What Does Food Sustainability Really Mean?

Close up of farmer holding bucket with fresh greens and blurred garden in the background

An estimated one-third of all food produced in a single year is lost or wasted, which exacerbates long-running issues related to food insecurity across the globe. To put this into context, the amount lost would be sufficient to feed ​​two billion people, according to a World Food Programme (WFP) analysis.

To be clear, food loss and waste impacts nearly every country in the world, though developed nations have historically generated greater amounts of unused food. As consumers in especially wealthy countries continue to waste food each year—as much as ​​the entire net production of sub-Saharan Africa, to be exact, WFP explains—it is abundantly clear that our consumption and production patterns are not sustainable.

In fact, if the global population reaches 9.6 billion by 2050, it would require the equivalent of almost three planets to sustain our current practices, according to the United Nations (UN).

While the wealthy continue to squander valuable food, water, and environmental resources, higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, soil infertility, biodiversity loss, and other food system byproducts continue to exacerbate climate change.

Although addressing food insecurity is essential to ensuring habitable life on Earth, it is also crucial to systematically overhaul our food production and consumption practices, replacing detrimental processes with more sustainable ones that safeguard long-term planetary health.


What Is Food Sustainability? 

Enhancing food sustainability is not a box to check off, but an involved, interconnected process of ensuring the sourcing, production, and consumption chain employs responsible care for the health and longevity of all involved.

That will require responsible, ethical food chain practices at every step—from sourcing on farms to packaging for supermarket shelves.

However, our current methods of production are unethical and focus on short-term profits rather than equity, long-term planetary health and sustainability.

For instance, 160 million children globally are still exploited for labor, according to UNICEF, lacking access to proper nutritional care, let alone school or play.

Animals are routinely treated cruelly—or like “machines,” while their milk, eggs, and bodies are harvested, says the animals rights organization PETA.

Additionally, the practice of monocropping yields high volumes of one type of crop, often employing pesticides or chemicals that genetically modify organisms (GMOs). This damages soil quality, compromises a region’s biodiversity—and in the case of GMOs, can trigger allergic reactions.

The envrionmental impact of our current system is considerable: food systems are responsible for more than one-third (34%) of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a UN-backed study in Nature Food—a startling figure that plays a heavy role on climate change.

An estimated one-third of all food produced in a single year is lost or wasted, which exacerbates long-running issues related to food insecurity across the globe.

Food Industry Impacts on Climate Change 

As the Earth warms, scientists predict a 50:50 chance the average global temperature will reach the crucial 1.5°C warming threshold outlined by the Paris Agreement in the next five years, according to a recent climate update from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

This figure “is not some random statistic,” says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in the report, but “rather an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet.”

Exceeding the threshold would yield unprecedented heatwaves, more intense storms, widespread water shortages, plant and animal extinction, and other unprecedented global calamities.

As with other elements of the global economy, it is vital that world leaders and the food industry overhaul food sustainability practices to guard against an exacerbation of the worst climate change impacts already upon us.


Components of Food Sustainability

Given the nature of food sustainability, its transformation is key to support long-term life and planetary well-being. 

It is crucial entities enhancing these practices employ as many of the following components as possible to ensure multifaceted health for all stakeholders. 


Ethical Sourcing & Production

There are several factors to consider when promoting food sustainability practices at the production level:

  • Implement Crop Rotation & Protect Biodiversity: Planting varying crops on the same plot of land enables rich nutrients to return to the air and soil, optimizing soil health and protecting biodiversity.
  • Organic & Low-Carbon Food Production: Organic food production methods focus on utilizing renewable resources, soil conservation, reducing off-farm inputs, eliminating pesticides and synthetic hormones, emphasizing biodiversity, implementing rotational grazing, and using cover crops and natural means for soil fertility.

Given the nature of food sustainability, its transformation is key to support long-term life and planetary well-being. 


  • Employ Ethical Animal Husbandry: Factory farming and meatpacking industries normalize an inhumane, transactional treatment of animal lives accompanied by abhorrent living conditions and slaughter. Raising animals on open fields and pastures  instead of factory farms improves quality of life, and empowers farms to build soil and mitigate carbon output.
  • Lessen or Eliminate Tillage: Inserting seeds directly into untilled soil can improve soil health and reduce erosion—a byproduct of plowing.
  • Implement Whole-Systems Agriculture: Intentionally placing and structuring farms based on the surrounding environment yields a robust, regenerative agriculture system. Well-plotted farms can naturally self-manage run-off, erosion, watering, buffering, and other considerations.


Responsible Consumption

After sourcing food from farms, it is crucial distributors and consumers consider the following sustainability practices:

  • Invest in Sustainable Packaging: Plastic packaging is environmentally detrimental at every stage of the supply chain, from its heavy-emitting GHG manufacturing process to its 1,000-year lifespan in a landfill. Sustainable packing safeguards food safety standards, extends shelf life, and reduces food waste.  
  • Minimize Food-Miles: Accounting for nearly 20% of global food systems emissions, the transport of food between country of origin to end destination—or, “food-miles”—yields a significant carbon footprint. While food system corporations and transportation sectors are largely responsible for mitigating this issue, consumers can minimize food travel by eating more local foods, shopping seasonally, and more.
  • Seek Whole & Plant-Based Foods: According to the aforementioned study in Nature Food, meatpacking accounts for nearly 60% of all GHG emissions from food production. Unprocessed whole foods and plant-based options significantly reduce carbon footprint due to lessened chemical or meat utilization, respectively.
  • Support Local Economies: Supporting regional growers and brands not only reduces food-miles but strengthens the local economy and community.
  • Advocate for Fair Working Conditions: One of the most vulnerable populations in global trade, workers on farms and in factories often lack formalized contracts, adequate wages, basic health and safety, and other necessities. It is vital sustainable food systems implement at least these basic working conditions into a sustainable food economy.
  • Reduce Waste at Home: From composting to reusable containers, recycling goods empowers waste reduction.


A Necessity for Food Sustainability Changes

While the average person can implement sustainable changes—whether cutting down on meat consumption or reducing home waste—it is fundamental that corporations most responsible for large-scale GHG emissions urgently transition to sustainable food production and consumption practices.

To prevent warming from exceeding the aforementioned 1.5 °C threshold, it is more vital than ever for modern food systems to overhaul detrimental processes and instead, “[do] more and better with less,” and “decoupl[e] economic growth from environmental degradation,” reads a UN analysis.

The seriousness of this crisis demands world leaders and policymakers take urgent action and align food sustainability strategies with real-time data and UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a series of 17 interconnected initiatives for environmental protection.

The SDGs lay out ambitious plans to cut global food waste in half, significantly reduce waste, promote chemical management and more. 

While policymakers might leverage surveys and similar public sentiment analyses to understand how food insecurity, food waste and sustainability impacts people, these traditional methods—while informative—lack the necessary urgency to meet current environmental upheaval. 

World leaders now have the ability to transform sustainability policies with real-time data insights encapsulating citizens’ most pressing concerns.

For instance, social understanding software such as Citibeats intelligently generates actionable insights by interpreting unstructured data from social media, blogs, and forums. Displaying real-time trends on a customizable dashboard, the monitor empowers leaders with full visibility into evolving conversations about water shortages, plastic packaging opinions, and other topics as they occur, facilitating seamless and impactful mitigation.

By leveraging real-time data insights, leaders can respond directly to unfolding trends and devise impactful, necessary food sustainability systems that support a livable future.


Citibeats leverages ethical AI for social understanding. Our Sustainability and Social Risk Monitors shed light on millions of unfolding conversations by generating actionable insights from social media comments, blog posts, forums, and more, empowering the food industry with real-time data to contextualize changes.

Schedule a demo today to learn more.