KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

An overview of insights on the (un)sustainability of the international food system.

Food & Sustainability

What solutions are there if we don’t work from within the current system, but look for genuine alternatives?

While it is important to instigate sustainability within the current system, there are also solutions based on a different view of production and consumption, such as the replacement of meat as protein source, recovering phosphorus from urine and hydroponics. For a discussion of solutions ‘away from the status quo’, see Dagevos, J. C., Bakker, D. H., Vogelzang, T. A., & Meeusen, M. J. G. (2015).

Alternative protein sources

Although eating less meat contributes significantly to environmental sustainability, there are greater potential gains when meat is entirely or partially replaced. Vegetable proteins often contain fewer amino acids than meat or in the wrong ratio, which is why our body needs more of them. Legumes such as soybeans, kidney beans or chickpeas contain enough protein, vitamin B1 and iron and have a much lower environmental impact than meat. Seaweeds and algae require very little land use, fresh water or fossil fuels to produce and contain all the necessary nutrients, but may be polluted in the wild. Insects are an oft-mentioned alternative rich in protein and vitamins, but they have an environmental impact that comes close to meat. Finally, research is being done into cultivating lab meat using animal stem cells, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions. The market potential of alternative proteins requires that consumers see them as genuine and attractive alternatives to meat (see also “Consumption trends”). 

RIVM (2011).

Van Dooren, C. (2015b), p. 3-5.

Recovering phosphorus

A large part of the phosphorus absorbed by plants in Dutch agriculture returns to the land in the form of manure. In addition, 3 million tonnes of phosphorus from our diets ends up in the sewers through by way of urine excretion. In order to prevent eutrophication, it is removed from the water in sewage treatment plants, chiefly for the purpose of burning it. However, it is technically possible to recover ammonium sulphate and struvite from urine by using magnesium salts and sulfuric acid. These substances can in turn be used as raw material for fertilizers. Closing the phosphate cycle in this way must, however, be done as early on as possible in the waste stream (preferably in the household itself), in order to be economically and environmentally viable.

Van Roekel, A. (6 april 2012).

STOWA (2010), p. 5.


Hydroponics is a form of crop farming where plants grow in water with mineral and nutrient solutions, without the need of agricultural soil. The advantage of this is that because of the stacking of production, land usage is drastically reduced, and plants are better protected against microbes, insects and extreme weather. Hydroponics can take place in densely populated areas like cities, in turn creating opportunities for locally closing phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. The emergence of spectrum-specific and highly efficient LED lamps has made hydroponics increasingly profitable and the CO2 emissions from its energy consumption lower.

Despommier, D. (2013), p. 388-389.