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Sustainable Diets: what it means, why it matters and what can we do about it

Prominent scientists, policy makers and practitioners write extensively on the linkages between agriculture, health, the environment and food industries in a recently published book from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Bioversity International:  ‘Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity’.

This groundbreaking publication explores the concepts of sustainable diets and how they relate to the production and consumption of the food we eat.  With many case studies drawn from research of foods systems in low and middle income countries, it also explores the Mediterranean diet, one of the better known examples of sustainable diets, with its health, nutrition, economic, ecological and cultural advantages.

Sustainable diets are foreseen as an important element for a shift towards sustainable development and a green economy and there is an urgent need to develop and promote strategies that emphasize the positive role of food biodiversity in human nutrition and poverty alleviation. 

In the book, food is elevated from being viewed simply as nutrients to being considered as an integral part of our lives and livelihoods - something that profoundly affects us and the environment around us. 

Today, close to one billion people suffer from hunger, while even more are overweight or obese. At both ends of the spectrum, there is a high prevalence of micronutrient malnutrition, as individuals are not deriving sufficient nutrition from their diets.  In addition, the alarming pace of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and their negative impact on poverty and health makes a compelling case for re-examining food systems and diets.

This book is based on a Scientific Symposium on Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets, organized by FAO and Bioversity International in 2010.  Barbara Burlingame, Principal Officer of the FAO Nutrition and Consumer Protection Division, explains:

“This Symposium was undertaken in preparation for Rio+20, and thus provided useful recommendations for policy, research and action, along with a consensus definition of Sustainable Diets: ‘Sustainable Diets are 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.’   The publication, coming now, represents our first tangible contribution to Rio+20 follow-up and the post 2015 development agenda, positioning nutrition, biodiversity and sustainable diets as key elements.”

Emile Frison, Director General of Bioversity International, a long-term proponent of dietary diversity as a means to improve livelihoods, health and nutrition, said:

 “This publication is an important milestone in sharing our work on sustainable diets and their contribution to sustainable development.  It makes the much-needed link between agriculture and the environment and is at the core of our work on nutrition.  Sustainable food systems need good policies based on the best evidence from smallholders, large-scale producers and even at the global level. This book illustrates that imaginative, holistic approaches, that combine disciplines from the natural and social sciences to address the multiple dimensions of malnutrition and sustainability, are possible.

Read the publication here: