Sustainable Gastronomy Day highlights the steep cost of current agricultural methods and dietary choices. It calls for a sweeping transformation to ensure food security and a healthy planet.

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The road to building sustainable food systems has many obstacles. How can we overcome them?
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In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly designated June 18 as Sustainable Gastronomy Day to celebrate food diversity across the globe.

Sustainable gastronomy includes dietary choices that consider where ingredients come from, how they are cultivated and processed, and how they arrive in our stores and on our tables.

The United Nations (UN) Zero Hunger goal requires combined, consistent efforts to promote health and food security through sustainability practices.

The UN defines food sustainability as “the idea that something (e.g., agriculture, fishing or even preparation of food) is done in a way that is not wasteful of our natural resources and can be continued into the future without being detrimental to our environment or health.”

Food sustainability hinges on sustainable food systems. These are based on subsystems, including farming, waste management, and supply systems, which interact with trade, energy, and health systems.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) states that a sustainable food system (SFS) should deliver nutrition and food security for everyone in a way that is economically viable and socially beneficial.

At the same time, an SFS must continually make a neutral or positive impact on the environment.

In turn, SFSs rely on sustainable agriculture, which relies on access to fertile land with healthy soil, a stable climate, and clean water and energy.

Achieving food sustainability for the planet is not only up to the agricultural industry or global powers, though. Individual choices also play a major role in the welfare of food systems.

The World Food Programme reports that more than 1 in 9 people worldwide — 821 million people — go hungry every day.

Hunger and malnutrition are such a widespread problem that the UN has emphasized that “a profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed” to tackle it. This change should include striving for the sustainable production of food.

Medical News Today asked Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, why food sustainability matters to us as individuals and as a global community. She responded:

“Food sustainability is a matter for both present and future generations around the globe. It is a window into whether society will provide for itself now, but also its future later[…] Taking only what the Earth can provide and not tinkering with its limits is why food sustainability matters on any level. Accomplishing this ensures that the Earth will provide now and later for all future generations. Additionally, food sustainability is healthier for humans and the Earth.”

The global food system encompasses all economic sectors. Understanding its components is essential for developing and executing effective measures to strengthen it.


Agricultural land area takes up 38% of the Earth’s land surface, and the growing global population is straining this limited terrestrial resource.

Conventional farming practices have led to the loss of carbon and biomass and land degradation.

The FAO cites the need for strategies to “maximize crop productivity while minimizing the potential environmental impact due to excessive loss of habitats and overuse of natural resources such as soils and water.”

Energy use

The EDGAR-FOOD database breaks down emissions from each stage of the food chain for every country spanning 1990–2015.

It indicates that, “in line with the ongoing socioeconomic development trends, food emissions are being increasingly determined by energy use, industrial activities, and waste management.”

The European Commission is calling for targeted energy efficiency and decarbonization policies to curtail these emissions.

Global warming

Research suggests that agriculture is a leading driver behind global environmental change, while it is also, in turn, deeply affected by climate change.

Kirkpatrick sees global warming as the greatest threat to food sustainability. “Currently, there are multiple threats to food sustainability, but its greatest threat is global warming. To meet the needs of the ever-expanding population, food production techniques have changed in a way [that is] toxic to our environment, health, and future generations,” she explained to MNT.

“Increased demands for food allow industrial farming corporations to be at the wheel of farming for society. The use of harmful and toxic pesticides, chemicals, machinery, and genetically modified organisms could open the door to environmental change, which in turn, may leave future generations unable to meet the needs of their demands,” she noted.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture, forestry, and other land use contributed approximately 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010.

Data from EDGAR-FOOD, published in Nature Food this year, estimates that food systems caused 34% of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

Approximately 71% of these food emissions arose from agriculture and “associated land use.” The remainder came from factors that include industrial processes, packaging, transport, retail, fuel production, waste management, and consumption.

However, in an interview with Medical News Today, Patrick Holden, CEO of Sustainable Food Trust in Bristol, England, rationalized that if animals are raised within a regenerative farming system, this could offset the impact of other farm animal-rearing practices.

“If you have environmental objections to eating lamb or beef, because you think it’s responsible for climate change, you’re wrong, because if that grass-fed animal is part of a regenerative farming system, the soil carbon gain from the grassland grazing system […] offsets the methane,” he told MNT.

“There was a study published by the FAO in 2008, called Livestock’s Long Shadow, which suggested that livestock […] — particularly ruminant livestock — [is responsible] for a lot of methane emissions,” he went on to say.

“[It] turns out that [the] estimate, which upon all academics have based on their projections [ever] since was wrong, because it didn’t factor in that methane, when it goes into the atmosphere, degenerates over about 12 years,” Holden asserted.

However, while it is true that methane’s persistence in the atmosphere is shorter-lived than those of other greenhouse gases, environmental researchers have pointed out that it is altogether also significantly more potent. The impact of just one ton of methane over 100 years is about the same as that of 28 tons of carbon dioxide.

Hidden costs

Food products grown in harmony with nature tend to cost significantly more than the standard fare on grocery shelves.

This makes many people balk at the idea of transitioning to more wholesome, Earth-friendly foods.

Yet Holden argues that “cheap” food carries a price higher than what we may realize. His research explores the hidden cost of conventional food production, distribution, and consumption with True Cost Accounting. This method considers:

  • commercial agriculture’s cumulative harm to the climate, soil, biodiversity, and public health
  • costs of removing pesticides from drinking water
  • taxes funding misappropriated agricultural subsidies
  • environmental cleanup costs
  • diet-related illnesses and subsequent increased private health insurance rates

Holden warns that these costs often carry over “to future generations or other countries,” as with climate change, species extinction, and rainforest decimation.

His organization estimates that for each British pound spent on food, consumers unknowingly pay an additional hidden cost of £1.

Food losses and food waste

Around one-third of the food produced is lost along the food chain.

Food losses can occur before, during, and after harvest. Some causes for this include human carelessness, neglect, process inadequacies, and improper packaging.

Household food waste is also an issue, with some research indicating that — in the United States, for example — the average household throws away 31.9% of the food purchased by household members.

Lack of education

Holden argued that children are growing up with little or no knowledge of agriculture, let alone sustainable farming techniques:

“We’re not helping our children make sense of the world in which they find themselves, and they will have to deal with it, make it a better place. The education system is fundamentally flawed […].”

Researchers agree that it is important to teach about healthy nutrition and food sustainability from as early as primary school. Some studies have even indicated a link between young people’s interest in food production practices and their adherence to healthy dietary patterns.

Holden is certain that many people want to help change the food system’s current trajectory. However, he sees widespread confusion about the options on an individual level.

“People don’t know what the right thing to do is, and it’s not surprising,” he noted.

Over 30 leading scientists contributed to the EAT-Lancet report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Commission offers an evidence-based perspective of what a sustainable diet should be like, and which measures can promote and accelerate food system change.

The report summarizes that:

“Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetable, nuts, and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%.”

Holden agrees with the need to increase plant-based food intake. However, he disagrees with the report’s advice to cut back on red meat.

From his perspective, “we need to be discerning in which livestock products we include in our diet which are part of the solution.”

More generally, he encouraged people to “align our diets to […] what the farmers in our country or region produce, in the quantities that they can produce it if they adopt or continue to use sustainable and regenerative farming systems.”

He also offered the following suggestions:

  • growing food and experiencing farming firsthand
  • purchasing food from local, familiar farms
  • supporting initiatives for sustainable production and healthier food
  • demanding greater transparency about the hidden costs of food
  • checking labels for sustainably produced items

The FAO maintains that food systems need a “more holistic and coordinated approach.” This departs from a traditional, production-based approach to increase the supply of food.

A more integrated effort would involve stakeholders in public and private sectors at local, national, regional, and global levels.

Holden advocates a move away from “intensive” commercial farming dependent on international trade, fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics that suppress disease in plants and animals.

In its place, he practices and recommends localized farming designed to mimic nature and promote “positive health.”

Holden also noted that a sustainable food system should address issues, including:

  • climate change
  • reversing biodiversity loss
  • halting the decline in public health
  • farming in harmony with nature
  • promoting biodiversity
  • rotation of crops
  • avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides
  • building soil fertility

The UN understands that the global system needs restructuring to be more environmentally sustainable. Local, national, and international forces must collaborate toward this end.

The FAO hopes that “tapping into the influence of consumers and collective demand” will “transform agri-food systems, making them more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable.”

Holden agreed: “We are the powerful ones. What we buy really is the most powerful influence we can have.”