Have you ever wondered how to eat more sustainably? Looking for the right answer might be tricky as the ultimate sustainable diet does not exist. At least not universally and for everyone. Such a diet needs to be based on the context, for instance, where we live or what our age needs are. Let’s take a closer look at sustainable diets and how to bring them to life (and on our plate). 

As a term ‘sustainable‘ may seem a bit blurry, it is useful first to recognise what we want to sustain, why and then look for ways how. Food supply is under increasing pressure, and that is contributing to environmental degradation and climate change. Global food system also impacts people’s livelihoods, their food security and living conditions. Imagine the food system as a huge circle of people and activities in which one action can affect others. Are we going to make it worse or rather sustainable?

Defining Sustainable Diets

The general idea of sustainability builds on the concept of sustainable development, a process of change meeting our today’s needs without compromising those of generations to come. Defined by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), sustainable diets should be meeting our needs concerning food and nutrition security, healthy lifestyle and low environmental impact. Sustainable eating patterns preserve and respect biodiversity and ecosystems, they are culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, and while optimising natural and human resources, they lead to well-being and health. A shift of consumption towards sustainability is vital for sustainable food systems (Image 1) to work.

Image 1: Sustainable diets are a part of a sustainable and food-secure system which consists of various components, from production to managing the waste (David Hood)

Sustainability is by some researchers considered as a precondition for long-term food security. Food security is based on food being available, accessible, utilised and stable. If we take a closer look, food security is included in the definition of sustainable diets, suggesting concepts are interlinked. Exploring both ideas together deserves attention because while all sustainable diets are food secure, not all secure diets are necessarily sustainable.

With that being said, we still do not have a clear picture of what specific food to consume. Based on what to make that decision?

Measuring Sustainability

Majority of the research on food and sustainability focusses on assessing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increasingly also on land and water usage. That is done by evaluating the food’s life cycle and exploring how much raw material and energy requires production, use and disposal. Concerning food, meat and dairy account for the highest amount of GHG emissions and land use.

Based on its definition, more aspects (Image 2) should be considered to establish a sustainable diet. One of the dimensions that have not been well explored is culture.

Image 2: Different dimensions and related aspects of sustainable diets based on  Johnston et al. (Author)

What is the Role of Culture in Sustainable Diets?

When we go back to meat, some strong association has been suggested between meat consumption and cultural aspects, especially with regards to the concept of masculinity and meat symbolising strength, therefore power and wealth. Meat is in some cultures perceived as something to aspire to, and while it may be more accessible to people these days than in the past, meat still retains its ‘high status‘. An example is China where beef used to be nicknamed ‘the millionaire’s meat‘, and although it is accessible to many people now, the consumption is growing. Such cultural embeddedness can be a barrier to more sustainable eating patterns, as well as the low price of meat in many places.

A shift to consumerism (in high-income countries) supported by marketing has weakened some of the cultural aspects and that is seen as one of the challenges of sustainable diets. People learned to eat everything they want to at any time, often also ‘high status‘ foods, and a blind eye has been turned to the impact it is causing.

Sustainable diets should promote traditionally and culturally acceptable foods. Global food system may affect local eating patterns, either in the diversification of diets or rejection of certain foods. Illustrative is a study from Kenya. Locals started avoiding nutritious green leafy vegetables because the food did not respond to the trend and was considered ‘for the poor‘. Nevertheless, FAO reintroduced the traditional vegetables by involving other actors such as famous local restaurants. The image of greens changed, they gained their popularity back and now support healthy and sustainable diets leading towards a sustainable food system.

Another example of a diet contributing to sustainability based on culture is the update of a Mediterranean diet. It aims to reconcile traditional food productions and result in low energy use and biodiversity protection. Similarly, environment-friendly diets supporting regional tradition have been designed in Nordic countries. And although eating berries, cabbage or local fish may be sustainable in Sweden; if we were to apply the diet into a different context, its sustainability might remarkably shift.

Conclusion                                                      

Do we only think about nutrition or getting the best deal when purchasing food? The cultural dimension of diets goes beyond meeting basic needs and we associate food also with other aspects such as joy, traditions or community. While some eating patterns may lower GHG emissions and damage to the environment, applying them into the real world may be unrealistic because of the cultural embeddedness. Given the fact that meat and dairy have a significant environmental impact, should everyone become vegan to contribute to sustainability? Not only that drastic livestock reduction might negatively affect people’s livelihoods and undermine their food security and culture, what we replace our foods with matters as well. Consuming unseasonal imported goods, for instance,  does not have to contribute to a sustainable diet and food system either.

Although assessing the foods’ life cycle is immensely useful, we should shift the perception of sustainable diets also to other dimensions to understand the overall concept of sustainability. Building on the local context, its needs and influences can be the first step.