Sustainable Diets from Sustainable Food Systems

Pamela Mason and Tim Lang argue for the need to address the huge problems within the food system by shifting dietary consumption through the development of sustainable dietary guidelines

The need for a sustainable diet, which protects people’s’ health, the environment and social justice should not be debatable. Yet for policy makers who consider it at all – and many do not – it is contestable and challenging. While the topic of sustainable diets is complex, the evidence of damage from 21st century dietary consumption on human, environmental and social health is incontrovertible.


The food system in Wales faces a range of critical issues – obesity, poor diet, climate change, demand for food banks, poor remuneration for producers, as well as a changing relationship with Europe. In 2015, in Wales, 24% of adults were classified as obese and 59% of adults as overweight or obese. Less than a third of all adults – 32% – reported eating five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The effects of climate change, not least the apparent greater risk of flooding, are having greater impacts on food production, and food and farming need to play a central role in Wales’ ambitions to reduce carbon emissions by 85% by 2050.


Poverty and food inequality have increased in Wales especially for people on low incomes, such that it is increasing and compounding health and well-being inequalities. Obesity amongst adults rises with increasing deprivation, from 54% in the least deprived areas to 63% in the most deprived areas. Similarly with children, in whom obesity increases from 22.2% in the least deprived areas to 28.5% in the most deprived areas. Food bank use is relatively high in Wales compared to the rest of the UK if population size is taken into account. Between April 2015 and April 2016, Trussell Trust Food Banks gave out approximately 85,000 3-day emergency food packages to people in Wales.


Independent farm businesses continue to decrease in number. Wales lost over 250 dairy farms between 2009 and 2012. The Welsh farming and local processing sector has become even more dependent upon downstream corporately controlled food processors and retailers located outside Wales. Brexit could have a devastating effect on an already vulnerable food production system in Wales and severely affect food resilience and food poverty.


While there is substantial agreement on the problems, there is less agreement on what to do about them and responses have been inadequate. In Wales, the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, creates a huge opportunity to focus on the improvement of the food system from increasing the availability of healthy, affordable food for all the people of Wales, reducing carbon emissions and reducing biodiversity loss in food production to supporting farmers in the strengthening of shorter supply chains and improving social cohesion around community food initiatives. The Act offers a particular opportunity to help children and young people learn more about food, how to grow it and how to cook it. In short, the Well-Being of Future Generations Act offers an opportunity to create a more sustainable food system.


How could this be achieved? Concerns have, to date, largely been channeled into food production rather than consumption. However, we argue for the need for dietary change to drive change in food production, in other words for sustainable diets.


But what is a sustainable diet? Basically it is a good diet for people, the planet and social justice. We argue that a sustainable diet is more than a low carbon diet. Our approach to sustainable diet builds on the framework developed by the UK Sustainable Development Commission in 2011. This proposed six clusters for sustainable diet: health, the environment, social values, quality, economics and governance. We do not see these dimensions as separate but as strands which should be integrated and woven together to create the framework for a diet that is healthy, green and fair in the long-term. This creates opportunity for academic disciplines to work together. Nutritionists are crucial but so are environmental scientists, social scientists and economists. Sustainable diets cannot be tackled by one discipline alone.


Wales should consider creating sustainable dietary guidelines. The principles of a sustainable diet, i.e., one that is based on an increased intake of vegetables, fruits and whole grains with less but better meat and limited processed foods high in sugar are beginning to appear in some food-based dietary guidelines around the world but few countries have developed explicit sustainable dietary guidelines. We believe that such guidelines are vital to facilitate the dietary change that is badly needed and to send signals through the food system to create sustainable food production. In short, we need to consume sustainable diets from sustainable food systems.



Pamela Mason, experienced researcher, and Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City, University of London’s Centre for Food Policy, authors of a new book Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform consumption and the Food System

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