No land-use transition without a food transition

How do we organise agriculture in an environmentally friendly and climate-resilient way? How do we feed ourselves in a way that is good for our health and the planet? How do we harmonise forest protection and sustainable timber use? And how do we utilise the available land against the backdrop of competing demands? In short: How can we achieve a turnaround in agriculture to protect the climate and biodiversity? The Oeko-Institut's policy brief answers these and other questions.
  • Dr. Jenny Teufel
    Senior Researcher / Head of Subdivision Sustainable Food Systems & Lifestyles Sustainable Products & Material Flows

Food should be healthy − for both people and the planet.

There is that saying, “You are what you eat”. But our food choices also shape our environment, influence the climate and impact biodiversity. The way we eat today has a significant impact on the global environment, contributing 20 to 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and up to 80 percent of biodiversity loss. The consumption of livestock-based foods in particular causes significant damage to the environment and climate. Consumers in Germany currently consume roughly 52 kilograms of meat per year as well as a range of other livestock-based foods such as almost 80 kilograms of fresh dairy products. There is a need to drastically reduce the consumption of livestock-based products and replace these with plant-based foods.

The Planetary Health Diet

A varied and healthy diet should of course always be guaranteed, and this can be achieved within the planetary carrying capacity. The EAT Lancet Commission proposed a Planetary Health Diet, which has also become the basis for the German federal government's nutrition strategy currently under development. The Planetary Health Diet is designed to enable all people worldwide to enjoy a diet that meets all their basic needs while respecting planetary carrying capacities.

In our view, it is not yet entirely clear how the Planetary Health Diet can be comprehensively implemented. Among other aspects, there is still a need for more research on the current state of nutrition and on various plant-based protein sources and their potential. At the same time, our food value chains need to be made more resilient in order to establish food security. Regional supply structures and a high level of diversity in crop cultivation and marketing are crucial to this end.

Approaches to a more sustainable diet

What's on the menu?

Nobody wants to ban meat consumption, but we do need to drastically reduce it − from around 52 kilograms per person and year to between 15 and 30 kilograms. In turn, the plant-based portion of the diet needs to increase significantly, by adding more pulses, fresh fruit and vegetables for example. The festive Sunday roast has its place, but vegetarian and vegan dishes can greatly enrich the menu. Creative players in community catering as well as gastronomy start-ups are already showing how this can be achieved.

No more throwing out!

There should be a focus on avoiding food waste. This can be accomplished through changes in consumption, for example. However, it is not just about consumers doing a better job at planning their shopping and thus preventing food from ending up in the trash. Along the entire value chain and at various stages of the food life cycle far too much food spoils or is thrown out. There are many ways to counteract this. Technical solutions for improved food preservation, for example, are just as sensible as adapted retail guidelines. The orange is not big enough? The pepper is not red enough? The cucumber is not straight enough? That shouldn't stop us from eating such otherwise perfectly good food. And there should also be other ways of utilising
lower quality foods than to throw them into the bin.

Regionality entails sustainability

When it comes to more sustainable diets, time and again there is a focus on regionality. If it goes hand in hand with smart logistics concepts, transport routes are shortened, less infrastructure is needed and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. Moreover, a regional diet makes it easier to reuse raw materials such as those used as transport aids, to avoid food waste and to preserve cultural landscapes of high biodiversity value. Focussing on regional, plant-based and organic food goes a long way towards supporting the necessary transformation. This is because it not only goes hand in hand with a more resilient food system, but also enables consumers to democratically shape their diet and experience a sense of self-efficacy in the process, such as in “prosumer” schemes. An example would be cooperatives that supply their members with vegetables.

However, one should not overlook that regionality can also have negative effects. Small-scale cultivation or processing, for example, can result in reduced efficiency. A focus on regional products and value chains should therefore always assure environmental and social added value.

Motivation is good. More time is better.

New research has shown that the way we organise our diets depends primarily on social norms and emotions, but also on routines and convenience. While it is our view that more research is needed in this field, the findings indicate that the amount of time we can devote to nutrition and our opportunities for self-regulation have a greater influence on restructuring our diet than aspects such as motivation, attitude or nutrition literacy. Plant-based foods, for example, must therefore be easily accessible and the altered diet should not be more laborious.

So what does this mean in practical terms? The instruments

Better public procurement, more knowledge

There are numerous valuable approaches to sustainable nutrition.

There is great potential in public procurement. Communal catering in schools, carevfacilities, hospitals and canteens could be made significantly more sustainable andvhealthier. Contract award criteria for schools or state institutions, for example, could conceivably be designed such that they foster sustainable nutrition and circular agriculture. Quotas for certified organic products and criteria for biodiversity-promoting procurement − such as a focus on foods with a low environmental footprint − would also be useful. To this end, a suitable financial framework must be in place.

Focus on plants!

What consumers buy and eat is hugely influential. We therefore recommend an ongoing education campaign on sustainable nutrition and preventing food waste. This would include, among other aspects, the integration of nutritional knowledge into school curricula and information provision via digital channels. At the same time, there should be a much greater focus on plant-based diets than there has been to date. Where consumers buy food, what food they buy and how they prepare it − all of this can indeed be influenced in nutritionally relevant settings such as supermarkets or canteens. Examples would be the prominent placement of plant-based foods and associated advertising efforts, an appealing design of portion sizes and recipes, or favourable pricing.

Federal programme for plant-focussed nutrition

Political instruments can also help to encourage consumers to eat more fruit, vegetables and pulses. The objective of achieving a plant-focussed diet should be integrated into political strategies and programmes, at both national and local levels. For example, a federal programme for plant-focussed nutrition could make a significant contribution by promoting research projects with a practical focus, urban development concepts with a focus on plant-based nutrition, or knowledge transfer to relevant stakeholders, such as those in the “out of home” food sector. Other important actions include the integration of plant-based nutrition into the training and professional development of chefs and the development and expansion of plant-
based value chains.

Support is needed − in the region and along the value chain

Moreover, if regional value chains are to be established, these will require ramped-up support, which could come, for example, in the form of model eco-regions, “food cities” or the establishment of “organic cities”. It is also valuable to support decentralised processing companies such as mills, dairies and bakeries, as well as the food pre-processing sector catering to the needs of commercial kitchens.

In addition, consumers should be well aware of the impacts on the environment and climate exerted by the different food categories. Such awareness could be fostered by means of environmental labelling or information on the positive health effects of a more plant-based diet. The latter is significant because fears of adverse health outcomes still prevent some consumers from lowering their intake of livestock-based products. A mandatory national label that covers climate, animal welfare and health aspects is one of the core recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on "Nutrition in Transition" (Bürgerrat “Ernährung im Wandel”), which were presented in January 2024.

Further information on sustainable nutrition

  • All publications of the STErn project entitled “Bausteine für die Transformation zu einem nachhaltigen Ernährungssystem” (Building blocks for the transformation to a sustainable food system) for the German Environment Agency (UBA); German only
  • STErn project website: Socio-ecological Transformation of the Food System
  • Publication as part of the STErn project: Die Rolle des Finanzmarkts für die sozial-ökologische Transformation des Ernährungssystems (The role of the financial market in the socio-ecological transformation of the food system; German only)
  • Model Germany Circular Economy brochure for WWF Germany: A comprehensive circular economy for Germany 2045
  • Model Germany Circular Economy study for WWF Germany: Modellierung und Folgenabschätzung einer Circular Economy in 9 Sektoren in Deutschland (Modelling and impact assessment of a circular economy in nine sectors in Germany; German only)
  • Working paper as part of the TRAFO 3.0 project: Umweltwirkungen fleischbetonter Ernährungsweisen, eine zusammenfassende Auswertung wissenschaftlicher Studien (Environmental impact of meat-based diets, a summary and evaluation of scientific studies; German only)
  • Policy paper as part of the TRAFO 3.0 project: Gestaltung des Strukturwandels in der Schweinefleischproduktion – zur Zukunft von Schweinezucht und Schweinehaltung in Deutschland (Shaping structural change in pork production − on the future of pig breeding and pig farming in Germany; German only)
  • Short paper as part of the TRAFO 3.0 project: Die Bedeutung von Fleisch im Lebensmitteleinzelhandel für eine Transformation im Sinne einer nachhaltigen Produktion und eines nachhaltigen Konsums von Fleisch (The importance of meat in food retailing for a transformation towards the sustainable production and consumption of meat; German only)
  • Short paper as part of the TRAFO 3.0 project: Der deutsche Export von Fleisch und seine Bedeutung für eine Transformation im Sinne einer nachhaltigen Produktion und eines nachhaltigen Konsums von Fleisch (German meat exports and their significance for a transformation towards the sustainable production and consumption of meat; German only)
  • Final report for the German Environment Agency (UBA): Sichtbarmachung versteckter Umweltkosten der Landwirtschaft am Beispiel von Milchproduktionssystemen (Visualising the hidden environmental costs of agriculture using the example of dairying systems; German only)

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