KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

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

Food & Sustainability

How can we increase sustainability by consuming differently?

Consumers can eat more sustainably and healthier by choosing other products, wasting less and adjusting the composition of their dietary pattern.

The diet

In the adaptation of dietary patterns both health benefits and environmental benefits can be achieved. Only a small portion of the Dutch population follows the official dietary guidelines (‘Richtlijnen Goede Voeding’, RGV) or the Schijf van Vijf (Dutch version of the ‘Food Pyramid’). A substantial proportion of the population over-consumes salt, saturated fat, and protein, eats too few fruits and vegetables. A less animal-based and more plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, for example. If everyone would follow the RGV, 26% less land would be needed to feed men, and 15% for women. For men and women it would lead to 13% and, respectively, 3% less GHGs. Vegetarian and vegan diets could lead to, respectively, 16% and 35% less CO2 emissions.

Gezondheidsraad (2011), p. 27-35.

Voedingscentrum (2016).


Marinussen, M., Kramer, G., Pluimers, J., Blonk, H. (2012), p. 14, 21-22.

Marinussen, M., Blonk, H., van Dooren, C., (2010), p. 18-20.

See also RIVM, Most recent publications on sustainable and healthy diets.

See also Aschemann-Witzel, J. (2015) about the relationship between health and sustainability.

See also Van Dooren, C., & Kramer, G. (2012) about sustainable diets.

Selecting sustainable products

The diet can also be made more sustainable if consumers choose a more sustainable version of each product. Beef has by far the highest environmental impact, followed by lamb, pork and poultry. Fruit and vegetables out of season are either imported or produced in the Dutch greenhouse using high energy input. Off-season, preserved products are generally more sustainable than fresh produce and local products have to be transported over shorter distances. Consumers expect that more awareness and availability of sustainable products will drive sales, and think that the government can help by providing information.

Milieu Centraal: Meat, fish or vegetarian.

Milieu Centraal: Vegetable and fruit calendar.

PBL (2014b), p. 15.


Certificates provide guarantees that products meet certain environmental, animal welfare or socio-economic standards. The Better Life certificate is for meat with higher animal welfare standards: with one star, the animal has more space and time to grow, with two stars has free range access and the highest number of stars is 3, which is equivalent to the welfare level of organic meat. EKO, Demeter and the European biological certification (‘the green leaf’) indicate that a product is produced according to legally fixed organic guidelines. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) indicates that fish is caught without overexploiting fish stocks. Furthermore, there are labels such as Fairtrade and Utz, aimed at improving the socio-economic conditions of producers in the developing world. Finally, some certificates guarantee the optimalisation of all (included) aspects of sustainability, such as KRAV. To create more clarity about the differences between certificates, Milieu Centraal has developed an overview of certificates, including marks concerning the impact on the environment, animal welfare, people and labour, control and transparency.

LEI (2014), p. 10-12.

Milieu Centraal: Label and certificate monitor.

Food waste

90% of consumers say they reduce food waste several time a week, but also that they need more information in order to do this effectively. The main reason for wastage is that too much was bought or cooked: only one-fifth of people weigh ingredients prior to the meal on a daily basis. Smaller portion sizes in the store, shopping lists and measuring cups or scales can provide a solution. Up to 15% of food waste is caused by expiration of the “best before” (THT) date, while the advice is to first look, smell and taste before discarding. Only after the “use by” (TGT) date it is recommended that the product should really not be eaten. Leftovers recipes or apps can also provide a solution for the reuse of ingredients and food scraps. Finally, there is much to be gained by storing products better, preferably in the packaging, frozen or refrigerated at 4° C.

PBL (2014b), p. 10.

Van Dooren, C. (2015a), p. 3-4.

Soethoudt, J. M., Sluis, V. D. A., Waarts, Y. R., & Tromp, S. O. (2012), p. 33.