Can our food be environmentally sustainable and nutritious?

February 15th, 2021

CSIRO research has found the seemingly impossible task of achieving sustainable nutrition is not as far-fetched as many think.

Some go without, while others eat food that doesn’t meet nutritional requirements.

Our current food system is not effectively nourishing us. Globally, 690 million people are chronically undernourished, two billion people suffer micronutrient deficiencies and another two billion are overweight or obese.

Unhealthy food is a leading cause of disease worldwide. Non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are responsible for more than 70 per cent of all deaths and are linked to unhealthy diets. Globally, people tend to eat too much food high in sugar, starchy vegetables, and red meat while not eating enough fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts.

Australians follow a similar trend in that they generally eat too much food that is high in energy and low in nutrients (‘discretionary food’ or ‘junk food’) and eat too much sugar, saturated fat, and sodium (salt). More than 90 per cent of Australians do not eat enough vegetables.

Our food system harms the planet

The food problem we face has another dark side: our food system is also failing the planet.

Food accounts for 80 per cent of land conversion and biodiversity loss and 80 per cent of contamination of freshwater and coastal ecosystems, by excess nutrient run-off and chemical pesticides. Our food system also uses 80 per cent of all freshwater and contributes 20-30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

If the world keeps producing food in the current way, projections indicate that the environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50–90 per cent by 2050. This means that many animals and plants could go extinct, rivers could cease to flow and many of our remaining rainforests could be lost.

Agriculture currently contributes to ongoing land clearing.

Things need to change

These negative impacts are creating increasing pressure for the world to transition to a more sustainable and healthy food system – one that is both environmentally sustainable and provides healthy nutrition for us.

To achieve this, CSIRO Chief Research Scientist and research lead Professor Mario Herrero said countries will need to develop ways for sustainably produced healthy foods to be available, affordable and accessible for all its people.

“At CSIRO, we identify the best ways for this transition to occur,” Professor Herrero said. “Things need to change at the national level. This could include financial incentives to make healthy diets more affordable, which has been shown to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.”

It could also include changes to regulations to encourage food companies produce more healthy food, rather than unhealthy or ‘junk’ food.

Food production also needs to become more sustainable. This could include initiatives such as building and maintaining healthy soil, managing water wisely and minimising air, water, and climate pollution.

“Many of these actions are currently being planned as part of the 2021 World Food Systems Summit, where countries seek to identify no regrets options to improve the food system and establish funding mechanisms for their deployment at national level,” said Professor Herrero, who is a scientific group member for the 2021 Food Systems Summit.

What can you do?

While national-level changes need to happen, there is a lot that you can do be a part of the transition. Eating too much food, particularly discretionary or ‘junk’ food is one of the main dietary contributors to environmental impacts in Australia. How does your diet compare to the national recommendations? Check out the Australian Nutrition Calculators to see.

Could you make changes to your diet to improve health and reduce environmental impacts? This will probably include eating more fruits and vegetables in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

CSIRO Nutrition Systems Scientist Dr Jessica Bogard said consumers can also reduce their food waste. In Australia each person wastes approximately 300kg of food each year. This wasted food costs the average Australian household $1,036 per annum, adding extra incentive to be more food efficient.

“Not only is that food wasted, but so are all of the resources that went into its production and journey from paddock to plate,” Dr Bogard said.

“Reducing food waste is a large part of the transition to be more sustainable. Planning your meals and food purchases and storing foods appropriately can all reduce food waste.”

The wild card

Advances in technology will also be crucial in transitioning to more sustainable food systems. CSIRO leads work that explores what new technology is out there, and how new technology in food systems could either benefit, or potentially disadvantage, society and the environment. Examples of these new technologies are robotics in agriculture and vertical agriculture, where agriculture is grown vertically in controlled environments.

Improving farm efficiency will drive sustainability gains.

While society can respond immediately by reducing waste, technological advances will require more time to develop and implement throughout supply chains. However, new technology can totally transform the way we produce, process, transport food, with the potential to make them much more sustainable.

However, while technology can assist us, to make the transition to a more sustainable food system, lots of changes need to happen in society. The public and private sector need to be focused on providing healthy and sustainable food, consumers need to demand it, and technology needs to be used in a way that can assist us to produce it. Together we can make a brighter and more healthy future for our society and the planet.

This news article is authored by Jeda Palmer and reposted from CSIRO’s ECOS blog.