Covered market at Brive la Gaillarde. © INRA, Bertrand NICOLAS

Towards more sustainable food supplies

A necessarily systemic approach

The duALIne project provided a reminder that food sustainability is a multidimensional notion which requires a systemic approach.

Updated on 02/22/2013
Published on 12/16/2012

Integrating knowledge

Food is a complex system made up of production and transformation operations that need to meet a whole series of sometimes contradictory needs: dietary, environmental, energy-related and economic, etc.  A global understanding of this system is necessary in order to build experimental strategies and facilitate operational choices.  A huge quantity of multidisciplinary knowledge must therefore be assembled and integrated. For example, the development of new generations of bio-refineries to optimise the valorisation of biomass must be accompanied by simulations of their territorial integration in order to favour their positive impacts and/or minimise environmental damage.

Taking account of interconnections

DuALIne demonstrated the importance of interconnections and combinations: for example, combinations of foods in different diets, combinations of food systems which cohabit, interact and develop over time, connections between different sectors or actors at different scales so as to address different challenges : political, economic and social.  This observation challenges research methods to understand the stakes in all their complexity, without isolating them. 

Several scales

Sustainability must be envisaged at different temporal and spatial scales, and be maintained in the event of scale changes.  Spatial scales because a local and apparently sustainable local system may exert negative effects on its periphery or even on more distant food systems.  This implies, firstly, keeping in mind these different levels even if the current focus is on one of them in particular, and secondly, examining the possibilities of compensation between different levels.  Temporal scales because current commitments must not compromise future sustainability.  Furthermore, different temporal dynamics need to be combined: a year for production, a week for transformation and a day for distribution, with adaptable storage options. Decision scales for critical variables affecting sustainable development of the food system. © INRA
Decision scales for critical variables affecting sustainable development of the food system © INRA

The need for global indicators

Numerous methods and equally numerous indicators are available to evaluate impacts, but when taken separately they are inadequate to cover all the challenges concerning the sustainability of nutritional styles.  One method to analyse environmental impacts, whose use is currently seeing considerable development, is life cycle assessment (LCA).  Its methodological framework has now broadened to integrate economic and social dimensions.  Improvements to LCA and its application to complex systems such as food still raise research questions, both generically regarding the implementation of evaluation (functional unit, uncertainties, allocations, etc.) and more applied areas linked to different objects (agriculture, sectors, national territorial approaches).

Multicriteria analysis is able to establish links between the different challenges faced, even if their large number and different  dimensions will hamper an objective aggregation and political arbitration may prove necessary.


Infrastructure needs

The development of research and simulation or experimental studies requires methodologies that can gather and process large quantities of data: databases on products and on unit transformation steps, while integrating the domestic practices of consumers. There is also a lack of longitudinal quantitative analyses on consumption in southern countries, as well as precise quantifications of losses and waste and their causes. It is necessary to perform repeated, large-scale consumption studies involving underprivileged populations in both developed and developing countries. As a minimum, they must generate data that will enable combined approaches to health and environmental dimensions. These studies need to be harmonised at an international level in terms of both their methods and the identification of products.