What are Sustainable Food Systems and Diets?

In this Learning Module, we will direct you to resources in the toolkit that help you to answer the following questions:

  • What is sustainability?
  • What are food systems?
  • Why are food systems and diets not sustainable?
  • What is a healthy and sustainable diet?

What is Sustainability?

 Sustainability has many definitions. Commonly, we think of achieving sustainability as balancing the environment, society, and economy in decision making, in such a way that future generations are able to meet their needs. But what does this mean? And will this achieve sustainability?It becomes much more complex when we begin to dig into the details of how to achieve that.

Below are four brief (5-10 minutes) videos that help explain sustainability using natural science. The videos are from Sustainability Illustrated (where you will find many more!). The links here are for the English videos, but they are also available in French. Please, have a look at each one. There is some repetition, but that is good for learning!

Watch

The Triple Bottom Line: A nested approach
Five Principles of Social Sustainability (updates and expands on the fourth principle in the previous video)

Reflect

After watching the 4 videos above, reflect on the following questions. Remember that there are no “correct” answers to these questions, and your responses will likely change over time as you learn about sustainability.

  1. Describe sustainability. Use words appropriate if you were explaining it to a colleague at work.
  2. What makes something (an action, a thing, a process) sustainable, or not sustainable?

Keep Learning

If you enjoyed learning about sustainability using this lens, and want a much more in depth exploration, check out Foundations for Strategic Sustainable Development under Sustainability Courses. If you would like to look at other resources, and other ways of understanding sustainability before moving on, we encourage you to keep exploring.

  1. See our Glossary for several definitions of sustainability.
  2. Talk to colleagues about what it means to them.

What are food systems?

Food systems can be thought of as a linear “chain” (i.e., a “food chain” or “value chain”) from production to processing, to retailing, to consumption. Increasingly, however, food systems are being thought of as complex and dynamic systems. In the Glossary you will find this definition:

Food systems are complex, non-linear, systems “… that embrace all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructure, institutions, markets and trade) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution and marketing, preparation and consumption of food and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes.”

Thinking of food systems as complex systems is very helpful in the context of sustainability.

In this section we encourage you to read the below Building Block called “What are Food Systems”, published online as part of foodsource by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN). Foodsource includes many other helpful resources you can explore.

Read

What are Food Systems
a Building Block from the FCRN

Reflect

After reading this short Building Block to the left, reflect on the following questions.

  1. Describe a food system. Use words appropriate if you were explaining it to a colleague at work.
  2. Why is it helpful to think of food systems as complex systems?
  3. Using Figure 3 as a guide, what role do you play in the food system as an individual, and as a nutrition and dietetics professional?

Keep Learning

If you enjoyed learning about food systems as complex systems, look at the courses and readings recommended by foodsource at the end of this Building Block, or, check out Systems Thinking in Public Health under Sustainability Courses.

Why are food systems and diets currently not sustainable?

There are many food systems, and they could be thought of as subsystems to the larger complex system that you learned about in the previous section. Some aspects of food systems are more sustainable, and some are less sustainable. But the overall behaviour (or outcomes) of food systems is not sustainable.

Watch this short video from the United Nations Environment Program. It provides a very simple and visual outline of the social and environmental challenges that make our food systems unsustainable. Next, read this chapter, An Overview of Food System Challenges (use this hyperlink to the online chapter), published online as part of foodsource by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN). Use the below link to download the pdf directly.

Reflect

After watching this video and reading this chapter, reflect on the following questions.

  1. Describe how climate change is impacting food systems, and how food systems are impacting climate change.
  2. Describe how food systems and human diets are impacting, and impacted by 2-3 other environmental challenges (e.g., biodiversity)
  3. Describe how food systems and human diets are impacting social sustainability. If needed, review the Five Principles of Sustainability video above. For example, how do they impact human health and inequality?
  4. Try and think of two ways that the challenges you described above (in questions 1-3) are directly impacting your community.

Keep Learning

If you want to keep exploring the ways that food systems are unsustainable, we recommend that you filter for “Personal Knowledge Development” in the Existing Resources Database, or begin with the following resources in this Toolkit:

What is a Healthy and Sustainable Diet?

A healthy and sustainable diet looks different for different people and communities around the world. There is no one dietary pattern that is best for all. In the Glossary, we use the following definition from FAO and Bioversity International:

Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” 

Sustainable diets focus on the consumption component of the food system. They contribute to and are supported by food system sustainability (15)

To explore this in more depth, we encourage you to read the chapter, What is a Healthy and Sustainable Eating Pattern, (use this hyperlink to the online chapter), published online as part of foodsource by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN). Use the below link to download the pdf directly.

We then encourage you to participate in the UN Climate Change 2-hour, self-paced course on Sustainable Diets to explore and apply some of these topics at a more practical level.

Reflect

After reading this chapter, and participating in this 2-hour course, reflect on the following questions.

  1. Describe 2-3 important principles, or qualities, of a healthy and sustainable diet.
  2. Provide some examples of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns that are relevant to your community. Explain using some examples of foods.
  3. Can a healthy diet be a sustainable diet? Provide some examples of food patterns that are beneficial for both.

Keep Learning

If you are keen to keep learning about sustainable diets, we encourage you to talk to colleagues about what they think sustainable dietary patterns would look like in your community. Also, explore more resources on this site. May we suggest the webinar: Can Healthy Diets Be Sustainable Diets? An Emerging Role for Dietitians with Barbara Seed & Fiona Yeudall?

Summary

In this first Learning Module, you explored resources in the toolkit to learn about and answer the following questions:

  • What is sustainability?
  • What are food systems?
  • Why are food systems and diets not sustainable?
  • What is a healthy and sustainable diet?

To continue learning about how these concepts apply to your practice, explore the next learning module: Key Issues in Sustainable Food Systems and Diets for Nutrition and Dietetic Practice