Get involved: sustainable food systems


With this month's CSEN spotlight on sustainable food systems, the External Liaison Team dive into understanding food security and how this can be achieved in a way which doesn't compromise future social and environmental capacity to produce food.



The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) defines sustainable food systems as striking the perfect balance between economic, social and environmental sustainability. Balancing economic needs (jobs and income), with social requirements (equal and affordable access to food and nutrition, animal welfare, cultural needs) and environmental impacts (carbon and water footprints, soil quality, animal and plant health, biodiversity and toxicity) is a complex task, and one that requires multifaceted solutions.


On a global and national level, improving supply chain efficiencies and optimising the use of agricultural land are two of the biggest ways in which food systems can be made more sustainable. Cutting costs and emissions through streamlining international food transport and intercropping can increase economic efficiencies and mitigate environmental impacts. Understanding the carbon and environmental footprint of food is critical to addressing the huge environmental costs of food systems (book club recommendation: How Bad Are Bananas?).


Similarly, a shift towards more sustainable diets is widely recognised as one of the strongest potential contributors to future sustainable food systems as well as combating climate change. This includes eating foods that are locally produced, in season, and cutting down on meat and dairy consumption. The Climate Change Committee assumes a 20% reduction in meat and dairy consumption on average across the UK in order to achieve our Carbon Budge 6 target.


Transforming food systems in this way requires coordinated policy action – we encourage CSEN members to think about their own food consumption, engage in departmental conversations and to think about how their work might feed into this overarching goal.


On a localised and individual level, reducing carbon and resource costs of food can begin to contribute to the achievement of sustainable food systems. Increasing awareness of the benefits of shopping locally and buying seasonal fruit and vegetables mean that many people are already tuned into the ways in which they can contribute to a more sustainable food system.


Whilst eating more sustainably is known to be good for the planet, it can also be good for our health. Milner et al. (2015) estimate that we could reduce UK emissions from food by 17% just by meeting our daily dietary requirements (and extend life expectancy by an average of 8 months at the same time!). Food sharing apps and redistribution programmes tap into the social dimensions of food waste, whilst community gardens and allotments allow for integration of the social and environmental requirements of sustainable food systems.


We encourage CSEN members to consider the ways in which their individual actions might contribute to sustainable food systems.


City Harvest

A growing number of not-for-profit organisations redirect surplus fresh food from retailers and manufacturers away from landfills to charities and food banks across the UK. City Harvest, a London based social enterprise that CSEN have an established relationship with, have redistributed over 8,000 tonnes of surplus food and delivered over 22,000 meals to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food banks, children’s programmes, centres for the elderly and refuges for women experiencing domestic violence. Not only does City Harvest reduce food waste and help to feed those in need, but the reduction of surplus food collection and disposal costs directly mitigates greenhouse gas release – so far, their work has prevented the release of an estimated 32,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases!


Get involved

The CSEN External Liaison Team would like to share some great opportunities for members to get involved:


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If you're interested in contributing to the CSEN Blog, get in touch with us at environment.network@faststream.civilservice.gov.uk. We'd love to hear your ideas!