Healthy diets and sustainability

A sustainable food future at Chatham House by Carolyn Auma

Grantham Scholar Carolyn Auma reports from 2017’s A Sustainable Food Future conference Chatham House. Our co director Tony Ryan, was among the speakers. However, as the conference was held under Chatham House Rules, his comments cannot be directly reported here.

Carolyn Auma

This year’s Chatham House conference ‘A Sustainable Food Future’ looked at demand and supply in the food chain.


Discussions on the supply side centred on improving processes at the pre-consumption stage.

We could, for example, increase food production, particularly in areas where sustaining production is a challenge. There appeared to be a consensus at Chatham House that a sustainable food system would produce more with less. However, a strong theme from supply-side discussions was that a ‘one-size fits all’ approach may not be the best way to achieve this.

There exists an array of possible solutions, e.g. agricultural intensification or bio-fortification and soil regeneration. But feasible solutions will have to take contextual specifics into consideration.


Increased production may mean increased food availability. But to meet nutritional or health requirements in an environmentally sustainable way, food quality, in the form of dietary diversity, is also paramount.

Currently we rely on 4 main strategic commodities, e.g. maize, soybeans, wheat and rice. And it is important that we move beyond them. However, we must also be mindful of changes in global dietary patterns. People are moving away from traditional diets. Instead they are adopting a more universal ‘Western’ dietary pattern, based on maize, soybeans, wheat and rice.

So, from both a nutritional and sustainability perspective, we should explore how the ‘global food basket’ can be diversified. Moreover, if consumption patterns are changed globally then food production will have to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed a population that is nearing 10 billion.

Can we already feed the world?

However, some argue that global food production as it stands can already cater for 10 billion people.

According to this school of thought, the issue isn’t food availability, but the efficiency of the current global food chain. This inefficiency results in about 1 third of the total food produced being wasted. And resources used producing this food are lost too.

Of all the food that’s wasted, about a third of all food loss occurs at the point of consumption, and 2 thirds occur at the production-distribution stage of the food chain. Losses at the consumption stage are particularly significant in developed countries. Whereas, as the FAO has shown, those at the production-distribution stage are a salient issue in low-and middle-income countries, mostly in the form of post-harvest food loss.

Therefore, we have to be creative about how to fix the value chain right from the rural areas, since in many developing country contexts, most food production occurs in these areas.

Reducing food waste

Unless we address the barriers to achieving a more efficient food-chain, then producing larger quantities of more nutritious and diverse foods (SDG 2 Zero Hunger), and reducing food waste (sub-goal 12.3) will equate to a tiny band aid on a huge wound. With more food being pumped into a broken pipe we can expect even bigger leaks. Food waste cannot possibly be reduced to 0%, because there will always be inefficiencies in any system. But we should be pragmatic about embracing great opportunities to reduce it as much as we can.

Perhaps one of the ways to address food waste would be to encourage widespread adoption of the characteristics common with healthier and low greenhouse gas impact diets proposed by Garnett and others particularly the head-to-tail consumption of animals.

Of course, it is well known that changing dietary habits, even for health reasons, is challenging. Because the drivers of food choice are manifold and interrelated. It therefore remains to be seen just how willing the public are to, for example, consume ‘unconventional’ cuts of meat in the name of climate change. Behaviour changes to reduce food waste might be more easily taken up if they were attached to health arguments. These issues are, arguably, easier for individuals to relate to than environmental sustainability or food loss issues.

This highlights the need to prioritise public funds to promote nutrition education, so that it can be woven into the fabric of everyday service delivery.

Interdisciplinary approaches

What is clear to me from attending the Chatham House conference is that inter-disciplinary approaches are paramount to creating a more sustainable food system.

There is no silver bullet that can solve everything. As we work towards a sustainable system, we should try to communicate scientific research to the public. And we should try to work with others in the scientific community more effectively. If we do this, then we can find new solutions to existing problems. Also, we can fill in knowledge gaps, such as those around individual food consumption patterns.

Because if we can’t understand how and what people eat, then how can we produce dietary guidelines that are context-specific, healthy and environmentally sustainable?

Edited by Claire Moran.