9 ways to sustainably feed the world

Romain Guns
29 August 2018
Nowadays, practices in industrial agriculture and intensive livestock farming have become worrying phenomena. They are not only threatening humans but also the planet, because they contribute to the destruction of (terrestrial and marine) ecosystems and make life extremely difficult for small farmers. These phenomena also contribute to intensify global warming by reducing forest resources and swallowing up a significant part of the drinking water reserves.

Our approach to food has changed dramatically over the past century. Food is often regarded as having a social dimension capable of transforming society. Culinary heritage has become a major tourist attraction throughout the world, and a persuasive reason for attracting crowds. But this “touristisation” of the cultural heritage of some cultures leads to overproduction as well as overconsumption of products in many regions, while in others, hunger is more and more present.

In a joint report by FAO and Oxford University, the latter declares: “What we eat matters not just for our health, but for the planet, too. Yet only a handful of pioneering governments have issued guidelines promoting “win-win” diets that can help tackle two of the most urgent challenges of our time: securing good nutrition for all and addressing climate change.”

Eating in a responsible manner must not be a punishment, but a matter of knowledge and attention

Pierre Feillet

Experts only measure the impact of food on water, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. However, a global view of the consequences on our environment must also include the impact on biodiversity, the dispersion of chemicals in water, soil and air and the destruction of forests. Since this global human footprint on the planet is not easily measurable, we only have a limited, even biased view of it. However, some authors such as Pierre Feillet point out that it is entirely possible to have a “healthy diet” while reducing our impact on the environment and even on global warming.

Solutions exist if we are to face the challenges of sustainable food. Goodplanet.be proposes ideas in a report produced with the support of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation and Brussels Environment.


1. Respect the seasonal nature of products

All the different modes of transport are responsible for pollution, but some are more so than others. The overheating of off-season greenhouses produces about 18 times more greenhouse gases than the production of seasonal products. 


2. Promote short circuits and local producers

In addition to the positive impact on the environment due to the reduction of transport and emissions of various gases, the aim is also to support farmers who sometimes have difficulty to survive.


3. Choose organic farming

Organic farming consumes 20 % less energy than the so-called “conventional” agriculture, and uses few or no chemicals that are toxic for our health or for biodiversity. Even if its nutritional and environmental value is still not easily verified, organic food seems to prevail in terms of health. Organic farming also ensures a long-term protection of the soils, which are suffering from poor maintenance and overexploitation as well as from a lack of knowledge. This prevents their regeneration as well as their permanence. Maintaining a healthy soil is simple but requires special care such as little disturbance and regular coverage.

A group women works in a paddy in Madagascar.
© iStock

4. Avoid food waste

We should better evaluate our quantities and recycle our leftovers. According to the FAO, the volume of water required to produce food wasted each year throughout the world is comparable to the annual flow of the Volga (Russian River). The production of this food also emitted approximately 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions.


5. Use water to its full potential

Indeed, optimal use of water is an important factor for sustainable food. Therefore irrigation should be as economic as possible. Moreover, better managed soils, filled with organic matter and a suitable biosphere, retain water much better.


6. Favour products with little or no processing

Industrially processed foods require high energy production due to long and complex production chains.


7. Reduce meat consumption

The overconsumption of meat leads to intensive farming which requires a lot of plants to feed the animals. As the FAO stated in 2006: “livestock production has a considerable impact on the world's water, land and biodiversity resources and therefore contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect”. Reducing meat consumption also represents a real benefit, our animal protein consumption being far too high compared to vegetable proteins.

Restaurant kitchen in South-Africa with lots of pots on a gas fire.
© iStock

8. Save energy in the kitchen

Gas cooking, for example, uses less energy and is more economical than cooking on electric plates.


9. Eat farmed fish in all conscience

Fish from "European fish farms" currently represents more than half of the global fish consumption (53%) and presents a satisfactory balance. The feed efficiency of these fish in terms of nutrients is considered satisfactory compared to what can be obtained in other farms. FAO underlines that aquaculture can provide nutritious low carbon food, especially if it fosters herbivorous species. 


Finally, is there still any hope?

We have to stick our necks out, nothing’s lost. Indeed, the slowdown in population growth noticed by the FAO and the OECD should lead to a reduction in demand and further productivity gains in the sector.According to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria and FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, this decline is due to a stagnation in the consumption of basic foodstuffs per capita and a further decline in the rate of world population growth. Indeed, José Graziano da Silva states that after the Green Revolution, we now need a sustainable revolution. Sustainable food practices must therefore be adopted, providing safe and nutritious food with the ultimate objective of preserving the environment and biodiversity.

As already mentioned, our eating habits influence the environmental parameters of our planet. Transporting food to our plates is responsible for about 20 to 25 % of our planet’s greenhouse gas emissions and 10 % of its energy costs. The question of our environmental responsibility for future generations then arises in our plate.

Food security
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