To nourish people and planet
Dr. Cassie Irwin
Along with water, sunshine, and fresh air, food is a basic requirement for our survival. No matter how advanced our society becomes, we continue to be faced with the increasingly complex challenge of producing the supply required to meet the growing demand for food. While the trend toward globalization in our food systems may have provided solutions in decades past, it’s also resulted in homogeneous diets, reduced local economy, uncertain supply chains, and environmental repercussions. Food industry practices have contributed to pollution, soil degradation, and disruptions to ecosystems. How do we sustainably produce more food for a growing population without further harming the environment? Taking a wider perspective, an estimated 2 billion people on our planet eat diets of low quality, and over 800 million people are malnourished. And, ironically, even in the world’s poorest countries where hunger and undernutrition are prevalent, there are growing concerns about overnutrition, overweight, and obesity. How do we reconcile this with the staggering amount of food waste produced every year? Altogether, we’re left to wonder how we are going to improve food security and human health while protecting the health of the planet now and for years to come. While we might have more questions than answers at this point, we can use the principles of “sustainable nutrition” as a guidepost for taking aligned action.
Sustainability is a forward-thinking approach that weighs the needs of society now, while ensuring our long-term survival and that of our environment. We cannot depend upon a food supply unless that supply is sustainable.
The principles of sustainable nutrition are diverse. Diets based on sustainably produced foods minimize harms to the environment, protect biodiversity and ecosystems, contribute to food security, provide nutritional adequacy, and support healthy lives for present and future generations.
Sustainable diets should also be accessible, affordable, acceptable according to cultural views, and economically fair for both producers and consumers. Plant-based diets are often touted for being particularly environmentally friendly.
Since there are many principles of sustainable nutrition, you can cultivate your own food plan that fits your individual health needs, budget, and values.
Our overall diet needs to incorporate carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water for survival. Dietary fibre, antioxidants, and phytochemicals are additional nutrients that help us thrive and are associated with a lower risk of chronic disease.
From a sustainable nutrition perspective, focusing on producing and consuming foods with high nutrient density would be helpful to minimize food waste and optimize human health. Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients per calorie in a given food. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include seaweed, leafy greens, wild salmon, egg yolk, grass-fed beef, nuts and seeds, and legumes.
Food loss refers to the waste of food before it reaches the end consumer. Food loss from the processing stage of food alone is estimated at 200 million tonnes per year globally.
The food industry can reduce food loss by shifting toward a closed-loop supply chain with optimized waste streams. A waste stream refers to the lifecycle of waste from its creation to its disposal.
A closed-loop supply chain in the food industry allows for the recycling or repurposing of food surplus, byproducts, and waste. Companies can donate food surplus to food banks and recycle food waste to feed animals or create compost, fertilizer, and bioenergy.
For instance, regenerative farming strives to conserve and regenerate the environment in addition to producing food. A study conducted among regenerative sheep farms showed that this type of farming can significantly offset its own environmental repercussions through repurposing collected biomass.
Compared with conventional farming, regenerative farming practices geared toward soil building can also enhance the nutritional profile of plant and animal foods.
Urban farming allows us to become more self-sufficient while building a local, sustainable, and organic food supply at home. Whether you’re working a suburban lot or a balcony, here’s how you can easily and affordably get started growing food at home.
“If you’re a first-time at-home gardener, start simple,” says Jacquie Conte, organic master gardener and owner of Grow at Home Niagara, where she offers resources and consultations for urban garden setup.
“After a quick site assessment for adequate daylight exposure and the size and type of grow space you’ll use [in],” says Conte, “plant a few foods you’ll want to eat and see in your garden.”
Get started with herbs for an easy, low-cost, and low-waste gardening project. “Continuous growth perennial herbs like peppermint, oregano, and thyme require minimal monitoring, and you only need to harvest what you’re using,” says Conte.
Greens are also a sustainable choice because they renew themselves and have a long growing season. “Hearty greens like lettuce, spinach, and kale are considered ‘cut and come again’ plants,” explains Conte. “They can also withstand cooler temperatures and be planted and harvested throughout the entire growing season, maybe even the winter.”
Depending on your health history, risk factors, demographics, and diet restrictions, you may benefit from topping up with nutritional supplements such as the following.
One-third of the food produced globally is thrown away. Implement the following practices to reduce your personal food waste.
Some companies are beginning to share data via satellites, mobile phones, and artificial intelligence to report to the Environmental, Social, and Governance Data Project (a World Bank collaboration) as a measure of their stewardship and sustainability.
The federal Canadian government launched a new phase of the Local Food Infrastructure Fund in March 2022. This funding is allocated for local initiatives that are creating long-term solutions for food insecurity, with a focus on rural communities, small cities, or Indigenous groups in either urban centres or rural areas.
Bringing traditional methods of food production and preservation to the forefront could make these initiatives more sustainable for the communities they serve.