Challenges for a sustainable and healthy diet


Food is doubtlessly one of the main cross-cutting issues affecting many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The homogenisation of consumption habits and production methods brought about by globalisation has had severe social and environmental consequences. Promoting sustainable agriculture and food education has had a positive effect on both our planet and our health.


How we produce and consume food is probably the most impactful everyday activity in achieving the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015. Food systems are defined as all activities, actors and institutions from food production to food consumption.

Food systems can be as diverse as territories and people producing and consuming food. However, despite the diversity of existing territorial food systems unique to each environment, a globalised, homogeneous and homogenising system has expanded in recent years.

Such a system has substantial consequences for the health of people and ecosystems. On the one hand, production systems, through the promotion of monocultures, industrialised agriculture, the technological package of the Green Revolution¹, kilometric food and sales in supermarkets, have had harmful effects on the sustainability of the planet and the health and rights of agricultural workers.


Globalisation has increased problems connected to food production, such as energy inefficiency, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, soil degradation and water pollution and overexploitation.

In addition, mass production systems have also increased the exploitation of the people who produce the food, the risks they suffer from pesticide contamination or their economic difficulties in making a living from farming. These issues have led to the expulsion of rural families and, as a consequence, the abandonment of rural areas and of the management of our natural environment, which makes it more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as drought, and with them more prone to fires, for example.

Beyond the aspects related to the exploitation and management of the countryside, the diets resulting from this production model are causing harmful effects on our health. There has been a shift towards ultra-processed foods, rich in saturated fats, and diets with high animal protein and sugar content. This change has led to a global increase in malnutrition and the number of diseases associated with food and diets (e.g. type II diabetes, colon cancer, coronary heart disease).

Today, almost half of the world’s population suffers from some form of malnutrition: undernourishment (815 million), overweight (1200 million), obesity (700 million) or micronutrient deficiency (2000 million).

In sum, people’s health and that of the planet are in a clear situation of extreme vulnerability that requires changes in how we produce and consume food.


Considering the current extreme situation concerning food systems, we could highlight the main challenges we have to face to move towards sustainable and healthy food that not only does not add to the degradation of ecosystems and the loss of people’s well-being but also contributes to achieving the SDGs. In my opinion, sustainable and healthy must go hand in hand since what makes the globalised food system unhealthy is social and ecological unsustainability.

The second challenge concerns the design of agricultural systems based on agroecological practices, i.e. those established on the ecological analysis of agroecosystems and allows the development of strategies that mimic nature. Agroecological farming builds on agrobiodiversity and local and traditional knowledge.

Indeed, this is another challenge we face, given that such knowledge is disappearing and the current social and ecological context is not the same as it was eighty years ago. Even so, this knowledge has made it possible to make agriculture a sustainable activity, so we must search for the future keys to sustainability in the dialogue between scientific and traditional knowledge.

The reoccupation of our rural territories also makes it possible to avoid the continuous degradation the rural environment suffered in recent decades and its revitalisation. It also opens a possibility for decongesting the cities. As city populations increase, they become more and more unsustainable and less healthy at the same time. Even so, it is necessary to introduce a fundamental change in such reoccupation: the inclusion of a feminist view of the roles of men and women in the countryside.


In addition to the industrialisation and subordination of agriculture to the rest of the food chain, the invisible and undervalued role to which women were relegated in the countryside was an important factor in rural depopulation. Although their work in family farms was crucial for the survival of a family, their role was not recognised. Furthermore, in a socioeconomic system that remunerates only productive activities, women’s work did not receive any kind of economic compensation.

This fact meant that many women felt imprisoned in their own homes and decided to go to the city, making the social reproduction of the rural environment impossible. Therefore, a crucial challenge in building sustainable and healthy food systems is the development of policies and infrastructures in rural areas that are not blind to women’s needs.

Finally, regarding consumption, promoting food education in schools is decisive. The gap between the rural and urban worlds is so vast that many children do not know where their food comes from or when the different foods we eat are in season.

Per altra banda, és absolutament necessari que des de les polítiques agroalimentàries es generi un ambient alimentari que afavoreixi una alimentació sostenible i saludable, és a dir, polítiques que permetin l’accés per part de les persones consumidores a aliments sans i sostenibles, tant a l’accés físic generant petites botigues o espais de venda justos, com al preu, de manera que els aliments sans o sostenibles no s’enfoquin a un nínxol o grup social concret, sinó a tota la població.

On the other hand, agri-food policies must generate a food environment that favours sustainable and healthy food. In other words, policies must allow consumers access to healthy and sustainable food, both in terms of physical access by creating small shops or fair trade spaces and in terms of price so that the focus of healthy and sustainable food is not on a specific niche or social group, but on the entire population.

¹ The technology package of the Green Revolution consists of hybrid seeds, inorganic fertilisers and pesticides.


Marta G. Rivera is a doctor in Veterinary Science and also in Sociology. She is Ramon y Cajal Research Fellow, Professor and Director of the Chair in Agroecology and Food Systems | UVic-Central University of Catalonia and a member of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO – Spain) and INGENIO | UPV. She is especially interested in alternative agri-food systems and the analysis and application of feminist and commons theories to agri-food research in adaptation to climate change, food security and food sovereignty. She is a member of the editorial team of the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, Journal of Sustainable Development, and Soberanía Alimentaria, Biodiversidad y Culturas. She has participated as a lead author in the UN International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2005-2008) Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change in the chapters Rural Areas (AR5, 2010-2014) and Food Security (SRCCL, 2017-2019), among others.