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Published: August 3, 2023

Beyond the Environment: The Pillars of Sustainability

Key takeaways

    1. Sustainability is more than just being environmentally friendly; it includes four essential pillars: nutrition, economics, society, and the environment.
    2. Sustainable diets should provide us with all essential nutrients, while balancing between nutrition and affordability.
    3. Nutrient rich foods may be more sustainable foods when considering the inputs required to produce high quality nutrients like protein, instead of looking at the weight of product. 
    4. Food choices are deeply influenced by cultural norms and preferences, highlighting the significance of societal aspects in sustainability.
    5. The environment remains a concern in sustainability, meaning resources should be repurposed and used as efficiently as possible.
    6. A holistic and open-minded approach is needed - moving beyond mere buzzwords and making sustainability a tangible reality.

Sustainability - a term we often hear but may not fully grasp its depth and significance. When we think of sustainability, it's natural to see images of environmental conservation and eco-friendly practices. While these are important, true sustainability is much more and includes four essential pillars: nutrition, economics, society, and the environment. Let's take a closer look at each pillar and understand how they shape our food choices and the impact they have on our well-being and the planet.

Pillar 1: Nutrition

At the heart of sustainability lies nutrition. Sustainable diets are those that provide us with all the essential nutrients we need to thrive, both today and for future generations. It's not just about filling our stomachs; it's about nourishing our bodies optimally, in other words it’s about quality, not just quantity.

The challenge is when we consider the fact that nutrient-rich diets often come at a higher environmental cost. Foods packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and proteins can strain our wallets and take more resources to produce - but this doesn’t mean it isn’t sustainable - quite the opposite. Nutrient dense foods instead may usually be more efficient when looking at grams of nutrient content produced (e.g. environmental cost per grams of protein) instead of grams of food produced. Still, as we try to cultivate sustainable diets, we should also find a delicate balance between nutrition and affordability.

Pillar 2: Economics

Economics waltzes hand in hand with nutrition, shaping the choices we make in our food journey. For sustainable diets to be truly attainable, they must be economically affordable, especially considering that more than 50% of the global population cannot afford to meet their daily protein requirements. Balancing nutrition and cost is not only a challenge many of us face in our daily lives, but one raising a big concern - how can we make nutrient-rich foods more accessible and affordable for everyone?

Pillar 3: Society

Food is not just sustenance; it's a celebration of our heritage and a reflection of our identity. Hence, the societal aspect of sustainability cannot be overlooked. Our food choices are deeply influenced by cultural norms and preferences. Often, foods that align with societal norms are viewed as socially acceptable, while others might be rejected, regardless of their nutritional or environmental value. Added to this that all agricultural production contribute to jobs and influence livelihoods, it’s clear that we need to encourage diverse and inclusive food patterns that resonate with various cultural backgrounds.

Pillar 4: Environment

When we think of sustainability, the environment is the first pillar that comes to mind, and still the main limiting factor - we have one Planet that we need to not only protect and steward, but leave in a better condition than we found it for the next generation. This requires strategies such as reducing waste, repurposing resources, improving efficiency in agricultural production and making use of diverse species and production systems. In essence, it also means using the little resources we have to produce the best-quality nutrients and largest variety of products.


Sustainability is not a one-dimensional concept; it's an intricate tapestry that weaves together nutrition, economics, society, and the environment. It requires embracing a holistic approach, staying adaptable to changing circumstances and technologies, and being open-minded to new solutions. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, but through informed choices and creativity, we can shape a more sustainable future – one that balances the needs of our bodies and the planet. Let's make sustainability a tangible reality, moving beyond mere buzzwords.


Drewnowski, A. 2018. Measures and metrics of sustainable diets with a focus on milk, yogurt, and dairy products, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 76, Issue 1, January 2018, Pages 21–28, https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nux063

Drewnowski, A. 2021 Adjusting for protein quality by food source may affect nutrient density metrics, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 79, Issue 10, October 2021, Pages 1134–1144, https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuaa117

Ederer et al, 2023. Economic of protein p25-26. GOALSciences. https://goalsciences.org/fileadmin/Documentary/01_GOAL-SCIENCES_DOCUMENTARY_Economics_of_Protein.pdf.pdf

Thompson et al., 2023. Ecosystem management using livestock: embracing diversity and respecting ecological principles, Animal Frontiers, Volume 13, Issue 2, April 2023, Pages 28–34, https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfac094


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Mrs Enrike Maree (BScAgric)