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Sustainability, Climate, and Undernutrition

Sustainability and Food Security

World hunger is on the rise, with roughly 821 million people facing food insecurity in 2017. This is a

shocking increase in comparison to the 804 million food insecure individuals in 2016.¹ The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states “nutrition security is defined as secure access to an appropriately nutritious diet(ie protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals and water) coupled with a sanitary environment and adequate health services and care in order to ensure a healthy and active life for all household members.”² Determinants affecting food security include the following; food access, utilization, health services and environmental conditions.² Clearly, food security and sustainability are interwoven with each other.

The amount of food our society wastes is enough to adequately nourish the world's food insecure population. Roughly 40% of all food is being wasted and ending up in landfills. The process of growing, transporting, and then disregarding these unwanted foods cost about $218 billion dollars. The economic impact is absorbed and redistributed by the economy. Food waste impacts families in the short term and long term by utilizing resources (water, land, food) without replenishing those resources. Additionally, the economy suffers from the economic cost of producing this wasted food as well. ³

Food insecurity and challenges in accessing safe food resources are not exclusively prevalent in low and middle-income countries. For example, in an effort to save money, Flint, Michigan changed its drinking water supply in an effort to save money. However, this drinking water was never tested or treated to ensure it was safe for consumers. As a result, the Flint Michigan population, especially the children, chronically suffered from this unsafe drinking water contaminated with lead. Children were negatively affected by the high lead content of the water and many suffered irreversible brain damage. As a result of elevated lead levels in the drinking water, the development and cognitive functioning of children is compromised. Therefore, the consumption of unsafe food or water is a challenge faced in both developing and developed countries, regardless of income and developmental status. Implementing sustainable food practices would enable us to work towards achieving safe, accessible and affordable resources to support life.⁴

Food waste also impacts greenhouse gas production. Greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide and methane, serve a purpose. It traps heat created by the sun which, in normal amounts, plays an important role in maintaining a livable climate. However, greenhouse gas production has increased significantly, and this causes an imbalance in the ecosystem. Contributors of excess greenhouse gasses include food waste, the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, industrial processes among other reasons. By keeping excess heat close to Earth rather than letting it dissipate into the atmosphere, the delicate balance of Earth's atmosphere is impacted, leading to climate change.⁵

A changing climate can affect the food supply. Warmer temperatures resulting from climate change may lead to water shortages, and decreasing crop production. This impact on agriculture will likely yield food shortages and rising food prices. Nutrient composition of crops are also expected to be compromised.⁵

Food waste produces more greenhouse gas than 37 million cars.⁴ Taking steps, such as eating leftovers or composting food scraps are simple, yet effective ways to positively impact our world.

Sustainability and Nutrition

Buying local foods supports the environment and your community. From a nutrition standpoint, local foods are grown near the consumers and therefore are picked and sold when ripe. This offers a richer taste and greater nutrient profile.⁶ In comparison, food that travels thousands of miles to its destination are no longer at their peak, so taste and nutrient composition are compromised. Nutrient-rich produce aids in promoting health and decreasing risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases, thus promoting quality of life and limiting health care costs. ⁶ Locally produced produce has enhanced flavors and nutrient profiles. Additionally, preparing and cooking local foods with the family is a great way for everyone to connect with where their food is coming from.

Sustainable practices also support maintaining biodiversity. Since the 1970’s, there has been a 31% drop in land species and a 27% drop in marine species. Fruit and vegetable diversity is declining as well. Nutrient diversity is essential in ensuring that humans are able to meet all of their nutritional needs. In fact, dietitians recommend eating a variety of foods in order to meet micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrient (protein, fat, carbohydrate) needs. Sustainable food systems are essential in maintaining that variety.⁶

Sustainability and the Climate

Your food choices impact our environment, as well as our health. Meat, especially beef, contributes to 14.5% of all greenhouse gas production. Meat alternatives require significantly less land and water to produce. Making small changes in your diet, such as replacing some of your meat intake with a plant based protein source such as beans, nuts, seeds, or legumes, can decrease the negative impact of meat on the environment.⁷

Sustainability and the Dietetics Practice

The dietetics practice is more than just nutrient composition of food. Consideration of agricultural practices is necessary as it impacts the populations access to safe, affordable, accessible and nutritious foods. Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LN and Alison Harmon PhD, LD, LN cultivated a list of strategic ways registered dietitians and health professionals can foster sustainable food practices in their personal lives and their practice. The full article can be found here.⁶

Here are some ways to advocate sustainability in nutrition professions:

  • Educate yourself. Learn why sustainability is important in promoting safe, accessible, affortand nourishing foods to all.

  • Consider offering dietary advice and recommending food products based on health and sustainability.

  • Starting a gardening program with your community. Slow Food USA School Garden Network provides resources and guidance to creating a school garden. This network aims to teach students how to grow, cook, enjoy and connect with their food. (identify a project similar to this which was successful)

  • Select environmentally friendly packaging. Examples of sustainable packaging companies include Uline, Ecoenclose, and CBF Printable.

  • Promote local, seasonal and sustainability raised foods

  • Support “Buy Fresh, Buy Local “ marketing initiatives

  • Begin discussion about adopting a seasonal menu in hospitals, school systems, colleges. In seasons produce is rich in nutrients, supports local farmers and is sustainable.

The earth supplies an abundance of resources necessary to support life; however, without respectfully using and replenishing these resources, we will run out.This is an opportunity for nutrition and dietetic professionals to guice communities, business and clients towards sustainable practices, to lessen the stress on the planet and ensure nutritious foods are available to all people now and in the future.

Bottom Line:

Sustainable food practices protect the climate and aim to provide accessible, affordable, and nutrient dense foods to our growing population now and in the future. These practices will improve the quality of life for families, farmers, and communities as a whole. So, fostering sustainable food practices in your personal life and professional life can positively impact the environment, food security, and health of all people.

Written by Helayne Speroni, on behalf of Supriya Lal.


  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Global hunger continues to rise, New UN report says Published September 2018. Accessed March 2021. FAO - News Article: Global hunger continues to rise, new UN report says

  2. Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: nutrition security in developing nations:sustainable food, water and health. J Am Diet. 2013;113(4):481-495

  3. The National Resources Defence Council. Gunders D. Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Published August 2017. Accessed March 2021. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill | NRDC

  4. Denchak M. Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know. Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know | NRDC Published November 08, 2018. Accessed March 10, 2021.

  5. Nunez, Christina. National Geographic. Carbon dioxide levels are at a record high. Here’s what you need to know. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at a record high. Here's what you need to know. ( Published May 13, 2019. Accessed March 10, 2021

  6. Tagtow A, Alison Harmon. Healthy Land, Healthy food and Healthy Eaters. HealthyLand.HealthyFood.HealthyEaters.2009 ( Published 2009. Accessed March, 10, 2021

7. Food and Water Watch. Factory Farms and Climate Change. FS_1806_Factory farms and climate change-FINAL.pdf ( Published June 2018. Accessed March 2021.

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