The environmental impacts of a sustainable food system

People | Human Health

By Isabel Rowbotham, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Published July 29, 2021

Current research emphasises the promotion of plant-rich diets to combat climate change, through a transformational shift in the current food system, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimise the water footprint and waste.

Dr Pauline Scheelbeek, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, presented a talk in March at the University of Bristol on climate change mitigation through changes in our food system. She outlined that the food system encompasses everything from farming, food production and packaging, to consumption and food waste. The current food system has a considerable impact on greenhouse gas emissions—in total contributing between 21% to 37%—with about 31% of these emissions being attributed to livestock and fisheries alone.

The current food system has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions and approximately 31% of these emissions can be attributed to the meat and fish industry. Recent research proposes a movement to a more sustainable diet, increasing vegetable and legumbre production will, not surprisingly, slow down the current climate crisis | Ettiene Girardet & Marcus Spiske / Unsplash

This highlights the problems of a meat- and dairy-based diet, and how the demand of which is negatively affecting the climate. A meat-based diet, in particular, is not only unsustainable, but a huge contributor to health problems; specifically being linked to the growing cases of obesity worldwide. In the United Kingdom alone, the rate of obesity and those overweight is 64%.

Dr Pauline Scheelbeek, an Assistant Professor in Nutritional and Environmental Epidemiology, who also has a background in food system programmes, emphasises the benefits in tackling all parts of the food system, in order to reduce the impact of the current climate crisis. Changes to the food system and its effects on climate can be addressed at every step of the chain, in particular at the consumption level. The question is, is the impact of the current food system a direct result of the consumer? And if so, is it the people's responsibility? Unfortunately, the answer may not be that simple.

‘The food system encompasses everything from farming, food production and packaging to consumption and food waste.’

The food system and its effects are also influenced by how the food industry promotes certain products to consumers. We know this, since the consumption of many of these products do not contribute to a healthy lifestyle. The most accessible products are often the ones most detrimental to our physical health, such as processed foods that can cause conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Dr Scheelbeek also emphasizes other global health impacts of the current food system at the other end of the spectrum, such as anemia, micronutrient deficiency and stunting.

Another important aspect to consider is how the current system serves the environment. Research has shown that the food industries, such as the meat and fish industry, have been considerably taxing to the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water footprint and waste.

A change from the current food system through the adoption of various other systems showed the predicted effects in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The bar in ‘light green’ shows what could happen if a rich plant diet was adopted globally , this can be compared to the black bar labelled ‘Business-as-usual’ which is the current system | Clark (2020) / Science

Dr Scheelbeek’s research promotes the scaling up of fruit and vegetable consumption. This means that adopting a sustainable diet through increasing the consumption of vegetables and fruits may help mitigate climate change. However, this can also be promoted earlier on in the production chain, through encouraging an increase in horticulture practices within countries. The improved use of land and water would thus contribute to the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Recent studies into food systems and its effects in decreasing or slowing the rise of the global average temperature, suggest that the most effective change in food systems may come from the adoption of a plant-rich diet. This behaviour-change approach may also help in the reduction of water and waste.

‘The current food system uses 70% of the global freshwater resources.’

The current 5 a day recommendations of a nutritional and balanced diet, which is currently promoted by the UK government, may not be enough to create the transformational change in mitigating climate change. Scheelbeek’s research draws on the Eatwell Guide (EWG) recommendations set out by government bodies, which promote the consumption of vegetables and legumes in the UK. The EWG also suggests reducing the consumption of meats and high-sugar foods, due to their connection to cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

However, there are also concerns that the public may struggle to adhere to a more demanding government-approved diet. Dr Scheelbeek’s study found that those who have a medium-to-high adherence to the EWG manage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than those with poorer adherences to this diet. Adherence to the EWG has also shown many health benefits.

‘26% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system. Of these, 31% comes from livestock and fisheries, 27% from crop production, 24% land use and 18% from the supply chain.’

Scaling up the production of vegetables and fruits will require the expansion of its farming through increased implementation of horticulture across the UK. In order to alleviate our impacts on the environment, the UK Government will need to actively invest in horticulture production at a national level, including start-up vertical farming and hydroponic technologies. Dr Scheelbeek’s research also found additional positive effects on countryside biodiversity with this type of shift in food production and farming.

Increasing the production and consumption of fruit and vegetables, whilst decreasing investment into livestock agriculture, may be the solution for both climate change and population nutritional deficiencies. Our global community needs to be encouraged to make transformational changes of the food system, both on an individual and systemic level, in order to reduce global emissions and mitigate climate change.

‘Scaling up’ in fruit and vegetables may require a shift from 5 a day to 7 a day | Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Sustainable diets, through the increase of production and consumption of fruit and vegetables, may be the solution for both climate change and population nutritional deficiencies. The UK and the rest of the world need to be encouraged to make transformational changes of the food system to reduce global emissions and mitigate climate change. Consumers may also contribute to the mitigation of these factors through the adoption of a plant-rich diet. Additionally, the population will benefit from a disease preventing diet if more people consider adhering to the EWG. However, the benefits may not be enough solely from the consumer level and governments need to commit to transformational changes along the current food system.

Feature Image: Tomas Hertog, Nur Alamin, The Creative, Mae Mu, Edgar Castrejon and Deryn Macey | Unsplash

Scheelbeek P (2021, March 31) Climate change mitigation through the food system and its co-benefits for population health, Climate and Health seminar. Available at: [Accessed 25 July 2021]

Scheelbeek P, Green R, Papier K, et al Health impacts and environmental footprints of diets that meet the Eatwell Guide recommendations: analyses of multiple UK studies BMJ Open 2020;10:e037554

National Health Services. Health and Social Care Information Centre. Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet England, 2020.

Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360(6392), 987-992.

Ali, Z., Green, R., Zougmoré, R.B. et al. Long-term impact of West African food system responses to COVID-19. Nat Food 1 768–770 (2020)

Clark M., Domingo N., Colgan K., Thakrar S., Tilman D., Lynch J., Azevedo I., Hill J. Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets Science 370 705–708 (2020)

Miller A. (2018). Vertical farming and hydroponics on the spectrum of sustainability. Articles. Sustainable food trust. Available at: [Accessed 27 July 2021]

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