Food has always been the real gasoline of human history, the material energy of bodies, brains, societies, ideas and emotions. War and peace depend on food more than on anything else.

Elisabetta Moro

The concept of Sustainable Diets (SDs) has been on the back burner of international policy since the 1980s. At the time of origin, SD discourse focused largely on the benefits to nutrition and health whilst omitting regard to agricultural and ecological sustainability. As time has passed, debates on SDs have become somewhat embedded in issues of Food Security and the need to safeguard food production for the future. This shift has been driven by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) who project a 70% increase in food demand by 2050. This blog will present the case for SDs and suggest that the world consider the Mediterranean Diet (MD) as a sustainable alternative. After which, some practical suggestions will be made for countries to move in the right direction.

Food Security is driven by four main principles, food availability, accessibility, utilisation and stability. Therefore, a huge increase in demand for food demonstrates an immense challenge to achieve these principles. Especially when considering the number of people who are already going hungry. This unsettling reality is further exacerbated when considering the threat of climate change, to increase biodiversity loss and drought resulting in reduced crop yields in large areas of the world. As a result, by coupling the damaging effects of climate change with an increased demand for food we are sure to see an intensification of Food Insecurity and millions of people at risk.

All of this demonstrates the rise in rhetoric towards SDs as a solution to this problem. Furthermore, this alarming concern for Food Security has led to the growing prominence and standardised definition of SDs in international spheres:

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 optimising natural and human resources.

FAO 2010

Sustainability in general is comprised of three pillars: Economic, Social and Environment. However, as you can see from the FAO definition SDs have been broadened to encompass a wider range of themes. As such, SDs have also been defined by 6 key components (see image below). The image represents the interdependence and equal contribution of each component when creating a SD.

What is being done internationally?

It is these components that have driven the international stance on SDs and led to its rising prominence in global talks. Some examples of this international movement are:

2012 – The Rio+20 Conference – Called for enhancing food security and nutrition and a more sustainable agricultural system

2015 – Milan Charter – A manifesto that allows people to commit to the fight against unsustainable production, undernourishment and waste

2015 – Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Goal 2 and Goal 12 includes themes on sustainable agriculture, production and consumption

2016 – Sustainable Food Systems: Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Conference – explored themes of sustainability and Food Security to understand how to create SFSs

2016 – International Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition – looked at practical solutions for implementing sustainable agriculture

2019 – 2nd Global Conference of the Sustainable Food Systems Programme – to trigger political commitment in transitioning towards SFSs

Sustainable Diets in the SDGs?

The inclusion of SDs and sustainability more generally in the SDGs has been described as a great achievement of governments to set a progressive agenda. However, it could be argued that they present an opportunity to pass accountability onto others.

To illustrate this, an example from the US can be drawn on. In 2015, a proposal by the USDA Advisory Committee to include SDs in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was rejected. The same year the US was involved in writing the SDGs that hold developing countries accountable in terms of encouraging SDs. This demonstrates opposition within the US to introduce SDs within its own borders when it agrees to the notion that others need to.  

Nevertheless, not all governments have a similar reluctance to take action on their own soil. In fact, some very positive initiatives have been implemented. Such as the 2018 commitment to transition towards ‘circular agriculture’ in The Netherlands – where farmers reuse all components of the food production system for fertilizer and animal feed. Although, whilst some governments have made steps towards introducing SDs to their citizens, more needs to be done to influence diet shifts and the reduction of food waste. This could result in up to 23% reductions in blue and green water use and around 20-30% reductions in GHG emissions.

Given this, the Mediterranean Diet provides a tangible model for governments to contextualise and introduce.

What can we learn from the Mediterranean Diet?

The MD first found fame in the 1950s when Ancel Keys found a correlation between the diet consumed in the Mediterranean and low numbers of cardiovascular diseases in the region. However, by the 1990s the MD began to feature in rhetoric around SDs. For example; in 2010 UNESCO recognised the MD as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity; in 2012 CIHEAM reported that the MD was a driver of Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) and the FAO acknowledges the MD as one of the most SDs in the world.

The recognition afforded to the MD is not based primarily on ingredients but rather the set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions from the land to the table that it represents. This is great news when considering the sustainability of the MD as the knowledge, methods and practices can be transferred to other countries whilst the ingredients can be contextualised with local alternatives.

Specific ingredients can be slotted into the main characteristics of the MD – a high ratio of monounsaturated-saturated fat; high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruit, seeds and nuts; low consumption of dairy, meat and poultry; unrefined cereals; moderate consumption of alcohol.

In order to understand the benefits of the MD in more detail the Med Diet 4.0 study will be used. Here, they found four real sustainable benefits that come as a result of adopting or continuing to follow an MD:

  • Benefit 1 – Health and Nutrition
  • Benefit 2 – Lower Environment Impact
  • Benefit 3 – High Sociocultural Food Value
  • Benefit 4 – Positive Local Economic Returns

These benefits reflect the positive impact an MD can have in regards to the 6 components of SDs. If you wish to find out more about all four benefits please refer to the article, however, this blog will only look at benefit 2. This benefit is evidenced by the large plant base and seasonality of the MD and how this contributes to saving water and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, the inclusion of wild cereals, fruits and vegetables helps to preserve biodiversity. All of this, could result in a reduction of your food related water footprint by up to 43% and if you are vegetarian this figure increases by 10%. Considering countries specifically, research has found that changing to the MD in Spain could reduce the environmental impact of eating patterns by 72%.  Whilst individually these figures differ, dependent on current diets they still constitute another example of the MDs sustainability.
Therefore, the MD should continue to be researched and included in international spheres until governments begin to listen to the lessons learnt here.

How can this be achieved?

The final section is going to explore some brief recommendations on how to promote the uptake of SDs and in particular MD principles worldwide.

  • Governments should update dietary guidelines to incorporate a focus on lower meat consumption. Examples of governments who have already done this are Qatar who include education on food sustainability in their dietary guidelines. In addition, Brazil have recently included a focus of SFS into theirs
    • More specifically, governments could produce everyday practical guides. For example, the German ‘Sustainable Shopping Basket’ that points out various routes that can be taken towards sustainable consumption
  • The internet could be utilised more to disseminate information and encourage populations to take up a MD. Research has found internet education to be an effective medium when doing this
  • Consider consumer convenience and place information relating to sustainability on food packaging to help make informed choices