Knowledge for better food systems

What is a sustainable healthy diet?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

We are pleased to announce a new FCRN discussion paper which considers the increasingly topical question of: ‘What is a sustainable healthy diet?’ The paper begins by highlighting the rationale for focusing on the diets question, and then moves on to discuss definitions of ‘good nutrition’ on the one hand, and ‘sustainability’ on the other.  The main substance of the paper concerns itself with the major food groups that constitute UK’s Eatwell plate, examining the health and sustainability issues that their consumption raises, before drawing some conclusions.  A review of recent studies in this area is also included. An important limitation of the paper is that it focuses largely on developed country contexts.

Note that this is very much a discussion paper and work in progress.  As such we would very much welcome comments and suggestions.  We’d particularly welcome input from members in low income and emerging economies, where the sustainability and health issues play out very differently.  Do send through your comments in the following ways: by posting a comment on the website using the Add new comment link below (you will need to be logged into do so – contact us if you have forgotten them) or by contacting the FCRN’s Tara Garnett directly:


aleip's picture
Submitted by aleip (not verified) on

Thank you for this very good and balanced report!

One comment to Page 12 " An alternative view might of course be that we should let climate change take its course and adapt to its consequences, or else that other sectors of the economy, such as the transport sector, should be required to achieve even deeper cuts in emissions ...". It is not only climate change where meat products have higher impacts and where a reduction in energy consumption will not help, because other emissions are just as important or more important. The report acknowledges this of course, for example with regard to water, land use, biodiversity, ... Another issue which is could be added is overall 'nitrogen' emissions (NH3, N-leaching etc.) with relevance for many environmental threats. See recent studies on the link between (reactive) nitrogen footprint and food:
Leip A, Weiss F, Lesschen J P and Westhoek H 2013 The nitrogen footprint of food products in the European Union J. Agric. Sci. 1–14 doi:
Westhoek H, Lesschen J P, Rood T, Wagner S, Leip A, Marco D, Murphy-bokern D, Sutton M A and Oenema O 2014a Nitrogen on the Table: The influence of food choices on nitrogen emissions and the European environment - Executive Summary pp 1–5 Online:
Westhoek H, Lesschen J P, Rood T, Wagner S, De Marco A, Murphy-Bokern D, Leip A, van Grinsven H, Sutton M A and Oenema O 2014b Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake Glob. Environ. Chang. 5–14 doi:

Toni Meier's picture
Submitted by Toni Meier (not verified) on

This is an interesting conceptual paper addressing various aspects of sustainable diets.

Regarding the different issues related to sustainable diets, presented in Fig.1 (p. 5), I would like to bring to mind another very important issue: attractiveness (of foods/dishes).

This issue was separately introduced by Roehl & Strassner (2010) developing the concept of a “sustainability house” especially for the catering sector – including the five dimensions: environment, health, society, economic viability and attractiveness. Unfortunately all publications are in German (, page 12)

Further I would like to mention an own study, stressing the importance of sustainable diets in the context national and global land constraints (Meier et al. (2014): Balancing virtual land imports by a shift in the diet: Using a land balance approach to assess the sustainability of food consumption. In: Appetite 74: 20-34)

Toni Meier


Dr. Toni Meier


Institute of Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences

Agronomy and Organic Farming

Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg

Betty-Heimann-Straße 5

Germany - 06120 Halle (Saale)

学校 农业 营养学. 大学 哈雷 维滕贝格. 06120 哈雷. 德国


John Kazer's picture
Submitted by John Kazer (not verified) on

Hi Toni,

Thanks for the 2014 paper reference.  I'd just made some of my own calculations on the footprint of intensive-reared beef and come to a very similar result.  Hopefully something to share soon.


aleip's picture
Submitted by aleip (not verified) on

A comment to page 20 "Intensive production systems are more GHG efficient than less extensive ones whatever the livestock type..." this holds only if C-sequestration in managed grasslands is not taken into consideration (however uncertain this might still be...); see
Weiss F and Leip A 2012 Greenhouse gas emissions from the EU livestock sector: A life cycle assessment carried out with the CAPRI model Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 149 124–34 doi:
Lugato E, Bampa F, Jones A, Panagos P and Montanarella L 2014 Potential carbon sequestration of European arable soils estimated by modelling a comprehensive set of management practices Glob. Chang. Biol. n/a–n/a doi:

John Kazer's picture
Submitted by John Kazer (not verified) on

Much of the debate about different farming systems and sequestration is based upon models rather than actual, large-scale farm data.  If we focus back on actual farmers, the main finding is that financial and environmental efficiency vary so much that any debate about which "system" is better becomes largely irrelevant (environmentally).

Farm practice, investment options, geography, climate etc. all conspire to generate a complex picture that makes talk of "extensive" vs "intensive" much too simplistic.

If extensive farms enable more potential sequestration than intensive ones, I presume this is mainly because they are utilising more land?  Leaving aside uncertainty about whether permanent grassland can sequester more than biochar and no-till on arable land.  Other studies have looked at what you can do with "land sparing" due to intensification - forests, for example.

FCRN Admin's picture
Submitted by FCRN Admin on

This comment is submitted by FCRN admin on behalf of Barbara Knowles 

I much enjoyed reading your discussion paper on sustainable healthy diets. You really make a complex, contested and value laden topic very readable and interesting

I have two comments:

Living in Transylvania in a society which is still based on peasant tradition / small scale family farming, it's evident that mixed farming on this scale is in principle very efficient in that it produces almost no waste and requires few inputs apart from labour (human and horse power). Animals eat grass /hay or waste products like whey or kitchen and garden scraps, their manure fertilizes the crops, and high biodiversity and beautiful landscape are an unintended by product. This virtuous circle is worth mentioning. When we physically separate livestock production from arable, vegetable and fruit production, especially on intensive farms, manure and other waste products become a big problem rather than a useful supply for another part of the farm.

My other point is my current personal obsession - but could be included as a paragraph in your paper and indeed is a research topic itself: sustainable healthy diets for ill people.

Since January, because I have Motor Neurone Disease and can't swallow well, I eat and drink through a stomach tube (gastrostomy). Apparently 0.5-1 million people in the US feed through a tube, and if my experience is typical their doctors and nutritionists pressurize them into eating a diet of artificial liquid nutrients, and can't give any useful advice about designing a balanced healthy diet of real normal liquidised food.

As you might imagine, eating local healthy food of known origin is an important part of my mental health and wellbeing, and I imagine it's physically healthier too if balanced and varied.

So I've devised my own diet, no thanks to my several medical contacts but inspired by people with similar determination to eat well and have control of their diet


I shudder to think where the protein and fat in these liquid hospital diets comes from - surely not high quality sources, yet doctors prescribe them without a qualm.

Anyway my point is that ill people also deserve to eat a sustainable healthy diet, but are often denied the opportunity or knowledge to do so (both tube fed and on 'normal' hospital diets).

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John Kazer's picture
Submitted by John Kazer (not verified) on

Thanks for this paper Tara, wide and comprehensive coverage as ever.

Some initial comments based on a first read:

  • In the introduction, you list three impacts (waste, diet change and redistribution) but only mention production efficiency much later.  This is a shame as it potentially cuts our the most important folk, farmers, from the conversation.  I take your point about the rebound effect - that efficiency = reduced cost = increased consumption, but isn't that the ideal time to address dietary choices rather than a reason to reject farm efficiency as a route forward?
  • I presume you're aware of WRI's food waste standard project?
  • Small holders are discussed quite a bit - but is there much work looking into their future economically?  My perspective is that when a country industrialises small holding essentially vanishes.  Should we be trying to design sustainability approaches that take such stock of an at-risk way of life?
  • You haven't talked about the interaction between the dairy and beef industries, improved management of which can only be a good thing.
  • I will re-iterate that the conversation should be about farm efficiency and best practice (in a broad range of areas, not least ability to generate biodiversity and nutritious food) rather than systems.  At this time, the range of farm performance is often larger than any potential system choice effects.
  • We certainly need to start to realign footprint impact assessments to take account of nutrition, land utilisation and biodiversity.

Chris Foster's picture
Submitted by Chris Foster on

A couple of thoughts and questions spurred by John Kazer's comments...

It does seem that farm efficiency (as measured in LCA/ carbon footprints and in terms of target outputs divided by inputs and/or non-target outputs) varies widely, and that there is surely scope to improve the efficiency of many. Do researchers understand to what extent the observed variation reflects just variations in practice or those combined with variations in the potential efficiency of different farms in their different contexts? If it's that combination, how much of the observed variation is accounted for by the variation in potential?

Further, when introducing the notion of "efficiency", we implicitly assume that the qualities (in the broadest sense) of the outputs of different producing units (farms here) are equal, or can be "equalised" for the purposes of comparison - as is done in milk LCAs where the unit of analysis is a volume of fat- and protein-corrected milk.  But I haven't seen this done in other food product LCAs - for example by accounting for grade of carcass produced in meat LCAs; has anyone pursued this?

Nutritional value might - as John's last point hints - offer one way of incorporating some output qualities into footprint/LCA studies. Some researchers have done this, with interesting results. But I wonder (as a practitioner too) what value there is in pursuing this outside an academic research context. I'd suggest that few food-related decisions are  made on the basis of quantified nutritional content, so how useful can LCA based on that "quality" be in supporting those decisions?

I think you're right to question the long-term future of smallholders. In general small producers (of anything) only survive as specialist niche actors supplying goods with qualities for which people are willing to pay above-commodity prices (somehow). Economies and "ecologies" of scale work against them if they produce goods without distinctive qualities (i.e. commodities). Even if their output does have these distinctive qualities, when we assess their output using relatively simplified interpretations of efficiency that don't incorporate those dimensions of quality - as we do in LCA - , they're unlikely to emerge well from the assessment. But smallholders producing commodity items do get financial support, presumably on the basis that they "produce" additional "goods" or "qualities" that society (i.e. people as a group) is willing to pay for. But as a group we aren't willing to pay very much and we label some of those payments subsidies, making them a handy political target. So it is difficult to expect anything but attrition of smallholders until the appropriate number of specialist niche actors remains.

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