KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

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

Food & Sustainability

Which solutions do well on all indicators, and which only on a few?

Because there are many different indicators of sustainability, few solutions will score well on all aspects of sustainability. The prevention of waste is certainly a good solution, but there are contradictions between organic farming and animal welfare, as well as between health and fish consumption.

Solutions that score well on all indicators

There are solutions that imply an improvement on almost all sustainability indicators. The Sustainable Livestock Agenda (‘Uitvoeringsagenda Duurzame Veehouderij’) calls such win-win solutions as satisfying integrated sustainability. For example, consuming less meat and dairy and more fruits and vegetables, provides improvement in all indicators of environmental sustainability, as well as animal welfare and health. Yet there will always be parties that lose out: farmers have little to financially gain from a lower consumption, unless the value per product (and hence the profit) rises fast enough to compensate.

UDV: Integrated sustainability.

PBL (2013), p. 63-64.

Trade-off: organic or conventional crop farming?

A commonly cited hypothesis is that although organic cultivation practices cause a decrease in local environmental pressures, crop yields per hectare are lower, thus requiring more land is to produce the same amount of crop. Several studies have shown that there were indeed on average 20% lower revenues from organic agriculture, but this difference largely depends on the specific production conditions. In case of rain-fed legumes, the difference is only 4%, while the difference is much greater when organic cultivation is more similar to conventional cultivation, such as for vegetables and wheat. The biggest added value of organic farming lies in the retention of nutrients and soil quality and lower fertilizer use. Scientists recommend finding a good combination of conventional crop yields and soil biological control.

Van Ittersum, M. K., Cassman, K. G., Grassini, P., Wolf, J., Tittonell, P., & Hochman, Z. (2013), p. 4-5.

Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N., & Foley, J. A. (2012), p. 229.

Tuomisto, H. L., Hodge, I. D., Riordan, P., & Macdonald, D. W. (2012), p. 309.

Trade-off: animal welfare or environment?

The requirements of organic and free-range production involve pigs and broilers getting more space, living longer before slaughter and (for pigs from two Better Life stars onwards) have free-range access. For poultry, a slow-growing broiler breed is required. This allows animals to eat more feed during their lifetime, meaning more land is used to produce one kilogram of meat. Also, giving animals free-range access increases the likelihood of infectious animal diseases. On the other hand, fewer pesticides are found in organic meat and there is less manure acidification on the farm. So it seems that the transition to a higher level of animal welfare is associated with a higher footprint. Nevertheless, there are innovative farm concepts where environmental and animal welfare are not as such at odds. 

Blonk, H., Alvarado, C., & Schryver, A. D. (2007), p. 18-24.

Trade-off: more fish or not?

While it is clear that eating less meat will lead to both health and environmental benefits, such a conclusion does not apply to all parts of the dietary guidelines. The recommendation to eat one portions of (oily) fish per week helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. But growing fish consumption could simply further deplete endangered fish stocks. However, since the reduction of the recommended quantity from two to only one fish per week, the trade-off has become more nuanced. One actual solution for the dilemma would be to opt for sustainably farmed fish.

Gezondheidsraad (2015), p. 41-45.