KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

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

Food & Sustainability

How sustainable is the food system according to the other indicators?

In addition to pressures on ecological preservability, food production contains risks to human health from antibiotic use, compromises to animal welfare and an unsustainable distribution of wealth throughout the food chain. See definitions. 

Food security

In order to prevent mortality from diseased animals, up to ten years ago many antibiotics were used in animal husbandry. The risk in using antibiotics is the emergence of multi-resistant bacteria such as MRSA and ESBL. Consumption of meat with resistant germs may cause major public health problems. This is aggravated by the fact that for some time, no antibiotics have been developed that work against resistant bacteria. Effective governance has ensured that the use of antibiotics has more than halved (as set by targets) and it is no longer used for the prevention of animal disease, but selectively and curatively instead.

PBL (2014a), p. 47.

Animal welfare

Animal welfare concerns are driven by public debate and perceptions, although in many cases these correspond with what animal scientists consider as animal suffering. Especially in pig and poultry husbandry animal suffering is widespread, as a result of for example genetic predisposition, stables with poor climate and little space to move around, interventions such as castration and beak trimming, restriction of natural behaviours and infection with animal disease. Outside the housing system, there is also discomfort caused by stress during transportation and the slaughter of animals. A growing share of animal production is done under labels such as Better Life (‘Beter Leven’) from the animal protection agency (‘Dierenbescherming’), which result in an improvement in wellbeing. The Better Life certificate requires more stable space per animal, an older age of slaughter and free-range access.

Leenstra, F. R., Neijenhuis, F., Bosma, A. J. J., Ruis, M. A. W., Smolders, E. A. A., & Visser, E. K. (2011), p. 64-66.

Uitvoeringsagenda Duurzame Veehouderij (2014), p. 26.

Distribution, welfare and fairness

For the continuity of the Dutch food production, farmers’ income and the distribution of profits throughout the production chain are important. Research shows that incomes in primary production are on average low and unstable. Poultry farmers, pig farmers and greenhouse growers often receive only a few per cent of the retail price of their products. This is less the case for dairy farmers, because many have joined cooperations. Farmers usually have to settle for remuneration on labour without return on equity. The choice is often between quitting the business or investing in expansion, for which loans have to be taken. This decreases farmers’ solvency, making them vulnerable to price fluctuations. Meanwhile, the agricultural sector is aging significantly, and farmers often have difficulty finding successors. The same mechanisms are at work in the rest of the world, but there the disparities are even greater.

PBL (2013), p. 44, 52-53.

See also Baltussen, W. H. M., Kornelis, M., Logatcheva, K., Horne, V. P., Smit, A. B., Janssens, S. R. M., ... & Pham, T. M. L. (2014).