Food is nourishment, culture, pleasure, tradition, sociability, and identity. Food plays a vital role in people’s well-being, health, and longevity—and has a powerful preventive function. Food accompanies us throughout our lives and is an element that defines us in both the private and social dimensions.
The impact of food on the environment is increasingly at the center of the international debate: producing food requires land and natural resources such as water and nutrients, and contributes to the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere.
Overall, global food production and consumption system contributes 21 percent to 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and has now become a fundamental focus of action aimed at mitigating global warming.
In many countries of the world, excessive amounts of processed and unhealthy foods are consumed—we consume large quantities of meat (especially red meat), refined sugars, fats, and salt. In recent decades there has been a decline in adherence to healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, and overweight and obesity have become the main risk factors for developing diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), sustainable diets are “those diets with low environmental impacts that contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations… are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe, and healthy, while optimizing natural and human resources.”
In line with this definition, a number of actions can be taken to make the global diet more sustainable, to benefit human health and the environment.
Preference should be given to plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. The daily diet should include at least 400 grams of fruit and vegetables, while meat and dairy products should be consumed in moderation. The right amount of protein, iron, and calcium can be consumed by consuming plant-based foods such as legumes and nuts. In addition to benefiting human health, plant-based foods have, on average, a significantly lower environmental impact than animal source foods, according to Clark et al., among others.
By choosing local and seasonal food, eaters can maximize the nutrient content of food—vitamins, mineral salts, and phytochemical compounds—helping promote better health, while also helping to preserve agrobiodiversity, and supporting local economies.
The increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in diets has been identified as one of the causes of unhealthy diets and overweight as well as increasing GHG emissions. A diet that respects the planet prevents food waste, which currently accounts for about 20 percent of food produced in the European Union, with a cost of EU€143 billion. In Italy, about 65 kilograms of food per person per year is wasted, mainly in the areas in the home and at restaurants.
Drinking tap water can also help the environment. Bottling 1.5 liters of water surprisingly requires 1.9 of water for bottling, packaging, and transport, says Nicolucci et al. In many EU countries, the amount of plastic that gets recycled is still less than 50 percent of total production. Moreover, reducing disposables, recycling and reusing materials, and choosing foods with less packaging—food packaging accounts for 25 percent of plastic materials that end up in the environment—all contribute to environmental sustainability.
When making more conscious eating choices becomes a collective commitment, it has the power to preserve and protect the planet’s resources. On October 10th, 14 global cities in the C40 network signed the Good Food Cities Declaration. The C40 mayors are committed to promoting healthy and sustainable diets, cutting food waste in half, and implementing green procurement policies, to protect the health of their 64 million citizens while respecting their cultures and traditions.
On December 3, 2019, The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation will host a dedicated workshop within the 10° International Forum on Food and Nutrition in Milan to discuss sustainable diets. It is possible to register to the event here. At the same link, on December 3, it will be possible to follow the conference online, via live streaming.