Sustainable Food Systems


Sustainable Diets and the Environment Background 



Importance of Topic to Practice
We are faced with the challenge of a growing global population on a planet undergoing an environmental sustainability crisis. Although food consumption and consumer choice is only one part of the overall picture of food systems sustainability, a growing body of literature suggests that moving toward more plant-based diets may be one of the most effective actions individuals can undertake to reduce negative impacts on the environment (1). This shift can also support access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for an increasing population (2,3). A solid grounding in the evidence that supports this shift toward a more plant-based diet and environmentally sustainable diet will help dietitians to guide consumer choice and policy and program decisions.
Definitions and Scope
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has led conceptual research and guidance on sustainable diets, including a well-recognized definition: 
“… those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources” (4).
This background explores evidence on the environmental impacts of food choice, comparing the impacts of animal-based and plant-based foods. In this background, plant-based diets are defined as those diets for which plant foods (including grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds) form the ‘base’ of meals, while animal foods (including meats, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, insects) can be included, usually in smaller quantities. Plant-based diets encompass vegetarian diets (from strict vegans to lacto-ovo vegetarians) and may or may not include some animal-based foods. The use of the term 'environment' in this paper refers to the ecological (or 'green') environment. For a review of evidence on environmental impacts of ‘sustainable’ dietary patterns, see Additional Content: What dietary patterns are associated with environmental benefit (e.g. reduced impacts on greenhouse gases, land and water)?
“The determinants of a[n]… environmentally … sustainable diet are numerous and complex,” (5) embedded within broader food systems that include food production, processing, packaging, regulation, transportation, marketing, consumption and waste systems. Some examples of the interrelated issues that add to the complexity of determinants are: food waste, agricultural and health policies, land, water and energy use, climate change, biodiversity, pollution and topsoil loss. The complexity is compounded if social and cultural sustainability factors such as labour rights, public health, food safety, trade and economic interests are considered (5). Important social aspects of sustainable diets such as inequities in access to food, Indigenous food systems (especially traditional or country foods), food sovereignty, social justice and income-related issues of household food security, are beyond the scope of this document (6).   
A systems approach is helpful in thinking about the numerous, interrelated and complex factors that may support and promote sustainable dietary choices because it fosters an understanding of the relationships between these factors (e.g. that food waste is related to both resource use, through embedded energy in the food, and climate change, through the gases released during decomposition). A systems approach is also essential when measuring the impact of food and our diets on the environment (as in other impact measures such as dietary impact on human health and the health care system). While this background will not map the indicators and their relationships, it is important to acknowledge that the following summary on plant-based diets and the environment highlights isolated indicators of measurement that are part of a larger system. 
The most frequently used indicators of food’s environmental impact are greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), water use and land use (7-11). Other less frequently used indicators of environmental impact include energy use, biodiversity, pollution (e.g. water), nitrogen release and soil degradation (11). While most of the evidence centers on the frequently used measures, examining only these indicators compromises the ability to measure the impact on the broader food system. On one hand, focusing only on the most frequent measures may underestimate the impact of a specific food on the environment. For example, if only GHGE in the production of a specific food, such as bananas, is considered, the impact of pesticides on human health and the ecosystem may be ignored. On the other hand, while some types of food production, such as pasture-based meat production, may result in higher GHGE, it may not consider the positive contributions to biodiversity, human nutrition, the use of non-arable land and rural livelihoods.

Life cycle analyses (LCA) are commonly used to measure the impact of certain foods on the indicators noted above (12). LCA is a standardized research method defined by the International Standards Organization (ISO) and has been accepted as the primary method of assessing the sustainability of diets (12-15), including the U.S. DGAC scientific report assessing food sustainability (16). The impact on specific foods can then be combined to study overall dietary patterns. Although the methodology for calculating LCA is standardized, what is included in the analysis can vary, making comparison difficult. As such, it is important to examine the overall trends across the results of environmental impact studies. Furthermore, expanding the number of indicators measured toward an even broader systems approach would more accurately examine their impact in the context of other environmental indicators. Despite the limitations, LCA remains as the standard way to measure the impact of foods and diet on the environment.
The emerging nature of evidence on the impact of plant-based/sustainable diets is further complicated by other methodological differences across research studies that contribute to uncertainty. Studies are inconsistent in their use of isocaloric comparisons of diets and the system boundaries to measure environmental impacts of diets (e.g. production to retail versus production to consumption) (17). High quality studies with common reliable and valid nutrition, health and environmental indicators are needed.

Topic Overview
Food systems incur environmental costs. The following sections explore in more detail how the food system is a primary driver of global environmental degradation and, in particular, GHGE. Additionally, the overall trend across multiple environmental indicators shows that the production, processing and distribution of animal-based foods, such as meat and dairy products, typically have greater negative environmental impacts than impacts from growing, processing and distributing plant-based foods.

In the paper, Food Sustainability: Problems, Perspectives and Solutions, Garnett proposes three solutions to improve sustainability: 1) increased agricultural efficiency through increased mechanization and better breeding and feeding strategies; 2) restraint strategies such as reducing the consumption of animal products and ultraprocessed foods and increased consumption of whole, plant-based foods; and 3) more equitable distribution and use of existing resources (18).

While all of these strategies can be important to improve the sustainability of the food system, replacing meat with plant foods across the population is a promising strategy to decrease environmental impact, especially with respect to GHGE and water use (19). Replacing some meat in the diet appeared to reduce GHGE levels less than when all meat (vegetarian) or all meat and dairy (vegan) was excluded (20-24). However, complete exclusion of animal products may not be the only means to enhance diet sustainability (22-25). See Additional Content: What dietary patterns are associated with environmental benefit (e.g. reduced impacts on greenhouse gases, land and water)?)

This “restraint” strategy is the focus of this background, with additional reference to efficiencies and distribution. The following three sections review what is known about the impact of plant-based and animal-based diets on the environment, and how this knowledge is informing dietary guidance in some nations. 
Impact of the Production of Plant-Based Foods on the Environment
A predominantly plant-based diet with no or a reduced consumption of meat and dairy products is reported to be both healthier and more environmentally sustainable as measured by GHGE, land use, water use and energy use (3,10,25,26). The idea that plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than those rich in animal foods was systematically reviewed in the Scientific Report of the 2015 (U.S.) Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (16). That report stated that “a diet higher in plant-based foods... and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact [in terms of GHGE, land use, water use, and energy use] than is the current U.S. diet” (16). Recent U.S. research supports these findings (24).  

The Advisory Committee raised three major points in the 2015 Scientific Report with respect to their findings (16):
  1. More sustainable dietary patterns were ones “that can be adopted by the U.S. population”.
  2. “No food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.” 
  3. Environmental impact reductions were attributed to the proportions of animal- to plant-based foods (versus other factors such as calorie reduction). 
In general, the production of plant-based foods generates lower GHGE than animal-based foods (27). The hierarchy of GHGE impacts across food categories (from lowest to highest CO2 emissions) is as follows: root vegetables, field-grown vegetables, field-grown fruit, cereals (except rice), tree nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruit from heated greenhouses, rice, dairy milk and yogurt, non-ruminant livestock (including fish), cheese and ruminant livestock. The production and processing of plant-based foods also has a lower impact on water and land use (16,27). The environmental impact of growing specific plant foods depends on a number of factors involved in the production and transport of these foods, as well as the climatic conditions and region. For example, in regions with short growing seasons, fruit and vegetables may be grown in energy-intensive greenhouses, with environmental impacts that may exceed those of imported food. Tomatoes grown in hothouses and berries transported by plane are examples of plant-based foods with higher GHGEs (28,29).

While there is a movement to promote the consumption of more local and seasonal foods, substantial differences in environmental impacts of specific foods should be considered among regions with short growing seasons and other regions where crops can be grown year round (7). As noted above, while local and seasonal field-grown vegetables and fruit have been shown to produce lower GHGEs, this may not hold true if the same vegetables and fruit are grown in heated greenhouses. The regular consumption of globally-seasonal plant foods may therefore contribute to lower environmental costs overall if such dietary choices facilitate lower GHGE (28-30). Further benefits in reducing GHGE are achieved by consuming a more plant-based diet containing smaller amounts of animal products.

Impact of the Production of Animal-Based Foods on the Environment
As noted above, the production of animal-based foods generates higher GHGE (and requires greater water and land use) than the production of plant-based foods (3,4,25,31,32).

The global food system contributes 20-30% of GHGE (33-35). Gerber et al. estimated that livestock production alone contributes GHGE of 7.1 gigatonnes CO2-equivalents per year, representing 14.5% of human-induced GHGE (36) (and some experts consider this to be an underestimation given that the GHGE used to produce feed and feed supplements used to enhance productivity) (33). Beef and dairy production account for the majority of that environmental impact, respectively contributing 41 and 20% of the GHGE associated with livestock production (37). Poultry, pork and egg production contribute a smaller CO2 output, between 8-9% of the livestock sector’s emissions.

The processing and transportation of food products are often assumed to produce a large proportion of the GHGE emissions related to agriculture. However, in the animal agriculture industry, this accounts for only about 6% of GHGE produced through the sector (36). The greater proportions of CO2 emissions are from feed production and processing (45%) (including impacts related to deforestation, land use and quality - see related sections below), methane-released from ruminant animals (39%) and manure storage (10%) (37).

The agriculture sector has made substantial improvements to lower GHGE. For example, the Canadian beef industry has successfully reduced GHGE by approximately 14% in the past 30 years (1981-2011) (38). This has been accomplished through more efficient herd nutrition and breeding strategies that have led to increased daily weight gain and reduced time to slaughter for animals (39). Gerber et al. believe a 30% reduction of GHGE from the livestock sector would be possible if producers adopted the technologies and practices currently used by the 10% of producers with the lowest emission intensity (36).

Much of the increased agricultural production, or yield “efficiency”, of the past century has been underpinned by the availability of fossil fuels (33,39), which have associated GHGE. As energy needs and fuel availability change in the future, more efficient methods of feeding the world will be essential, including greater reliance on less energy-intensive plant agriculture, and more innovative ways to improve agricultural efficiency (39). For a more fulsome exploration of the complexities in measuring efficiency (specific to ruminant meats), see Garnett, Roos and Little.  
Impacts of Food Production on Water Use
According to the UN, agricultural irrigation accounts for 70% of global water use and this global agricultural demand for water is projected to increase by 30% by 2030 (40). The consumption of foods of animal origin is responsible for proportionately greater water use than the consumption of foods of plant origin (26). In the European Union, the water footprint (the total volume of freshwater used to produce the goods consumed) for foods of animal origin is higher than those of plant foods, per caloric value (31). 

While the production of plant-based foods requires less water use overall, compared to foods of animal origin, some plant foods, such as almonds and olive oil, require more irrigation and therefore generate higher water footprints (41), particularly when grown in regions with water scarcity. Rice is an example of a grain that requires a high amount of water to produce (31), although the impact of that water use varies from region to region. Much of the argument favouring plant-based diets is predicated on what is known about the relatively greater environmental impacts associated with foods of animal origin. In examining the water footprint for various dietary patterns, authors Vanhan, Mekonnen and Hoekstra concluded that a reduction in meat intake would result in the largest impact on reduced water use (31).

Impacts of Food Production on Land Use
Livestock production can have a positive environmental impact on some measures of land use and quality. Some livestock consume agricultural byproducts, such as parts of plants inedible to humans and potentially wasted foods (and thereby decrease land use associated with that food, as well as GHGE from decomposition) (42). Livestock can also help to maintain biodiverse landscapes and utilize land unsuited to other agricultural purposes. Many regions graze animals on land not suited for crop production (42). While pasture-raised animals may provide a higher quality of life for animals and lower environmental impacts related to more intensive farming strategies (e.g. concentrated manure seepage into the water table), such a strategy may not be practical to meet all of the current or projected consumption demands and could require more farmland than what is available in some regions (43). The complex variables in livestock grazing systems and their various environmental impacts is highly contextual. Garnett and colleagues concluded that “while grazing livestock have their place in a sustainable food system, that place is limited” (43), in particular because of the rising demand for meat products (44).

Included within the estimated proportion of GHGE from feed production (45% of total emissions in animal agriculture) (36), is the impact of changes in land use for pasture and production of animal feed (primarily soy) for the global market, which expands into previously forested land. According to the World Bank, animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon region (45). This trend is of global importance for maintaining the health of the earth’s atmosphere. Worldwide, forests absorb about 2.4 metric tonnes of carbon each year, and one quarter of that total is absorbed by the Amazon rainforest; a decline in the capacity of the Amazon rainforest to act as a carbon sink will put the global environment in jeopardy (46).

Currently, the global demand for meat is increasing because of an emerging middle class, who can afford more expensive protein sources, in countries undergoing economic transition, especially in India and China (47). The concern is that the rising demand outstrips both efficiency gains and overall resource constraints (18). It has been suggested that an equitable approach to this particular challenge is that populations who consume high proportions of animal-sourced foods consume less, while populations who currently are challenged to meet their nutrient needs through plant-based diets, consume more (18).

Another argument is to redirect plant foods currently going to raise livestock toward human consumption. In 2011, Foley, et al. estimated that shifting 16 major crops to 100% human consumption, away from the current mix of animal plus human consumption, could add over a billion tonnes to global food production (39). Although a theoretical argument (because a 100% shift is unlikely), this helps to rectify the concern that by decreasing the production and consumption of animal foods, there would be less food, and also highlights that current practices may be inefficient.

In addition to caloric inefficiency, in a 2014 study, researchers calculated that beef requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer and 11 times more water compared with chicken, pork, eggs or dairy (48). Non-beef animal-derived sources of energy require two to six times more land, greenhouse gas and nitrogen resources than plant sources of energy (wheat, potato and rice). Irrigation requirements were similar (48). It is therefore more efficient (in terms of calories as well as natural resources) to meet this increased need for nutrition through plant foods as much as possible (49).

In summary, research supports that plant-based diets have lower environmental impacts on GHGE, land use and water use than do diets rich in animal-based foods, which are the norm in most industrialized, high income, 'Western' nations. (See Additional Content: What dietary patterns are associated with environmental benefit (e.g. reduced impacts on greenhouse gases, land and water)?) There are other important indicators, such as biodiversity, antibiotic resistance or pollution and their interactions, that would need to be considered in relation to each other for a richer picture of the actual environmental impact of human diets. Furthermore, because the actual impact of specific foods varies from region to region, as well as according to the methods of production, processing, distribution, etc., guidance that is generalizable for a nation is limited in that regard. Rather, general guidance becomes important (such as the overall evidence that plant-based diets have lower impacts), allowing consumers to make specific choices that meet their many other dietary priorities.  
Dietary Guidance for Health and Environmental Sustainability
Integrating environmental sustainability in dietary guidance is not a new concept. As early as 1986, Gussow and Clancy published Dietary Guidelines for Sustainability (49) that many in the sustainable diets field credit as seminal work. Since then, there has been a steady growth in interest in policy options to support sustainability. International governance bodies have been working to provide leadership. The FAO defines sustainable diets as “… those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations (4). 
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) proposed policy aimed at reducing the overconsumption of protein by reducing the consumption of animal-based foods as part of sustainable solutions that work within increasingly urbanized populations (50,51). The recommendations of IFPRI and FAO come in a decade of increasing evidence linking animal foods to environmental challenges, as outlined above. In response, a variety of actors, including national governments, industry and civil society organizations are starting to include environmental messages in dietary guidance documents, many of them highlighting plant-based diets.  

Sweden has included an environmental focus in the title of their dietary guidelines: “Find your way to eat greener, not too much and be active”, as well as specific messages about choices within each food group with less environmental impact (52). In Brazil, one of the five principles that shape the guidelines includes “Healthy diets derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems” (53). They further emphasize “[n]atural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, and mainly of plant origin, are the basis for diets that are nutritionally balanced, delicious, culturally appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems” (53). Qatar incorporates a section in their dietary guidelines entitled “Eat Healthy While Protecting the Environment” including six recommendations for consumers that emphasize “[n]atural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, and mainly of plant origin, are the basis for diets that are nutritionally balanced, delicious, culturally appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems” (54). The United Kingdom’s Eatwell Guide visually deemphasized the animal-based food groups (meat and alternatives, and dairy and alternatives) in proportion to the fruit and vegetables food group, as well as the grains food group, and also named meat and alternatives “beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins,” thereby further highlighting plant-based protein sources (55). In support, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) released a policy statement in 2018 that nutrition professionals value this approach and will work to integrate environmental considerations in dietetic practice (56). In 2020, the BDA updated a reference guide for dietitians that formed the basis of a toolkit to expand on this policy statement (57).

Conversely, some governments have explicitly chosen to detach or downgrade environmental messages from their public dietary guidance. The U.S. chose to leave out the recommendations from the Scientific Advisory Report (16) on environmental sustainability in the 2015 update. In the 2013 Australian dietary guidelines, environmental sustainability messages were placed in an appendix rather than being central to the messages (58).
In 2019, Health Canada released the new food guide (59). The new Canada’s Food Guide has a stronger emphasis on plant-based dietary practices than previous versions. Recognizing that food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste impact the environment, it recommends that Canadians follow healthy diets low in animal-based foods and high in plant-based foods to lessen environmental impacts (59). In addition, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada is leading the development of a food policy for Canada (with extensive interdepartmental representation) (60). One of the four proposed themes in the food policy is “Conserving our Soil, Water, and Air”, in which the accompanying text highlights a need for “[u]sing environmentally sustainable practices to ensure Canadians have a long-term, reliable, and abundant supply of food.” Further elaborating, the proposed policy reads, “the way our food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed - including the losses and waste of food - can have environmental implications, such as greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, water quality and availability, and wildlife loss. While much is being done to conserve our natural resources, further opportunities exist to do more”.

In addition to the progress among many nations to conceptually align diets that are healthy and environmentally sustainable, a variety of players from industry to civil society organizations have stepped into the discourse on dietary guidance. One example of a tool intended for communicating with the public about healthy, environmentally sustainable food choices is the Double Pyramid Model, developed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition to raise awareness about the environmental and nutritional impact of foods (61). Barilla researchers estimated the energy consumption and environmental impact of different foods in diets with varying levels of animal products to estimate how a diet can be both nutritionally adequate and have a low impact on the environment. The Double Pyramid Model emphasizes optimal food choices for both health promotion and environmental protection (61). Similarly, the Eating for Two Degrees project developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Foundation recommends decreasing (U.K.) consumption of animal-sourced protein from the current 124 grams per day to 81 grams per day, and negligible decreases in dairy intake (from 193 to 192 grams per day) (62).

Co-benefits for Health and Environment and the Role of Dietitians
A shift toward plant-based diets can be a win-win for both health and the environment. Evidence identifies that plant-based diets and a reduction of (in particular red and processed) meats are associated with health benefits (63) and several studies show co-benefits for health and the environment (9,32). For example, plant foods such as pulses provide nutrients also found in animal-based foods, such as folate, iron and zinc, in addition to other nutrients critical to health, such as fibre. As part of the legume family, pulses improve soil quality by fixing nitrogen into the soil (19,26). See Additional Content: What are the health outcomes of following a sustainable diet?
It is important to note that a healthy diet is not necessarily an environmentally sustainable one or vice versa. For example, while the importance of vegetables and fruit in our diet is broadly recognized, the consumption of air-transported produce in large amounts may negate environmental contributions. Likewise, Millward and Garnett acknowledge that the consumption of meat and dairy products is responsible for approximately 40% of food-related emissions; however, decreased consumption of these foods could potentially increase nutritional risks in relation to zinc, iron and calcium status (2). Furthermore, meat and dairy products are excellent sources of protein and vitamin B12. As such, simply removing these animal-based foods from the diet without substitution of nutritionally replete, plant-based food sources could result in increased risk for nutrient deficiencies.

While Wegener et al. acknowledge the growing interest in sustainable food systems, they caution that more guidance is needed to support educators and preceptors in the training of Canadian dietitians (64,65). Similarly, Pettinger, in the U.K., acknowledges how little recognition or support there is for the emerging role for dietitians or nutritionists in promoting sustainable eating (66), in spite of a recently updated sustainable diet policy statement of the BDA (56,57), which states dietitians are “in a strong position to combine healthy eating messages and sustainable dietary advice”. Pettinger surmises the “lack of consensus on what constitutes a sustainable dietary pattern is likely to be a barrier to encouraging consumers to make sustainable food choices”, while nevertheless emphasizing how nutrition professionals could be “better prepared for a future where many aspects of nutrition practice are likely to be affected by climate change, water and land shortage, as well as other pressing food system challenges” (66). In 2020, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published standards for different levels of professional performance for registered dietitian nutritionists in sustainable, resilient, and healthy food and water systems (67). As part of a food sustainability initiative, the International Confederation of Dietetic Associations (ICDA) has published a toolkit of resources and learning modules to facilitate learning and collaboration among ICDA members.

Other examples of dietitians working in advocacy and policy related to sustainability include the Dietitians of Canada response to a Health Canada consultation on dietary guidance/revision of Canada's Food Guide in 2016 (68) and the Dietetic Association of Australia’s response in 2017 to the Australian Framework on Climate Health and Well-being (69).

Unintended negative impacts of sustainable diets need to be assessed along with avoiding potential nutritional challenges and consideration of the broader policy consequences that might result from a shift to more plant-based foods in human diets (2). Examples include challenging access to plant-based options in some remote locations, changes in agricultural practices and livelihoods and negative social, cultural and economic impacts for those that are dependent on animal food production. If plant-based food choices become more prominent, countries may need to re-evaluate their nutrient fortification practices based on changes in nutrient intake at a population level. Education for health professionals, including dietitians, will need to be adapted to ensure that they are knowledgeable about plant-based diets and are well prepared to offer their services to those transitioning to or eating a plant-based diet. Health professionals will need to use a systems thinking approach to anticipate and mitigate these unintended challenges.

Dietitians are key communicators of public nutrition messages, and in that role need to be competent in translating information around plant-based diets into practical strategies and tips that people can use to reduce the environmental impact of their diets while maximizing health benefits. Dietitians also need to be prepared to actively participate in broader policy conversations around sustainable food systems, sustainable diets and dietary guidance.

A shift toward plant-based diets can be a win-win for the health of both humans and the environment. The complex inter-relationships among sociocultural, ecological and economic factors driving food choices will impact how people adopt plant-based diets. Dietitians are well positioned to help navigate and maximize these co-benefits at all levels, from the provision of individual diet counselling to contributions to policy development and programs within the food system and public policy through all levels of government.

Continued assessment of the impact of plant-based diets on the environment is imperative to explore how emerging evidence best contributes to the overall conversation about sustainable diets, as evidence continues to emerge. Research and knowledge translation about food systems and dietary sustainability will be ongoing, likely with more indicators being developed to measure success and identify priority areas for action (70).

There is a need for quality evidence-based data on the environmental impacts of different foods and food production systems, so quality evidence-based data can be provided. While current scientific literature suggests that predominantly plant-based diets are better for the natural/ecological environment in terms of reducing GHGE, water footprint and land use, these three indicators represent only part of the overall picture of environmental sustainability.

While dietary choices are just one factor impacting the food system, individuals can have the greatest impact on the environment through their behaviours. It is strategic to integrate consideration of environmental impacts of dietary choice into dietary guidelines and further translate these messages to the public. Dietitians play a pivotal role in nutrition communication and education at the population, community and individual levels; the challenge will be to deliver the message of available alternate protein sources in ways that appeal to consumers' dietary preferences and requirements. Dietitians can benefit from training and access to practice tools to assist them in counselling and educating the public regarding choices that reduce the impact of human diets on the environment.

Regulatory Issues
Food Labelling
Resources for Professionals
Practice guidelines, web links, other professional tools and resources, including materials for clients, can be found under the Sustainable Food Systems Related Tools and Resources tab. Use the Audience, Country and Language sort buttons to narrow your search.
Additional Resources/Readings 
Aleksandrowicz L, Green R, Joy EJ, Smith P, Haines A. The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PLoS One. 2016 Nov 3;11(11):e0165797. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0165797. PMID: 27812156; PMCID: PMC5094759. Abstract available from:
Farchi S, De Sario M, Lapucci E, Davoli M, Michelozzi P. Meat consumption reduction in Italian regions: health co-benefits and decreases in GHG emissions. PLoS ONE. 2017 Aug;12(8):e0182960. Abstract available from:
Farmery AK, Gardner C, Jennings S, Green BS, Watson RA. Assessing the inclusion of seafood in the sustainable diet literature. Fish. 2017;18:607–618. doi:10.1111/faf.12205. Abstract available from:
Gonzalez Fischer C, Garnett T. Plates, pyramids, planet - developments in national healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines: a state of play assessment. Oxford: The University of Oxford Food Climate Research Network, Environmental Change Institute & The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food; 2016 p 70. Available from:
Hartmann C, Siegrist M. Consumer perception and behaviour regarding sustainable protein consumption: a systematic review. Trends Food Sci Tech. 2017 Mar;61:11-25. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2016.12.006. Abstract available from:
Harwatt, H, Sabate J, Eshel G, Soret S, Ripple W. Substituting beans for beef as a contribution toward US climate change targets. Climatic Change. 2017;143:261. Abstract available from:
Havemeier S, Erickson J, Slavin J. Dietary guidance for pulses: the challenge and opportunity to be part of both the vegetable and protein food groups. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 2017 Feb;1392:58-66. doi:10.1111/nyas.13308. Abstract available from:
Hoek AC, Pearson D, James SW, Lawrence MA, Friel S. Shrinking the food-print: a qualitative study into consumer perceptions, experiences and attitudes towards healthy and environmentally friendly food behaviours. Appetite. 2017 Jan;108:117-31. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.09.030. Abstract available from:
Mason P, Lang T. Sustainable diets: how ecological nutrition can transform consumption and the food system. New York: Routledge; 2017. Available from:
Roos E, Bajželj B, Smith P, Patel M, Little D, Garnett T. Protein futures for Western Europe: potential land use and climate impacts in 2050. Reg Environ Change. 2016;17(2):367-77. doi:10.1007/s10113-016-1013-4. Abstract available from:
Seves SM, Verkaik-Kloosterman J, Biesbroek S, Temme EH. Are more environmentally sustainable diets with less meat and dairy nutritionally adequate? Public Health Nutr. 2017 Aug;20(11):2050-62. doi:10.1017/S1368980017000763. Abstract available from:
Verain MCD, Sijtsema SJ, Dagevos H, Antonides G. Attribute segmentation and communication effects on healthy and sustainable consumer diet intentions. Sustainability. 2017 May;9(743):1-19. doi:10.3390/su9050743. Available from:
von Koerber K, Bader N, Leitzmann C. Wholesome nutrition: an example for a sustainable diet. Proc Nutr Soc 2017 Feb;76(1):34-41. doi:10.1017/S0029665116000616. Abstract available from:
Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S,, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019 Feb 2;393(10170):447-492. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4. Epub 2019 Jan 16. Erratum in: Lancet. 2019 Feb 9;393(10171):530. Erratum in: Lancet. 2019 Jun 29;393(10191):2590. Erratum in: Lancet. 2020 Feb 1;395(10221):338. PMID: 30660336. Abstract available from: 
  1. Wynes S, Nicholas K. The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters. 2017;12(7). Available from:
  2. Millward DJ, Garnett T. Plenary Lecture 3: Food and the planet: nutritional dilemmas of greenhouse gas emission reductions through reduced intakes of meat and dairy foods. Proc Nutr Soc. 2010;69(1):103-18. Epub 2009/12/17. doi: 10.1017/s0029665109991868. PubMed PMID: 20003639. Abstract available from:
  3. Springmann M, Godfray HC, Rayner M, Scarborough P. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016;113(15):4146-51. Epub 2016/03/24. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1523119113. Abstract available from:
  4. Burlingame B, Dernini S. Sustainable diets and biodiversity – directions and solutions for policy, research and action. FAO. 2010. Available from:
  5. Johnston JL, Fanzo JC, Cogill B. Understanding sustainable diets: a descriptive analysis of the determinants and processes that influence diets and their impact on health, food security, and environmental sustainability. Adv Nutr. 2014;5(4):418-29. doi:10.3945/an.113.005553.
  6. Socha TZ MC, L. Abraham, R. Fiddler, T. Food security in a Northern First Nations community: an exploratory study on food availability and accessibility. J Aboriginal Health. 2012;8(2):5-14. Link not available.
  7. Brunori G, Galli F, Barjolle D, van Broekhuizen R, Colombo L, Giampietro M, et al. Are local food chains more sustainable than global food chains? Considerations for assessment. Sustainability. 2016; 8(5):449. doi: 10.3390/su8050449. Available from:
  8. Garnett T, Mathewson S, Angelides P, Borthwick F. Policies and actions to shift eating patterns: what works? Food Climate Research Network; 2015. Available from:
  9. Jones AD, Hoey L, Blesh J, Miller L, Green A, Shapiro LF. A systematic review of the measurement of sustainable diets. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(4):641-64. doi: 10.3945/an.115.011015. Abstract available from:
  10. Nelson ME, Hamm MW, Hu FB, Abrams SA, Griffin TS. Alignment of healthy dietary patterns and environmental sustainability: a systematic review. Adv Nutr. 2016 Nov 15;7(6):1005-025. doi: 10.3945/an.116.012567. Abstract available from:
  11. Behrens P, Kiefte-de Jong JC, Bosker T, Rodrigues JFD, de Koning A, Tukker A. Evaluating the environmental impacts of dietary recommendations. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Dec 19;114(51):13412-17. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1711889114. Epub 2017 Dec 4. Abstract available from:
  12. Heller MC, Keoleian GA, Willett WC. Toward a life cycle-based, diet-level framework for food environmental impact and nutritional quality assessment: a critical review. Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Nov 19;47(22):12632-47. doi: 10.1021/es4025113. Epub 2013 Nov 11. Abstract available from:
  13. Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Providing the scientific evidence for healthier Australian diets. 2013. Available from:
  14. Wickramasinghe K, Scarborough P, Goldacre,M, Rayner M. Defining sustainable diets by comparing greenhouse gas emissions from different food groups: a systematic review. Lancet. 382:S104. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62529-5. Available from:
  15. Hallstrom E, Carlsson-Kanyama A, Borjesson P. Environmental impact of dietary change: a systematic review. J Cleaner Production. 2015; 91(March):1-11. Abstract available from:
  16. US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; 2015. Available from:
  17. Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (Public Health Ontario). The environmental impacts of sustainable dietary patterns. Toronto, ON: Queen's Printer for Ontario; 2021. Available from: 
  18. Garnett T. Food sustainability: problems, perspectives and solutions. Proc Nutr Soc. 2013;72(1):29-39. Epub 2013/01/23. doi: 10.1017/s0029665112002947. Abstract available from:
  19. Tilman D, Clark M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature. 2014;515(7528):518-22. doi: 10.1038/nature13959. Abstract available from:
  1. González-García S, Esteve-Llorens X, Moreira MT, Feijoo G. Carbon footprint and nutritional quality of different human dietary choices. Sci Total Environ. 2018 Dec 10;644:77-94. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.06.339. Epub 2018 Jul 4. PMID: 29981520. Abstract available from: 
  2. Fresán U, Sabaté J. Vegetarian Diets: Planetary Health and Its Alignment with Human Health. Adv Nutr. 2019 Nov 1;10(Suppl_4):S380-S388. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmz019. PMID: 31728487; PMCID: PMC6855976. Abstract available from: 
  3. Nelson ME, Hamm MW, Hu FB, Abrams SA, Griffin TS. Alignment of Healthy Dietary Patterns and Environmental Sustainability: A Systematic Review. Adv Nutr. 2016 Nov 15;7(6):1005-1025. doi: 10.3945/an.116.012567. PMID: 28140320; PMCID: PMC5105037. Abstract available from: 
  4. Perignon M, Vieux F, Soler LG, Masset G, Darmon N. Improving diet sustainability through evolution of food choices: review of epidemiological studies on the environmental impact of diets. Nutr Rev. 2017 Jan;75(1):2-17. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuw043. PMID: 27974596; PMCID: PMC5155614. Abstract available from: 
  5. Reinhardt SL, Boehm R, Blackstone NT, El-Abbadi NH, McNally Brandow JS, Taylor SF, DeLonge MS. Systematic Review of Dietary Patterns and Sustainability in the United States. Adv Nutr. 2020 Jul 1;11(4):1016-1031. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmaa026. PMID: 32167128; PMCID: PMC7360461. Abstract available from: 
  6. Auestad N, Fulgoni VL, 3rd. What current literature tells us about sustainable diets: emerging research linking dietary patterns, environmental sustainability, and economics. Adv Nutr. 2015;6(1):19-36. Epub 2015/01/17. doi: 10.3945/an.114.005694. Abstract available from:
  1. Aleksandrowicz L, Green R, Joy EJ, Smith P, Haines A. The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PLoS One. 2016 Nov 3;11(11):e0165797. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0165797. PMID: 27812156; PMCID: PMC5094759. Abstract available from:
  2. Clune S CE, Verghese K. Systematic review of greenhouse gas emissions for different fresh food categories. J Clean Prod. 2016;140(2):766-83. Abstract available from:
  3. Scarborough P, Appleby PN, Mizdrak A, Briggs AD, Travis RC, Bradbury KE, et al. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Clim Change. 2014;125(2):179-92. doi: 10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1. Abstract available from:
  4. Macdiarmid JI. Is a healthy diet an environmentally sustainable diet? Proc Nutr Soc. 2013;72(1):13-20. Epub 2012/11/29. doi: 10.1017/s0029665112002893. Abstract available from:
  5. Weber CL, Matthews HS. Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environ Sci Technol. 2008;42(10):3508-13. Abstract available from:
  6. Vanham D, Mekonnen MM, Hoekstra AY. The water footprint of the EU for different diets. Ecol Indic. 2013;32:1-8. Available from:
  7. IPES-Food. The new science of sustainable food systems: overcoming barriers to food system reform. Geneva: 2015. Available from:
  8. Steinfeld H. Livestock's long shadow: environmental issues and options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 2006. Available from:
  9. Food Climate Research Network. Food Source Chapter 3: Food sources and greenhouse gas emissions. 2015. Link not available. 
  10. Vermeulen SJ, Campbell BM, Ingram JSI. Climate change and food systems. Annual Rev Environ Resources. 2012(37):195-222. Abstract available from:
  11. Gerber PJ, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 2013. Available from: 
  12. Lang T, Barling D. Nutrition and sustainability: an emerging food policy discourse. Proc Nutr Soc. 2013;72(1):1-12. Epub 2012/12/12. doi: 10.1017/s002966511200290x. Abstract available from:
  13. Legesse G, Beauchemin KA, Ominski KH, McGeough EJ, Kroebel R, MacDonald D, et al. Greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian beef production in 1981 as compared with 2011. Animal Production Science. 2016;56(3):153-68. Abstract available from:
  14. Foley JA, Ramankutty N, Brauman KA, Cassidy ES, Gerber JS, Johnston M, et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature. 2011;478(7369):337-42. Epub 2011/10/14. doi: 10.1038/nature10452. Abstract available from:
  15. FAO. The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture. Managing systems at risk. London and Rome: 2011. Available from:
  16. Mekonnen MMH, A.Y. The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci. 2011;15:1577-600. Available from:
  17. Garnett T. What is a sustainable healthy diet. Food Climate Research Network. 2014. Available from:
  18. Garnett TG, Godde C, Muller A, Roos E, Smith P, et al. Grazed and confused. Food Climate Research Network. 2017. Available from:
  19. Godfray HCJ, Aveyard P Garnett T, Hall J, Key TJ, et al. Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Science. 2018;361(6399):5324.DOI: 10.1126/science.aam5324. Available from:
  20. Margulis S. Causes of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. 2004. Available from:
  21. Brienen RJ, Phillips OL, Feldpausch TR, Gloor E, Baker TR, Lloyd J, et al. Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature. 2015;519(7543):344-8. doi: 10.1038/nature14283. Abstract available from:
  22. Smith P, Gregory PJ. Climate change and sustainable food production. Proc Nutr Soc. 2013;72(1):21-8. Epub 2012/11/14. doi: 10.1017/s0029665112002832. Abstract available from:
  23. Eshel G, Shepon A, Makov T, Milo R. Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(33):11996-2001. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1402183111. Abstract available from:
  24. Gussow JD, Clancy KL Dietary guidelines for sustainability. J Nutr Educ. 1986 Feb;18(1):1-5. Abstract available from:
  25. International Food Policy Research Institute. 2017 Global Food Policy Report. Washington, DC: IFPRI; 2017. Available from:
  26. International Food Policy Research Institute. 2012 Global Food Policy Report. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute; 2013. Available from:
  27. Livmedelsverket Sweden National Food Agency. Find your way to eat greener, not too much and be active. 2015. Available from:
  28. Ministry of Health of Brazil. Dietary guidelines for the Brazilian population. 2014. Available from:
  29. Qatar Ministry of Public Health. Qatar dietary guidelines. 2015. Available from:
  30. Public Health England. The Eatwell Guide. 2016. Available from:
  31. BDA (British Dietetic Association). Policy statement – sustainable diets. 2017. Available from:
  32. British Dietetic Association. One Blue Dot Eating patterns for health and environmental sustainability: A reference guide for dietitians; updated August 2020. Available from: 
  33. Selvey LA, Carey MG. Australia's dietary guidelines and the environmental impact of food "from paddock to plate". Med J Aust. 2013;198(1):18-9. Abstract available from:
  34. Health Canada. Canada’s Food Guide. 2019 March 11. Available from:
  35. Government of Canada. Food policy for Canada: Consulting with Canadians. 2017. Available from:
  36. Ruini LF, Ciati R, Pratesi CA, Marino M, Principato L, Vannuzzi E. Working toward healthy and sustainable diets: the "Double Pyramid Model" developed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition to raise awareness about the environmental and nutritional impact of foods. Front Nutr. 2015;2:9. Epub 2015/05/20. doi:10.3389/fnut.2015.00009. Abstract available from:
  37. Foundation WW. Eating for 2 degrees. New and Updated Livewell Plates. 2017. Available from:
  38. Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, Grosse Y, Ghissassi FE, Benbrahim-Tallaa L, et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Lancet Oncol. 2015;16(16):1599-600. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(15)00444-1. Abstract available from:
  39. Wegener J, Petitclerc M. Opportunities and challenges for practical training in public health: insights from practicum coordinators in Ontario. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2018;79(4):176-80. DOI: 10.3148/cjdpr-2018-014. Abstract available from:
  40. Wegener J, Fong D, Rocha C. Education, practical training and professional development for public health practitioners: a scoping review of the literature and insights for sustainable food system capacity building. Public Health Nutr. 2018;21(9):1771–80. doi: 10.1017/S1368980017004207. Abstract available from:
  41. Pettinger C. Sustainable eating: opportunities for nutrition professionals. British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition Bulletin. 2018;43:226–237 doi:10.1111/nbu.12335. Abstract available from:
  42. Spiker M, Reinhardt S, Bruening M. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Revised 2020 Standards of Professional Performance for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (Competent, Proficient, and Expert) in Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Food and Water Systems. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2020 Sep;120(9):1568-1585.e28. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2020.05.010. PMID: 32829776. Abstract available from: 
  1. Dietitians of Canada. Response to Health Canada - consultation on dietary guidance/revision of Canada's Food Guide. 2016. Available from:,-Phase-1-Feedback-from-Dietitians-of-Canada.pdf?ext=.pdf
  2. Response of the Dietetic Association of Australia to the Australian Framework on Climate Health and Well-being. 2017. Available from:
  3. Fanzo JC, Cogill B, Mattei, F. Technical Brief - Metrics of sustainable diets and food systems. 2012. Available from:

Target Group: All Adults
Knowledge Pathways: Healthy Lifestyle, Sustainable Food Systems, Food Insecurity
 Last Updated: 2021-09-29

Current Contributors


Dawna Royall - Co-Author

Rachel Prowse - Co-Author

Liesel  Carlsson - Reviewer

Pamela Fergusson - Reviewer

Pat Vanderkooy - Reviewer

Roxane Wagner - Reviewer

Past Contributors


Pamela Fergusson - Author

Pat Vanderkooy - Author

Roxane Wagner - Author

Barbara Seed - Co-Author

Liesel  Carlsson - Co-Author

Irene Laskowski - Reviewer

Michelle Minehan - Reviewer

Sandra Murray - Reviewer

Susan Roberts - Reviewer