I’ve looked into research on food sustainability and to say it’s complex is an understatement. Local good but meat bad; what if it’s local meat? Fruits and veggies good; what if they’re grown with lots of fertilizer and pesticides? What about farming practices and transportation distances and water use?
I have a good background to draw on between science and sustainability but I get lost in all the interactions. At this point I’ve gotten to less meat and better practices for the meat I do eat. Local when I can, but acceptance that meat and potatoes, the main foods that would be available for me in the winter based on where I live, aren’t going to cut it for my nutritional needs. So how does someone who doesn’t do this as part of their living make the right dietary choices for where they live and their nutritional and cultural needs. This lack of clarity can make it hard to get started on making any changes.
Whittall, Warwick, Guy, and Appleton (2022) conducted a very small set of interviews with young adults in the UK to find out their understanding of sustainable diets and willingness to change their diets. Generally they did have ideas of sustainable diets that matched those that are offered by organizations like the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. But these definitions don’t offer any specifics. They focus on minimizing environmental impacts, maintaining or improving biodiversity, economically it needs to be accessible as well.
So generally, the participants, and, from my experience, many people, know how to describe a sustainable diet, but implementing it is a different story. People are willing to change, but knowing how to do that and have a positive impact is a lot more difficult.
What a sustainable diet looks like is going to vary based on where someone lives and who they are. Culture and nutritional needs both come into play because sustainability is about the well-being of people, planet, and relationships. It isn’t simple like don’t eat meat. Some agricultural practices, including some practices of raising animals for food, can actually support climate change mitigation and biodiversity through practices like rewilding and carbon sequestration. On the other hand, some fruits and vegetables aren’t sustainable due to factors like monoculture, pesticide and fertilizer use, and transportation distances.
There are no easy answers. And from my own experience the research necessary to check every item is beyond what most people can do. So how do we make the right choices? How do we provide guidance on a sustainable diet? I have no answers. But, similar to how I think about the courses I teach, perhaps the goal should be less concrete answers and more about the questions we ask. Perhaps rather than how can I make my diet sustainable, we need a simple word change: how can I make my diet more sustainable tomorrow than it is today?