What is sustainable food?

Our definition

Food that contributes to the well being of humans. Now and in the future.”

For a number of years now we have been dedicating our time to researching sustainable consumption behavior. Though we were always fully aware that sustainability is a complex and multi-dimensional issue no one ever asked us the question what we consider to be sustainable food. Until recently. It’s not an easy question to answer. And if even experts can’t answer this question, how can consumers? 

That’s why we gave it some thought. The word sustainable means that a process or state can be maintained at a certain level for as long as wanted. When it comes to the production and consumption of food, we need to consider that we have 10 billion mouths to feed in the near future. A sustainable worldwide food system should be able to feed all these mouths. 

This is our definition of sustainable food:

“Food that contributes to the well being of humans. Now and in the future.” 

Still, we were not satisfied with this definition. It’s too broad and not tangible enough. So let’s take closer look. What needs need to be done in order to contribute to the well being of humanity? There are 3 areas to consider: food must by healthy, socially inclusive and ecologically viable.  We’ll look at these areas in detail.

Sustainable food is healthy
What is considered to be healthy changes over time and even nutritionists do not agree. But obviously, any diet should contain all the nutritional values a human being needs. In general, plant based food with limited processing and additives is considered healthy. And not too much of the stuff we shouldn’t have too much of, like sugar, salt and fat. Most consumers in western society have a choice. Everyday they choose what they eat and what not. Therefore we believe that the environment in which food choices are made (supermarkets, but also many out of home places) should support healthy choices. 

But there is an important friction here. Unhealthy food is often cheap food. And the environment in which food is sold often does not support healthy choices. So right in the end of the food chain, work needs to be done so that consumers are more prone to choose what is best for them. 

Sustainable food is socially inclusive
This element of sustainability focuses on making sure no one is left out, throughout the supply chain. It means that everybody involved in the production, transport and sales of food, gets paid fairly. But it’s more than just financial circumstances. It means workers work in safe conditions and have job security. It means entrepreneurs get treated fairly by their clients and suppliers.

But there is also a friction here. Throughout history much focus has been on another element of social inclusiveness, namely affordability. Socially inclusive also means that consumers can actually buy the food. And the more attention is given to fair pay in the food chain, the higher the price the consumer pays in the end. It means that social inclusiveness often goes at the expense of affordability. Short and transparent supply chains could be part of the solution. 

Sustainable food is ecologically viable
This element is all about not depleting our  natural resources. In the last century scientist have managed to spectacularly increase the yield of agriculture. This was needed to feed the growing population. But this increase in yield in the short term came at a cost in the long term. Our agricultural land is without doubt our most important asset when it comes to the future of food supplies. But in many places our soil is deteriorating. Due to too intensive agriculture in combination with the use of chemicals, a third of the soil has now been exhausted, according to the United Nations.

Another important threat is the transformation of nature into agricultural area. We all know the picture of the burning Amazon rain forest and homeless orangutans in Indonesia.

Better ways of farming offer a solution. Organic farming is one of these ways, but there are more, often focusing on increasing biodiversity. Think of food forests

How to use our definition
Because there are so many aspects to it, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not something is sustainable. A certain type of food can be sustainable in one way but absolutely not in another. Let’s look at the Dutch chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely. This brand has dedicated itself to making the production of chocolate slave free, focusing on fair payment for the people who produce the raw chocolate. Very sustainable from a social point of view. But the product itself is not very healthy because of the high sugar content. 

And what about organic food? Most experts agree that organically produced food is better in many ways for the world. But as long as it’s more expensive and not available to the masses, organic food is not socially inclusive. 

Sustainability is not black or white. Food is not sustainable or not. Instead, sustainability is a sliding scale. Food is more or less sustainable. Our definition can be used as a roadmap indicating directions for improving sustainability. 

In order to optimize sustainability, there are several routes. Though it may seem complicated, this is where it gets easy. There are only 5 routes, which can be easily combined. 

  • Increase plant-based share of diet. Plant-based food is healthier and takes a smaller area to produce. 
  • Limit waste. If we throw away less of what we produce, we have to produce less. Production will be more efficient and cheaper. 
  • Local and short supply chains will limit transport miles and charges for middle men. Shorter supply chains will increase resilience and transparency. 
  • Eat seasonal produce. 
  • Limit one time packaging.


​This article is far from complete . Sustainability is more complex than we can describe in a few words. Every solution has pros and cons. A lot of debate is going on about what are the best solutions. We support any kind of open debate because it brings us closer to solving the complex problems that our food chain faces. Our contribution to the debate is right at the end of the food chain. How to seduce and support the consumers to make sustainable choices? This is where Future of Food Institute helps by offering crystal clear consumer insights. 

Want to know more about sustainable food and developing sustainable brands ?

Please contact our research director Durk Bosma.

+31 (0)6 14 23 24 41
durk@futureoffood.institute

Our mission is to help accelerate the transition to a more sustainable food system, by including the consumer as equally relevant stakeholder.

We offer accessible and clear consumer insights that help all actors in the food chain to effectively support & seduce the consumer to make the sustainable food choice.

Laan van Meerdervoort 36 - 2517AL - Den Haag - The Netherlands - Info@futureoffood.institute