatives.  Adopting a sustainable healthy diet is similar to a healthy diet but strives to have minimal stress on the environment and food supply. This can be viewed as a mutualistic relationship between us and the planet in which both parties will be positively impacted, now and in the future.  

Naturally, habits aren't easy to change but leading unhealthy and unsustainable lives can be detrimental to both us and the environment. Thus, by educating ourselves more on sustainable food and diets, we can make more informed decisions to prevent diet-related NCDs (example diabetes mellitus, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and mental health conditions), reduce waste and pollution as well as maintain biodiversity.

So, what are the factors that encompass and promote food sustainability?

Regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices aim to maintain and protect the surrounding ecosystems and biodiversity while still meeting the needs of the farm and its production system. Furthermore, it encourages crop rotation, organic and low carbon food, soil fertility, husbandry techniques that protect animal health and wellbeing and provides pasture-grazing. It also allows animals to move freely rather than being confined to small cages and prevents the use of genetically modified organisms and artificial fertilisers and pesticides. This reduces the impact farming has on climate change and is particularly important since agricultural land area constitutes about 38% of the Earth's land surface and the rise of the global population and demands is straining this limited terrestrial resource.

Our eating habits are linked to food sustainability too. First, we should try to eat seasonal and local food. Seasonal foods are not only healthier because they are not artificially ripened but are also less likely to have travelled several miles to reach us. Furthermore, eating local food reduces the carbon footprint since the food has travelled a shorter distance to our plates. Moreover, over a third of all the food produced, that is approximately 2.5 billion tons, is gone to waste each year globally. Therefore, by reducing one's household food waste and the amount of plastic used, can be a small but significant step toward food sustainability.

Secondly, incorporating more fruit, legumes and vegetables into our diet and less meat, poultry, processed foods and dairy products will aid protect the environment while still ensuring a healthy diet. In fact, the WHO had reported that food production accounts for 20-30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 66% of water usage. However, studies have revealed that vegan and vegetarian diets have the greatest reduction in land use and greenhouse emissions, with vegetarian diets using the least water. Thus, if we shift our diet to include more greens and less meat, we will not only lead healthier lives but reduce the environmental strain and contribute to the assurance of global food stability.

Unfortunately, food prices do not always transmit the correct message. The dark truth is that healthy and earth-friendly food is far more expensive than those that are harmful to us and the environment. But what are the hidden costs of cheap foods? In 2019, a report exploited that Americans spend $1.1 trillion on food. That price tag included the cost of manufacturing, distributing, marketing, retailing and wholesaling the food consumed. But what about the cost of healthcare fees for those that fall ill due to diet-related diseases? What about the present and future costs to the ecosystems?  Considering all these unaccounted factors, the true cost triples, reaching around $3.2 trillion per year. Sadly, this has been an issue for several years. In fact, in 2014, about $5 billion was spent overcoming adverse reactions to food dye, $2 billion in public health costs from the overuse of antibiotics in livestock and $1 billion in treating pesticide poisonings and related illnesses. On the same tangent, researchers had estimated that the cost of nitrogen pollution from growing corn is more than twice the market value of corn itself.

In saying this, despite the obstacles to food sustainability like misrepresentative food prices and inflation, we can still promote food sustainability since we are the driving forces that can bring about change. It all starts with education. Through education and more awareness, more individuals can be conscious of the weight their decisions carry. Implementing policies that control how food products are marketed and advertised, especially those directed towards young children is essential. Additionally, pushing for a clearer food labelling system that is based on independent scientific evidence will aid us to make healthier food choices. This means that food labelling should be more accurate and done by independent laboratories making it easier for consumers to understand. Finally, pushing for healthier nutrient-packed food products that are fairtrade with minimal environmental impact is vital to ensure that enough resources will be available for future generations.

Having read this article, dear reader, I must leave you with one final message. The next time you go to the supermarket, remember the message you will be sending out upon purchasing that product and ask yourself "does this product align with my values?"


About the authors

Renald Blundell is a biochemist and biotechnologist with a special interest in Natural and Alternative Medicine. He is a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, University of Malta. Emma Camilleri is currently a medical student at the University of Malta

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