Prioritising sustainable food systems is an investment in nutrition

Jun 03,2022

Prioritising sustainable food systems is an investment in nutrition

Sustainability is about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. 1

This is a complex, but increasingly urgent issue, most especially because it addresses the threat to our food systems. As the UN has put it: sustainable food systems don’t just help to end hunger. They can help the world achieve critical progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.[1] Understanding that this is the priority, nutrition institutions and companies worldwide are driving programmes to further research and promote sustainable food systems. Nestlé, for example, recently compiled a detailed report, entitled

Creating Shared Value and Sustainability Report 2021, which sheds light on the company’s key areas of focus and its goals.

Regenerative agriculture is key

Regenerative agriculture is keyRegenerative agriculture is explained as a farming methodology that improves the health and fertility of the soil, while also capturing moisture and carbon in the soil. A healthier soil is not only more resilient to the effects of climate change; it also yields more crop which makes more food available and bolsters the income of farmers.

The potential benefits of regenerative agriculture are significant. Consider the findings of this report, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which found that a 50% adoption of regenerative agriculture across Africa could yield: [2]

  • 30% reduction in soil erosion
  • Up to a 60% increase in water infiltration rates
  • 24% increase in nitrogen content
  • 20% increase in carbon content, or higher depending on the intervention – and not just topsoil (this is huge as soil is the second biggest storehouse of carbon, after oceans). The benefits are even greater when shrubs and grasses are promoted through agroforestry.


Reforestation is also a significant consideration, within the context of agriculture. It is a fact that forests absorb the carbon that is, at least in part, responsible for climate change. Investing in reforestation programmes is one way that governments and society can support carbon-reduction, keeping in mind that this, in turn, supports the health of our planet, our soils and our food systems.4

The adoption of regenerative agriculture will not be possible without support of emerging farmers, with a view to equipping them with information, resources, digital tools, etc. [3]

Preserving water systemsPreserving water systems

Water cycle management is critical. Without clean, safe water, vulnerable communities across the globe are at risk for a range of diseases and malnutrition. In addition, agriculture depends on the availability of this scarce resource to ensure production.

Resolving issues around water scarcity, pollution and wastage is crucial for transforming food production and consumption. Experts believe that agriculture and farming – among the worst offenders - must address their high use of water. This will be achieved through the adoption of technological innovations (and methodologies such as regenerative agriculture), with the support of governance that prioritises water conservation. [4]

Improving access to healthy nutrition that’s sustainable

It has been noted that to achieve sustainable food systems, we must prioritise the transformation of diets, globally. “Unsustainable food systems producing unhealthy diets is the status quo, a lose–lose dynamic for both human health and the environment”. [5]

Improving access to healthy nutrition In part, this requires the removal of barriers to healthy eating – making nutritious foods more easily accessible to populations.

Currently, food production is not sufficient to feed the global population, and many countries rely on imports to provide food security for their populations. [6] The remedy is complex, say experts, and will require action at every level of society. Among the major considerations are the cold chain, financial and political support for smallholders, greater investment in corporate social responsibility on the part of the private sector, R&D that drives agri-food systems, improved physical infrastructures and foreign aid.

At present, the inequitable cost of healthy and nutritious food, is a major barrier to the adoption of healthier diets. One possible remedy is the substitution of hard-to-access foods, with more affordable or readily accessible (e.g., locally farmed) alternatives.

Yet this is not without its own challenges: “While there are low-resource alternative sources that should be considered in filling nutrient gaps for all countries to consider, they are often not in high demand with the exception of fish”. Notably, however, farmed fish, insects and protein-rich plant foods present viable alternatives to meats derived from livestock. [7]

Swapping meat for plant-based foods

Swapping meat for plant-based foodsPlant protein-based foods (which require less land and less water to produce), could provide sufficient healthy protein for the world’s rapidly growing population. Grains such as quinoa, nuts, soya, seeds and nuts might not provide us with the same high quality of proteins as is derived from animal meat sources, but when combined, their quality is improved. In addition, plant-based proteins are higher in fibre and contain less saturated fats than meat, making them a healthy choice. [8] In Africa, where protein malnutrition remains a major concern, plant-based proteins are a viable solution.[9]

A flexitarian diet, which incorporates more plant-based proteins and less animal meat sources, is increasingly gaining favour on the basis of its health benefits as well as its comparatively lower impact on the environment. [10]

Improving nutrition & sustainability knowledge

The adoption of more nutritious, healthy and sustainable diets will be more easily achieved through nutrition education. This is where healthcare professionals are especially well-positioned, to share knowledge with patients and encourage improved nutrition habits, such as the increased consumption of plant-based foods, methods to reduce food waste, and water conservation.

“The multiple threats of climate change, unprecedented biodiversity loss, social inequality and risks to human rights, to name but a few, demand a fresh approach. We need our food systems to be a source of solutions to such challenges, not a cause of them”, wrote Rob Cameron, Global Head of Public Affairs and ESG Engagement, Nestlé in the 2021 Creating Shared Value and Sustainability Report. With an understanding of sustainable food systems, healthcare professionals can play their part in educating patients about the value of a more sustainable diet, and the importance of sustainable systems to support our food systems. In addition, it is essential to educate patients about the value of sustainable nutrition that is healthier.


[1] United Nations. n.d. Food Systems Summit x SDGs | United Nations. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[2] IUCN. 2021. Regenerative agriculture works: New research and African businesses show how. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[3] Dasoo, M., 2022. We need a revolution in African farming — regenerative agriculture could be the catalyst. Daily Maverick, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[4] 2021. Creating Shared Value and Sustainability Report 2021. [ebook] Nestle. Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[5] Lawrence, M., Baker, P., Pulker, C. and Pollard, C., 2019. Sustainable, resilient food systems for healthy diets: the transformation agenda. Public Health Nutrition, [online] 22(16), pp.2916-2920. Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[6] Nestle Nutrition Institute, 2021. How to make nutritious diets more affordable, accessible and adequate. [video] Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[7] Fanzo, J., 2019. Healthy and Sustainable Diets and Food Systems: the Key to Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2?. Food Ethics, [online] 4(2), pp.159-174. Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[8] Nestlé Nutrition Institute. 2020. Plant Protein to Power the Planet. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[9] Nestlé Nutrition Institute. 2021. Why Africa’s protein intake still lags behind the global average. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[10] Nestlé Nutrition Institute. 2021. Exploring the benefits of a flexitarian diet. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 31 May 2022].