KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

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

Food & Sustainability

Which aspects are further included in sustainability?

Beyond ecological preservability, the concept of sustainability can, within the context of the food system, be expanded to (human) health, food safety, animal welfare and socio-economic criteria.

The importance of other indicators

Although sustainability is typically measured through objective criteria of ecological preservability, society often demands other criteria to be included in sustainability. For example, better animal welfare has little to do with future generations, but is high on the social agenda. Therefore, the Dutch government advocates a food policy that includes attention to public health, animal welfare and people.

Rijksoverheid (2013), p. 2-3. (in Dutch)

Healthy diet

Human health includes dietary health. With the ‘Schijf van Vijf’, a concept similar to the Food Pyramid, the Voedingscentrum (Nutrition Centre) offers guidelines to a healthier diet, which partly consists of sufficient vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes, and generally more vegetable-based products.

A wrong balance between the food categories of the Schijf van Vijf can lead to health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Because specific recommendations can differ between different people, the Voedingscentrum presents guidelines for specific groups within the population, such as children, vegetarians and pregnant women.

For all and more specific dietary guidelines, see: Gezondheidsraad (2015), p. 13. (in Dutch)

In addition, the Voedingscentrum has mapped the general ecological impact of a diet that conforms to the Schijf van Vijf. However, sustainability is not central to the Schijf van Vijf, resulting in meat and dairy consumption not being restricted to the ecological maximum.

Voedingscentrum (2016), p. 9, 17. (in Dutch)

Food safety

Human health further includes food safety. An individual’s health can be affected when her food contains pathogens (such as bacteria, viruses and parasites), harmful substances (such as PCBs, heavy metals and antibiotics), materials foreign to the product, or allergens. In some cases (e.g., the mutation of bacteria into multiresistent species due to antibiotics usage) human health is strongly linked to the well-being of livestock.

PBL (2013), p. 16-19. (in Dutch)

Voedingscentrum, ‘Voedselveiligheid’ in the Encyclopedia. (in Dutch)

Animal welfare

Generally, animal welfare is defined as the degree to which livestock animals are able to fulfil their behavioural or physiological needs. The Welfare Quality® system is the European industry standard and stipulates as criteria that animals:

  • do not suffer from hunger or thirst needlessly long;
  • can rest comfortably at the right temperatures;
  • have enough space to move around freely;
  • can exhibit normal, non-harmful behaviour, such as playing and foraging;
  • be handled with care, in a way that promotes positive emotions; and
  • are free of injuries, illness or unnecessary pain during human handling.

De Jonge, F. H., & Ooms, M. (2009), p. 19.

Welfare Quality Network.

Socio-economic: Distribution, welfare and fairness

A fair distribution of food around the world and food security, as well as equal shares in profits and fair trade between producers and buyers are often included in sustainability as well. Farmers within and outside the Netherlands have little influence over the price they receive for their products, putting pressure on their income as global food chains become more efficient. Finally, the working conditions of those employed in food production are an important indicator of sustainability.

PBL (2013), p. 44.