Why is sustainability important when it comes to food?

Many of us are becoming more conscious about climate change and looking after the environment and want to bring our families up in a more sustainable way. The way we shop and eat play a huge role in terms of environmental impact and our choices can have a profound effect on food sustainability.

I’ve invited my colleague Registered Dietitian Gaby Goodchild to write about food sustainability in relation to babies, children and making family meals. Gaby gives us some easy to apply tips which will help create a more sustainable environment and future for our planet.

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Why is sustainability important by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist
Why is sustainability important by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is all about meeting our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (1). 

You may have heard phrases such as ‘sustainable living’. Currently we are using our resources at an unsustainable rate and this cannot continue into the future. Natural resources on our planet are being used up. Sustainable living is about changing the way we use our resources, to provide a secure future for our future generations. 

Why is sustainable food important?

The way we choose to shop and eat, has put much stress on our planet and the environment. We need to ensure a sustainable environment for the future and this is currently under threat (1). Our current food system has contributed to climate change, deforestation, soil loss and soil pollution, alongside a huge demand on water supply, pollution and exploitation of certain species such as fish, to name a few (2). 

Understanding food sustainability and environmental sustainability and what we need to do, will help to ensure food security for us and our future generations. 

At the same time, we also need to make sure any changes we make are also healthy for us (1). 

What’s currently happening with our food system?

Waste levels of food in the UK are high, we throw away 10 million tonnes of wasted or spoiled food every year (2). Some of this is avoidable. 

Land is not being used effectively enough and the food supply system is having a huge impact on our environment and greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere, adding to global warming (5). Food production in the UK is responsible for between 15-30% of our total greenhouse gas emissions (5). 

Our current food systems use great amounts of water and takes up 70% of all human water use (2).

What do we need to do to improve things?

Why is sustainability important when it comes to food by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist
Why is sustainability important when it comes to food by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist

Essentially we cannot continue to produce and eat food in the same ways and we need to think about change to ensure the sustainability of food. 

The UK has a target for climate change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 (2). This is the time to act, if we want to reach these sort of development goals. 

All parts of agriculture food production including harvesting, processing, packing, distributing and selling, have impacts on our environment (2).

The part we play in purchasing, preparing and throwing away food also has environmental consequences too (2).

Of the 10 million tonnes of wasted food every year, 71% occurs in the home (2). 

How are we having an impact on food sustainability?

The foods we eat and how much of it, directly affects food sustainability. An increasing world population size is putting a huge demand on food production. The food system is already under strain and as the population increases, this will become a bigger and bigger issue (2). 

The meat and dairy industry are big producers of greenhouse gases and have a huge impact on our environment (4).

The current UK diet, means we are contributing an estimated on average 2.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, per year, adding to the greenhouse gases. 

Are we currently doing enough to help?

The Committee for Climate Change in the UK, is concerned about our lack of progress in the agricultural industry (2). The food industry’s share of the emissions is increasing as other industries are doing more. 

We need sustainable food systems we can rely on for the future and we currently don’t have these in place. 

Is the answer a plant based diet?

A plant based diet is often suggested as one solution for our future food plans. This could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve land and water use and take some of the pressure off our environment (2). 

Beef and fish for example have 38 times higher greenhouse gas emissions than potatoes (2). 

Secondly a more plant based diet may also be better for human health (3). 

Large intakes of red and processed meat has been linked to health concerns and there are UK recommendations to reduce both red and processed meat (2). 

Reducing our meat intake may help reduce both saturated fat and salt intakes, which is also recommended for public health (3).

What to consider with a plant based diet by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist
What to consider with a plant based diet by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist

Things to consider with plant based diets:

Meat and dairy products are important sources of essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, Vitamin A, D, riboflavin and B12 (2). 

Very careful consideration must be taken to identify alternative natural sources of these nutrients in plant based diets, to prevent nutritional deficiencies. 

What about dairy products?

The dairy industry has already taken steps to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gases (2). However reducing our milk intake could help reduce this further (2). 

Things to consider when reducing our dairy intake:

What to consider when reducing dairy intake by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist
What to consider when reducing dairy intake by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist

Dairy products are our main source of calcium, an important nutrient for bones, teeth and heart health (15).

Eating less dairy products could make getting enough calcium more challenging.

If we reduce our dairy intake, we need to have non dairy alternatives, fortified with calcium (2). There are some great options now available from nut milks, coconut, rice, soya or oat milks. 

There are also natural plant based sources of calcium in foods such as tofu or fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.

However, calcium supplement may be necessary if you can’t get enough calcium from your diet but speak to a registered Dietitian for advice on this. 

What about fish?

UK recommendations promote fish and fish oils (2), encouraging us to eat two portions of fish per week, with one of these an oily fish such as salmon, pilchards or fresh tuna (3).

However, overfishing has left some fish as threatened species (6), Greenpeace claims that over 90% of tuna and cod have already been caught and over 70% of fisheries are overfished. 

Sea fishing can also cause destruction to habitats and catch other species such as dolphins or turtles by accident (6)

Considerations for reducing fish intake;

Fish is a great source of protein, iodine, long chain omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrients. We can get these nutrients from plant based sources but this needs to be planned very carefully. 

What are the challenges of a plant based diet for adults and children?

What are the challenges of plant based diet by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist
What are the challenges of plant based diet by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist

Vegetarian and vegan diets need to be very well planned to make sure you get everything you need and reduce the risk of deficiencies. Certain nutrients are harder to obtain from a vegetarian or vegan diet such as Iodine, Calcium, B12, Omega-3 and Iron. It’s also important to ensure your child is getting enough protein (14). 

Supplements may be necessary, depending on the diet but speak to a registered Dietitian for advice.

The British Dietetic Association (BDA) focuses on reducing intake of meat and dairy, rather than cutting these out completely (2). If you are used to eating meat every day, perhaps try to have 2-3 meat free days per week.

How does my food choices affect my carbon footprint?

Our carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air as part of our activities (8). 

Considering the effect this can have on climate change, many people are taking steps to try and reduce their own carbon footprint. 

Food and drinks have a carbon footprint ‘attached’ to it because machinery and resources are needed to grow, harvest, package and transport. 

Buying local, seasonal produce will reduce the carbon impact on the environment.

What are the challenges of plant based diet by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist
What are the challenges of plant based diet by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist

Should we buy organic?

If you choose to buy organic, no pesticides will be used in the production, this means reduced production methods and reduced use of chemicals (8). 

However, some people claim, organic food has it’s disadvantages, as well as costing more, it’s claimed that without using pesticides, land is not used as effectively and it can use more land to grow organic food. 

What can we do to make a difference?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report 2019 (7), recommends a few steps households can take to make a difference to food sustainability. This includes eating less meat and dairy foods, throwing away less food and buying more locally sourced seasonal foods.

Steps to reduce food waste:

  • Use re-closable and reusable packaging in the fridge to keep opened food fresher for longer (9).

  • Remember ‘best before’ is not the same as ‘use by’ and food can be eaten after the best before date, as long as the condition of the food is still edible (9). 

  • Make sure you check out the storage details for that food and store according to the advice given. 

Check out Love Food Hate Waste for advice of optimum conditions for storing your favourite foods. 

  • Look for recycling information on packaging.

  • Check your fridge temperature – UK fridges are on average 2 degrees too high, the correct fridge temperature is below 5 degrees (10). Setting your fridge to the right temperature could help milk and other items last three days longer (10). 

  • Meal plan ahead according to the dates of the food in your fridge. Love Food Hate Waste can help with portion planning and making sure you buy enough, but not too much, for your family (10).

  • Be inventive with recipes – did you know you can make soup from potato peelings? Or homemade pizza from the crust ends of the loaf. 

What about packaging?

How to reduce food packaging waste
How to reduce food packaging waste

Choosing to buy your food with minimal and recyclable packaging can reduce the amount of packaging waste ending up in landfill. Many baby food pouches for example are not recyclable and can only be placed in your rubbish bin (11).

Glass baby food jars may not be as convenient but are largely recyclable, although you may need to take them to your local recycling centre.

A company called Terracycle has teamed up with Ella’s kitchen to recycle all brands of baby food pouches and Ella’s Kitchen snack packaging to be made into other products (12).

Find your nearest drop off location at Terracycle.

Are we freezing enough?

  • Freeze when necessary – lots of people don’t realise you can freeze most food right up to the use by date (10). ‘Freeze on day of purchase’ is being removed from some packaging. 

  • Around 81% of fruit wasted is because we didn’t use it on time but almost all fruit can be frozen and used for desserts or smoothies (10). 

  • 4.4 million potatoes are being wasted every day in UK homes (10). To freeze raw potatoes, boil them for about 5 minutes and freeze them for later. When you want them you can defrost them overnight and roast the next day. 

  • Did you know you can also freeze cheese? Just use a handful for cooking when needed. 

  • Bread can be frozen when you buy it or try freezing the last few slices of a loaf before it’s past its best.

  • Milk is best frozen on the day of purchase. You can freeze in the containers but beware the milk will expand when frozen. Thaw in the fridge before using. What about freezing some milk in ice cube trays before you go on holiday, quickly defrosted for your cup of tea when you get home! (10). 

How can I buy more locally?

If all our food came from within 20km of where we live, we could save £1.2 billion per year on environmental and congestion costs (13). 

  • Find out about your local farm shops and farmers markets at Farm Shop UK

  • Find your local milkman at  www.findmeamilkman.net and have your milk delivered in reusable glass bottles, rather than plastic packaging. 

How to Eat in a more sustainable way by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist
How to Eat in a more sustainable way by Sarah Almond Bushell - the Children’s Nutritionist

To sum up:

  • Buy seasonal

  • Buy local

  • Reduce food waste

  • Reduce packaging waste

  • Recycle wherever possible

  • Try new foods. Explore some of the great vegetarian and vegan alternatives!


For the full reference list please contact me.

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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