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

Towards more sustainable food supplies

Our food supplies are not sustainable

Data in the literature concur regarding the observation that western-type food systems, and clearly their global extension, are not sustainable in terms of resource consumption, their impacts on ecosystems and their effects on health (overweight, obesity and associated pathologies). DuALIne identified the critical points concerning this non-sustainability.

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

Family lunch © MAITRE Christophe
Family lunch © MAITRE Christophe
Consumption in excess of physiological requirements

Changes in food consumption on a planetary scale can have negative effects on sustainability.  Indeed, the retrospective analysis indicated that the total quantity of calories ingested, and the proportion of those of animal origin, always increase in line with economic development and then reach a plateau.  These dietary transitions are happening increasingly rapidly in emerging countries.  They are not linked to an increase in physiological requirements.  However, this convergence in change patterns is only observed for the major food groups: in a context of equivalent economic development, variations of cultural and historical origin can be seen in different countries; for example, regarding the consumption of dairy products in Europe.

A lack of flexibility in the food sectors

The predominant food system in industrialised countries is based on a limited range of agricultural raw materials.  It is the fractionation and reformulation of these raw materials that generate the diversity of foods available to consumers.  To achieve this, the agrifood industries have developed highly specialised transformation processes that are increasingly restricted by criteria relative to health safety and quality (both organoleptic and nutritional) and which allow them little margin for manoeuvre.  These industries will nevertheless be forced to develop more flexible and more robust systems if they are to adjust to environmental constraints, climatic events and also a greater scarcity of energy and water resources.  The design of these processes (fractionation, phase changes, etc.) needs to be reviewed, as does the industry's logistical organisation (storage, transport and the cold chain).

Too much waste

Several sources have estimated that global levels of losses and  waste can reach approximately 30% of the initial production intended for human food.  In northern countries, this mainly results from waste downstream in the food chain (storage, inappropriate portion sizes, etc.), while in southern countries, losses are concentrated during the post-harvest phase (pests, climatic incidents, etc.).  DuALIne highlighted some research opportunities which differed as a function of the regions of the world and scales under consideration.

Transport and supply systems

In urbanised societies, supply modes and the transport of foodstuffs may be factors for non-sustainability.  During the project, these factors raised issues of local sustainable development, the introduction of farming into towns and travel by consumers to reach retail outlets, before considering the consequences of these choices on dietary modes. Finally, they raised questions regarding the spatial and nutritional exclusion of certain populations and the capacity for resistance of supplies to towns in the event of major shocks or crises.

Volatile prices

Several factors can increase the volatility of food prices: a rapid growth in demand for agricultural products for food or energy purposes, and constraints on the exploitation of fossil resources and protection of the environment.  Two other phenomena should also be considered in the longer term.  Firstly, large-scale land acquisitions, such as those currently being seen in southern countries, which tend to result in the development of industrial farming with salaried employees.  And secondly, the proliferation of quality standards in northern countries because of health, environmental and social requirements, which may act as so many non-tariff barriers to trade and also have major effects on the types of agriculture practiced in developing countries.

A few reference points

Food is one of the three sectors that exerts the most impact on the environment in Europe, alongside transport and housing.

The international transportation of agricultural and food products increased three-fold between 1975 and 1995.

Food losses are estimated at between a third and half of production output.

In 2009, the planet counted a billion people who were undernourished.

500 million people were deemed obese in the world in 2008, including a third of adults in the USA and 37 % of women in South Africa.