Sustainability has been creating quite a buzz lately. It has gained so much traction in the past few years that it has started to lose its whole context and meaning. But let’s start by fixing this.

What does sustainability mean?

Sustainability is a complex concept, but fortunately, there’s a simpler way of explaining it. Sustainability means using the resources we have today in such a way that our needs are met without compromising the needs of generations to follow. Sustainability includes using all resources efficiently and carefully. These resources include economic and social resources, apart from natural resources. Therefore, sustainability is not linked to environment only, as many people believe it to be. In this article, I will be talking about sustainability in terms of an essential part of our lives – food.

Imagine you’re walking through the aisles of a supermarket, looking at various food items. Taste, health, price and convenience are the four factors that you may think about while buying a product. Food sustainability isn’t at the forefront of your mind. Probably because most of us don’t know what food sustainability even remotely means. Having a clear idea of food sustainability might help us in making better decisions and weighing the options of food products that we have in front of us and how these products might affect the planet.

Humans have been cultivating and harvesting their food crops for the longest possible time period, with agriculture and food production being the major source of employment, especially in developing countries such as India. Today, with the help of technology, modern practices and machinery, vast areas of land can be handled by just a few individuals. The amount of land that is used to grow biomass (for energy production) is only increasing in size and number daily. In an attempt to increase the productivity of crops, people don’t realize the effect of pesticides and machinery on the soil and climate respectively. Hence, this practice called “over-farming” is being blamed for causing a negative impact on the environment, which also includes phenomena such as climate change, deforestation of rain-forests and land degradation.

Food is essential for our survival, but its production is only undermining the surroundings based on which our survival is primarily based. We require free air and water, presence of wholesome soils, including the presence of a numerous variety of other dwelling species, apart from a weather to which we can adapt to collectively represent our life-support system. All these are vital for our survival as a species. Several researches have been conducted and it has only been proven time and again that the food supply chain is jeopardizing their functioning, the prime reason for the same being greenhouse gas emissions, unsustainable water extraction and pollution, deforestation and biodiversity loss. Some of these consequences are most likely to have disastrous effects on the health and well-being of human-beings.

At the same time, the food system no longer appears to be successful, particularly when it comes to performing its number one function: feeding human beings efficaciously. Some individuals consume too much of food that creates a toll on their health, while many are forced to remain hungry for longer time periods. Many of them suffer from “hidden hunger” which is due to the presence of micro nutrient deficiencies in their body. Added to the problems of unsustainability and dietary imbalance is the population boom that has been taking place over the years, which has given rise to the problem of feeding more mouths and changing climatic and environmental conditions which will be making food manufacturing increasingly tough and unpredictable in the coming years. Today, we are confronted with the pressing need to address the important environmental consequences of our modern-day structures of food production. On the other hand while considering these environmental constraints, policy and regulatory makers are tasked with growing food provisioning structures which ensure that the population is able to obtain access to sufficient as well as the right variety of food in order to ensure that they have a holistic nutritional profile.

Global estimates suggest that livestock production accounts for about 12–18 % of global greenhouse gas emissions and about half of the food system’s total impacts and even more when land use change impacts are also included. Estimates also suggest that the food system as a whole contributes between 15 to 28 % of overall greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, with all stages in the supply chain starting from agricultural production to processing, distribution, retailing, home food preparation and waste playing a part.

The present food system is not sustainable at all, as they cause too much depletion of resources and in turn, their impact on the environment is unimaginable. The problem is severe and it may not be wrong to take into account the food that we consume today can deplete faster than we can imagine, especially with the burning of fossil fuels. We are left to guess as to when there would arise a situation where there would be scarcity of food resources for the growing population, if the entire human race does not get their act together. The undertaking in brief is as follows: what is the way to make food production more environmentally sustainable and resilient, while simultaneously being able to feed the ever-increasing population successfully?

Practices that will take us an inch closer to a Sustainable Food System

1. Go Vocal for Local

This phrase was popularized by the Prime Minister of India in 2020 in an attempt to kick start the local businesses, which suffered heavily in the COVID-19 induced pandemic. Now, we are able to observe individuals nowadays, who have been following this campaign generously up till date in an attempt to support fellow humans and citizens of the country. What they haven’t realized yet is that apart from providing economic stability, they are also supporting a sustainable food system for the future.

Vegan Tacos vegetarian healthy food

When food is purchased fresh from the local grocery shops, a minimal food processing and distribution chain would be needed. Reducing the distance that is required for transporting products not only helps in reducing the cost of the product, but also reduces the amount of carbon emissions that are released into the atmosphere. And not to forget, the food wastage is considerably decreased, when consumers are offered an option to purchase the quantity of food that they require, instead of leaving them with the only option of purchasing a whole pack of processed foods.

This campaign really works wonders for the consumers, local businesses, economy and the environment. A win-win situation for all!

2. Going Vegan, but starting from a Flexitarian Approach

I know you’re probably rolling your eyes right now because you’ve heard it so many times before. But climate change and sustainability isn’t a joke, it’s real. And turning into a vegan isn’t the first big step you have to take. It’s a series of small steps that you need to take from the beginning. For all the non-vegetarians out there, you can start by adopting a Flexitarian approach in the beginning. Being a flexitarian means that you still get to eat the meat and seafood dishes that you love so dearly – however, (there’s always a catch!), you get to consume them in a reduced quantity than usual.

Hardcore non-vegetarians eat meat four to five times a week. Being a flexitarian would mean eating one or two times a week. It sounds doable, right? By skipping meat three times, you wouldn’t even realize how much of a positive impact you’ll be creating for the environment.

Almost double the calories of energy are required to feed the animals that are used for meat than the energy that would be required to grow crops. Shifting to a plant-based diet can help you in mitigating the carbon impact on the environment which is bound to arise due to animals being reared continuously on a large scale. Besides, crop lands require at least two thirds lesser land as compared to a normal sized ranch or a poultry farm. In this way, a significant portion of land is saved, while at the same time helping to increase the food production. And this would certainly help in bringing us a step closer to ensuring food sustainability globally.

3. Little Things at Home

Drop by drop, an ocean is formed. For a better tomorrow, we start today. By following practices that don’t require much effort and time at home will help us to make the world a better place to live in.

The peels obtained after cutting vegetables and fruits can be better utilized as compost rather than throwing them into trash. Not only will your home garden obtain the essential nutrients and grow beautifully, but it would also reduce the need to depend on chemical fertilizers.

While many have shifted to carrying cloth bags while shopping, there are a lot more individuals who still continue to use plastic bags. Using cloth bags will ensure sturdiness and they last for a longer period of time (unlike plastics, which might release toxins, especially if they are stored for a long time period). So the next time you see a vendor pulling up a plastic bag to put your things in, please give him/her your own cloth bag.

In conclusion, a Sustainable Food system is made up of the environment, the people and processes by which products are produced, processed and brought to consumers without causing any long-term damage to the ecosystem that is providing us with our food. At each step of the food system, every process has some or the other effect on the final end product and its accessibility to the population. A Sustainable Food system will ensure that the dietary needs of the population is met, without sacrificing the ability of the future generations to meet their needs of sustainability. Shopping from local businesses, having a flexitarian approach with the aim of going vegan as a long term goal and following a few practices such as ditching plastic and composting are few of the general things that we can follow. We still have a long way to go, but we have to start somewhere.


1. Holden et al, Review of the sustainability of food systems and transition using the Internet of Food, NPJ Science of Food (2018)

Kunjal BhagatAbout the Author:
Kunjal Bhagat
Food Technologist (R&D),                                                          Samyog Health Foods Pvt. Ltd.
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An editor by day & dreamer at night; passionately involved with both print and digital media; Pet lover; Solo traveller.

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