What is sustainability?

By Chloe Lo

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is to meet our “needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. [1] The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has formed 17 Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. [2] The general public typically thinks of food sustainability as social justice, animal welfare, and organic or “natural” products. Yet sustainable food production includes more than that: climate change, land system change, use of freshwater, biodiversity, and nitrogen and phosphorus cycling. [3]

Why is it important?

Food sustainability is generating enough food at a productivity level that can maintain the human population. [4] Why is this so important today? The world population is projected to increase to 10 billion people by 2050; however, It’s estimated that over 3 billion people in the world are malnourished with many more eating a low-quality diet. [3] How can we

A dirt road in the middle of a sunny field with trees.

keep up with the increasing food demands while providing access to high-quality, nutritious foods without hurting our planet? Currently, food production accounts for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock contributing to almost half of that. [3] It also utilizes a great deal of land and fresh water, threatening species with extinction and “dead zones” in lakes and coastal areas. [3]

How can we do our part?

It may sound like this global issue is too large for an individual to make any meaningful impact or we have to radically modify our lifestyle in order to effect change. But eating sustainably doesn’t have to be all or nothing; we can do our part by making small but meaningful modifications.

  1. Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, unsaturated oils, and plant-based proteins. These are all very sustainable foods, especially beans and lentils, meaning that they have a low carbon and water footprint. Plus they are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, lowering risk of morbidity and mortality.

  2. Eat a low to moderate amount of poultry and seafood. Generally, fish and mollusks have a relatively small climate footprint, but it also depends on the fishing practices. [5] Check scientific-based resources like Seafood Watch to see if your seafood is being harvested sustainably.

  3. Cut out or cut back on red meats. In general, beef and lamb have the highest carbon footprint per gram of protein because they require a lot of land, water, and energy to maintain, while plant-based sources have the lowest impact. [5] Completely eliminating red meat from the diet is not realistic for everyone, so try replacing it once or twice a week with seafood or plant-based proteins like legumes. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can try incorporating insects into your diet, an unpopular but great source of protein!

  4. Reduce your food waste. 60 million tons of food produced just in the US go to waste each year. [4] Learn how to properly store your food to make them last longer; use the “first-in, first-out” (FIFO) method of using your ingredients; freeze, ferment, or preserve foods that are about to go bad; plan your shopping trip before you leave; and try your hand at composting! Also, beware of “use by”, “best by”, and “sell by” dates – they’re not the same as the expiration date and have different shelf lives.

  5. Seasonal vs. local vs. shipped produce. Shopping for your region’s seasonal fruits and vegetables ensures that the food is not traveling too far, picked closer to ripeness, and is supporting the community farmer. However, eating “local” produce is not always the best for the environment. Especially in the northern region of the U.S. where heated greenhouses are necessary to sustain crops during the winter, shipping produce from California or Florida has a lower carbon footprint.

  6. Choose your dairy alternatives wisely. Milk substitutes have lower gas emissions, land use, and water use compared to cow milk; however, they are not created equal. In general, oat milk and soy milk have the lowest environmental impact, while almond and rice milk require a great deal of water. [5]


  1. Sustainability | academic impact. (n.d.). Retrieved March 02, 2021, from,development%20needs%2C%20but%20with%20the

  2. Food security and nutrition and sustainable agriculture ... sustainable development knowledge platform. (n.d.). Retrieved March 02, 2021, from,rural%20poverty%2C%20ensuring%20healthy%20lifestyles%2C

  3. Sustainability. (2019, September 05). Retrieved March 02, 2021, from

  4. Morawicki, R. O., & Díaz González, D. J. (2018). Food Sustainability in the Context of Human Behavior. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 91(2), 191–196.

  5. Moskin, J., Plumer, B., Lieberman, R., Weingart, E., & Popovich, N. (2019, April 30). Your questions about food and climate change, answered. Retrieved March 05, 2021, from