Sustainable food systems for good health

With three billion people malnourished globally and a food production system damaging the planet, the health impacts of the current food system on people and planet should be placed in the spotlight this World Health Day. More must be done to build sustainable food systems that provide access to safe, nutritious food for all. 

food stall

Malnutrition in responsible for more ill health than any other cause, says Global Nutrition Report 2019. The current global food system leaves 113 million people hungry while 2.01 billion adults are overweight and obese, creating a global nutrition challenge in which one in three people suffer from malnutrition (four billion people in total). With fewer than one in five children eating a minimally acceptable diet, children are not receiving the nutrition required to grow, develop and reach their full potential.

It is not just what we eat that puts our lives at risk but the way we produce our food also results in the poor health of people and planet. Food production and consumption are responsible for 19-29% of the human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 70% of fresh-water use. Land conversion for food production is the single most important driver of biodiversity loss—estimated at 60%. High consumption levels of animal sourced foods have a relatively high environmental footprint compared to other food groups.  In short, the consumption of diets in meat, fat, salt and sugar, pose a major risk to the health of people and planet. 

"In recent years we have witnessed a gradual departure from sustainable food models, such as the Mediterranean Diet, in favor of models rich in animal-based proteins, processed foods with high percentages of sugar, salt, fat or low in fiber,” worries Katarzyna Dembska, nutritionist and researcher at the Barilla Foundation. “These food solutions can expose us, in the long run, to very expensive diseases or health problems. Choosing sustainable diets, in addition to reducing the impact on the environment, can positively affect longevity. The care of our health really starts from our plate”. 


“When health systems and food systems work hand-in-hand, we can make progress towards healthy lives for all.” – José Graziano da Saliva, head of FAO 

Food systems have the potential to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability if we consume a diet higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts.  The EAT-Lancet Commission underscored this fact with its recently published planetary health diet that outlines how to shift global consumption away from red meat and sugar and towards a diet higher in nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes that is beneficial for both people and planet. 

Barilla has developed the Double Environmental Food Pyramid, a model that combines the classic food pyramid alongside an “environmental” pyramid in the which foods are ordered by their environmental footprint. 

Good food


Promoting policy change is key to reshaping and promoting sustainable food systems, says, to improve nutrition and enable healthy diets. To do this, The Committee on World Food Security will hold regional and online consultations this year with governments, civil society organizations, the private sector and more to gather regional perspectives and priorities. This process will create Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition that explore how food systems can help deliver high quality diets that meet the needs of growing populations while leaving no one behind.