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What is a sustainable food systems approach?


The Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) Approach Knowledge Hub is a knowledge platform providing policymakers and other food systems stakeholders, easy and user-friendly access to all materials produced by the One Planet Network Sustainable Food Systems Programme, related to the SFS Approach. This knowledge Hub will help countries to develop and implement National Pathways for Food Systems Transformation and other international, national and sub-national commitments, by increasing their technical capacities and knowledge on how to adopt a SFS approach.

“A sustainable food systems approach considers food systems in their totality, taking into account the interconnections and trade-offs among the different elements of food systems, as well as their diverse actors (from national to subnational), activities, drivers and outcomes. It seeks to simultaneously maximize societal outcomes across environmental, social (including health) and economic dimensions.”

One Planet network’s Sustainable Food Systems Programme

An Integrated Approach


A Sustainable Food Systems Approach considers all relevant causal variables of any given food systems problem, and all social, environmental, and economic impacts of possible solutions. It investigates underlying causes, as well as possible interlinkages and unforeseen consequences. While there may be potential tensions between key priorities of food systems, such as inclusive poverty reduction, increased agricultural productivity, improved nutrition, and enhanced environmental sustainability, there are also opportunities to simultaneously accomplish multiple objectives.

A Sustainable Food Systems Approach can help identify such trade-offs and synergies. It can help facilitate the coordination needed to manage trade-offs and possibly turn them into  “trade-ons“ or synergies, by choosing the right mix of policies and practices. For example, this can lead to the development of dietary recommendations that – in addition to health and nutritional aspects – also take into account the environmental, economic, and social sustainability dimensions.

A Sustainable Food Systems Approach to policymaking and implementation is the design and/or implementation of integrated interventions planned to optimize societal outcomes (environmental, social and economic), resulting from enhanced cooperation between food systems actors and addressing the drivers and trends of both unsustainable food production and consumption (UNEP, 2019).

Example of taking a SFS approach

Through enhanced multi-stakeholder collaboration, governments, farmers and other food systems stakeholders can develop and implement integrated food strategies to achieve simultaneously economic, environment and social outcomes.

For instance, by diversifying food production with nutrient-rich foods and supporting environmentally friendly agriculture practices. In particular, traditional or indigenous crops and techniques can help reduce biodiversity loss and carbon footprint, which can bring environmental and economic benefits while also contributing to food security and good nutrition of consumers.

In recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of Sustainable Food Systems Multi-Stakeholder Mechanisms (SFS MSMs) at national, regional and sub-national levels. They are participatory decision-making mechanisms that bring together all food systems actors to advise, develop or implement policies that promote sustainable food systems. Evidence shows that SFS MSMs that are truly inclusive, enjoy political and financial support, and have adopted good governance principles and processes are well-positioned to embody the SFS approach and develop holistic food policies that better meet the needs of people and the planet.


Thanks to the SFS approach adopted by the Gent en Garde Food Policy Council (FPC), the city of Ghent is championing local, sustainable and tasty food. The aim is to achieve “green wins” all along the local food chain: from production, processing and distribution to consumption and waste management

Since 2014, over 42 schools have received training in how to develop community garden beds on their campus; 240 parents and teachers have participated in these workshops.
Another initiative – Veggie Day – has significantly changed the eating habits of local residents. Some 7 per cent of residents in Ghent are currently vegetarian, compared with a Belgian average of 2.3 per cent. Ghent was the first city in the world to introduce a vegetarian day.
Local food availability has been increased through the establishment of suburban farmers markets and a new logistics platform for professional buyers. This platform facilitates fair and transparent short food supply chains between various local stakeholders.
The Foodsavers project has redistributed over 2,000 tonnes of food to those in need. It is estimated that this redistribution of food has saved around 2,540 tonnes of CO2 emissions, while also playing an important role in alleviating poverty. The project also provides employment to residents who have trouble finding jobs in the regular labour market, and enables better access to healthy food for those in need.
The school meals initiative brings healthy and sustainable food to all children in the city schools. Around 10 per cent of EUR 1 school meals are given to those who need financial support, providing Ghent’s youngest residents with access to healthy and nutritious food.
Disclaimer: The designations employed and the presentation of the material in this knowledge hub do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Sustainable Food Systems Programme concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. Moreover, the views expressed do not necessarily represent the decision or the stated policy of the Sustainable Food Systems Programme and its members, nor does citing of trade names or commercial processes constitute endorsement.