Building blocks provide accessible introductions to the most important ideas for understanding food system sustainability. Each building block is reviewed by subject experts and includes key definitions, a clear explanation of the idea, and links to curated resources for further learning.
The environmental sustainability of our food production methods, and what kinds of agricultural systems might be compatible with keeping global warming below internationally agreed upon limits, are key topics for sustainable food systems research and policy.
Since the food system is an important emitter of three different greenhouse gases; carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide; greater clarity as to their warming impacts and their consequent contribution to climate change is needed.
The global growth in the production of soy and its use for different types of foods has been, and continues to be, a major contributor to land use change in the Amazon and other regions in South America.
This building block explores the connections between soy, land use change, and discussions on animal- versus plant-based protein sources.
This building block explores key statistics about competing uses for food system resources, focusing on the use of land, crops and wild fish for feeding humans or feeding livestock – a trade-off known as feed-food competition. It also outlines different ways in which people interpret these figures and sets out how these differing perspectives link to broader debates about what we should eat and how we should produce food, particularly concerning what role (if any) livestock should play in the global food system.
The increasing consumption of industrially processed convenience foods, soft drinks, and fast foods has been associated with a rise in non-communicable diseases, overweight and obesity.
This building block explores the concept of ultra-processed food: how it has been defined, and differing views as to whether it is a useful way of thinking about food and its relation to health and wider sustainability concerns.
Last update: 2 Juli, 2019
There has recently been a lot of focus on methane, as it is an important contributor to climate change. The food system is one of the largest emitters of methane, and the gas is particularly associated with ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) and with rice production. Despite its significance as a greenhouse gas, there is also considerable confusion over how we should quantify the climate impacts of methane emissions. This is because there are important differences in how methane and carbon dioxide – the major human-generated greenhouse gas – affect the climate.
This explainer provides an overview of the key points about methane, and addresses some common areas of confusion.
Last update: 11 June, 2019
The concept of efficiency and its relation to food sustainability is defined and valued in different ways. Among those who argue that improved efficiency will lead to greater sustainability, there are different interpretations of what improved efficiency actually means. Others still, view the quest for efficiency itself to be problematic and its relationship with sustainability potentially oxymoronic.
This building block is based on the FCRN report Lean, green, mean, obscene…? What is efficiency? And is it sustainable? It introduces the concept of efficiency and explores its relation to food system sustainability.
Last update: 31 May, 2019
Around one third of the weight of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted1, and around a third of crop calories are lost to the food system during livestock production2. Meanwhile, the global food system causes significant environmental impacts and around 800 million people are undernourished3. This building block examines the following aspects of food loss and waste: mainstream definitions and alternative understandings, global statistics, and ‘hierarchies’ for prevention and treatment.
Last update: 25 March, 2019
Changes in diet and lifestyle can be caused by many factors and can, in turn, cause changes in health. This building block explains what the nutrition transition is and its implications for health and environmental sustainability.
Last update: 12 October, 2018
Agricultural production is responsible for the majority of global land use. The use of land to produce food almost always comes into conflict with goals for the conservation of nature and wildlife.
This building block explains the land sparing-sharing continuum, which encompasses two fundamentally different approaches to balancing goals for food production and biodiversity conservation.
Last update: 14 August, 2018
New approaches to agriculture are required if we are to reduce the environmental impacts of farming while also feeding more people with a sufficient quantity and diversity of nutritious and safe foods.
This building block explains the concept of sustainable intensification.
Last update: 18 June, 2018
People need to be able to obtain and utilise a healthy amount and balance of nutrients. Without this, they can suffer severe impacts to their health and well-being. This building block explains malnutrition and its causes, prevalence and consequences.
Last update: 18 June, 2018
Being able to reliably obtain, consume and metabolise sufficient quantities of safe and nutritious and foods, is essential to human well-being.
This building block explains the meaning of the food security concept.
Last update: 12 March, 2018
The role of animals in food systems, and the degree to which their needs should be accounted for as compared to humans, are ethical issues about which there is both concern and disagreement.
This building block explains what is meant by the concept of animal welfare.
Last update: 15 Dec, 2017
Human use and alteration of land has profound effects on the environment, both locally where it takes place, and at the planetary scale via climate change and other mechanisms.
This building block explains what is meant by land use and land use change, both direct and indirect.
Last update: 06 February, 2018
Many social, economic, moral, and environmental concerns are interconnected and interact with each other through food, and do so in complex ways. In order to understand this, we need to apply a 'systems thinking' approach to food.
This building block explains what is meant by the term 'food system' and provides a brief introduction to the food systems approach.
Last update: 15 Dec, 2017