Modeling Sustainable Food Systems

Sustainability has become quite the buzzword inside the environmentalist circle and out, but what does sustainability mean and how can we measure is? A 1987 UN report known as Our Common Future, defines sustainability as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Often, sustainability is viewed under an agricultural lens, bringing in concepts such as organic farming and permaculture, promoting integrated systems and lower-impact agricultural practices. While these are important methods towards a sustainable food system, changes in agricultural approaches are not the only factor. A 2016 study by Thomas Allen and Paolo Prosperi attempts to outline factors policy-makers can use to assess the sustainability of food systems, as opposed to previous studies, which attempted to simply identify problem areas and encourage understanding of sustainable systems.

Allen and Prosperi define a sustainable food system as one that provides nutritious, affordable, and accessible food that meets your current food needs with minimal negative environmental impact, encourages local economy through production and infrastructure, and humanely protects individuals and communities. With this definition in mind, the authors built their study how we assess whether or not a food system is sustainable. The food system is by no means a simple machine; these integrated needs are complex, and it’s vital to future generations to define and identify areas where we can create both social and environmental change.

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Food Security

A major aspect of the sustainable food system is food security. Food security is the access and financial means to obtain safe, affordable, nutritious food, enough to meet your needs. Approximately 842 million people worldwide are victims of undernourishment. In order to figure out how to fight food insecurity, its important to analyze what defines food security. Specific food security issues include:

• Nutritional quality of the food supply ¬ This refers to the nutritional makeup of available food. There has been an increase in both availability and consumption of “nutrient-poor and energy-dense” foods, such as sodas and fast food items. The increased consumption of these items can lead to health problems such as obesity.

• Affordability of food – Can low-income individuals afford to buy enough nutritious food to meet their daily needs? Food prices play a large role in what foods consumers choose, and is partially impacted by seasonal and geographical availability and pricing policies.

• Dietary energy balance – This relates to how many calories you take in versus how much energy you use. Dietary energy balance is connected to food choices, environment, and physical activity; poor dietary balance can lead to obesity and other significant health issues, which has become a serious public health issue globally. A related study suggests that if there is not a major effort to rectify the situation, there will be more than 1 billion obese adults worldwide by 2030.

• Satisfaction of cultural food preferences – It is important to take cultural and social needs into consideration when assessing food security and policy.

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What causes changes in the food system?

In order to answer the question of whether a food system is sustainable or not, its important to look at the factors that can cause a food system to change, as these areas can become target points for changing public policy. Allen and Prosperi identify four key areas that create change in food system issues:

• Water depletion – It is what it sounds like; using or removing water from an area where it cannot be replenished.

• Biodiversity loss – A global sustainability issue is the loss of species varietals globally; there are currently over 20,000 threatened species and ecological communities. This is caused by climate change, demands on the water system, and intensive monoculture agricultural practices.

• Food price volatility – Food price volatility refers to abnormal spikes or variations in food prices over a period of time. A notable example is the 2008 spike in food prices, a record high according to the UN’s FAO food price index. Food price can fluctuate based on climate change, population growth, dietary trends, and economic trade factors.

• Changing food consumption patterns – This factor relates to changes in food consumption based on changing cultural values, attitudes, and behaviors. One such example is the global trend of seeing animal proteins as a regular necessity as opposed to a luxury item.

In order to build a sustainable food system, from agricultural to nutrition needs, its critical to break sustainability into key components that can be addressed individually. Sustainability is a concept based on the integration of plants, animals, humans, and our environment, and Allen and Prosperi both define what comprises sustainability and identify areas in which governments and individuals can create change and move towards not just agricultural sustainability, but social sustainability and stability.



  1. When I parse for the word corporate, I see that it’s not part of this essay.

    It is arguable that all four bullets under “What causes changes in the food system?” trace in some degree to corporations and their primary focus on profit.

  2. I think this is a great article by Anne Belot. Thank you Anne. Do you think education is a key factor in the changing of sustainable food systems? As one generation passes to the next, climate and growing conditions change. Should the topic of education be included in public policy? I would like to know your thoughts.

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