What is a sustainable diet?

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If you want to eat what is best both for yourself and for a sustainable future, then what should you eat?

What is a sustainable diet?

There are many differing views on this. Some stand on the barricades for a meat-free diet. Others believethat we need to take advantage of the ability of livestock to consume grass and other raw materials that we humans cannot eat. Some say that we should eat locally produced food, while others point to the obligations we have towards developing countries.

There is no clear answer to this question.  The UN has defined a sustainable diet as: A diet that has a low environmental impact, that contributes to food and nutritional safety and to a healthy life for current and future generations. This is complex. We will get different answers depending on what we ask about and who we ask. The same applies to research. Scientists provide us with insights based on their own research and their own field of study.

Your daily intake

Let us start with what the body needs in the way of vitamins and minerals. Professor of Nutrition Birger Svihus says the following:

Birger Svihus, professor ved NMBU.

Gisle Bjørneby @ UMB
– A sustainable diet for the body is quite simply a varied diet. You need to make sure that your diet includes all the essential nutrients your body needs. Vegetables are healthy because they contain a number of essential substances, whilst they contain little energy in the form of carbohydrates or fats. Fish, milk and eggs provide us with essential substances of which there is little or none in vegetables, such as Vitamins D and B12, Iodine and long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids, says Svihus.

Many people are keen to reduce their meat consumption, in line with recommendations from the Directorate of Health. Some people choose to have one meat-free day a week, and some choose to take a more drastic step – such as vegans. A vegan diet means that one does not eat food of animal origin.

“It's quite possible to live as a vegan, but you need to find out what it means. You must take vitamin supplements, among other things”, says Svihus.

More people want a vegetarian diet

No doubt your diet can be more sustainable if you eat more of plant-based foods – especially if they are produced in Norway.

Legumes such as peas and broad beans yield approximately 1/10th of the greenhouse gas emissions that meat yields, if we measure per kg. of protein produced. The figuresapply to production in Norway. Results from the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NMBU) show that plant products also score well on most other criteria that form the basis of a sustainability analysis.

"There is a growing interest among consumers for replacing meat with plant-based products. New processing technology has made it possible to make products from plant protein that resemble and taste like meat. Many more of these, and other plant-based products, have recently become available in Norwegian grocery stores”, says Professor in Plant Sciences, Anne Kjersti Uhlen. This is a positive development, but there is a catch to all of this: Most of these products are imported, or are based on imported plant protein raw materials. 

Possible to increase plant production in Norway

Professor Anne Kjersti Uhlen is studying the possibility of increasing production of plant protein in Norway. She says that there is a potential to produce significantly more of legumes such as peas and broad beans on Norwegian acreage than is the case today. 

Anne Kjersti Uhlen.

Gro Elden
“Although Norway has a great deal of agricultural acreage that is only suitable for grass production, there are large areas of southeastern Norway that are suitable for the production of protein crops such as peas and broad beans, and oil crops such as oilseed rape and turnip rape.” Today, these areas are being used mainly for grain production”, says Anne Kjersti Uhlen.

She is referring to the fact that new technology provides opportunities to utilise protein from Norwegian-produced grain and to use it in mixed products together with legumes. Such products will also contain other components such as fibre, vitamins and minerals.

“We are now working on calculating how much plant protein we can produce on Norwegian agricultural land that can be used for food, and how the environmental accounting is looking for plant-based food products with high protein content. Our preliminary figures show that this possibility is greater than what we had expected. A Norwegian focus on protein crops for food can contribute to both a more sustainable diet that promotes health, and to increased opportunities for value creation in agriculture and the food industry”, she says.

Long-distance food

This presents a new issue. Import. Food that travels far yields significantly more emissions. And it is actually the case that, even though we have the opportunity to buy Norwegian apples, we import about 13.4 million apples annually. This shows that we as consumers need to have a greater awareness of this. If we are to live sustainably, we must buy Norwegian vegetables and fruit when they are available.

Also animals are given imported food. Today, soya is imported for use as feed. The researchers have looked at how we can replace soya with other sources of animal feed, and solutions they have found in the ocean and in the forest. One project which has been given the appropriate name Foods of Norway, is led by Professor Margareth Overland at NMBU. Here, researchers have found that trees, seaweed and kelp are well suited to feed production. In addition, they use residue raw materials from fish, chicken and pigs as animal feed. That means that they give the animals food that is not suitable for human consumption.

What's best for the animals

Animal welfare is yet another argument for a diet based on plant food. But what exactly is good animal welfare? Veterinarian and Head of Department Olav Reksen says this:

Professor Olav Reksen.

Håkon Sparre
“Animal welfare is about several things, such as that the animals have free access to fresh water and a diet that maintains good health and well-being. That they stay healthy, and get quick treatment when they are sick. And that they should feel safe and well, avoid fear and stress and have enough space to move and behave naturally. Animal welfare is a major field of research at our university, and we are continually working on new ways of measuring and improving animal welfare”, says Reksen.

He believes that most of our animals live a life that is worth living.

“All life that is lived involves a certain amount of suffering,” he states. He does not necessarily believe that ruminants have a better life than Norwegian cows living in our modern, loose housing systems.

 “But of course, everything can and will be improved. The paradox is that the more efficient the production of milk and meat is per animal, the less of a burden we see on the climate, says Reksen, and refers to The FAO report “Tackling climate change through livestock”

“The Norwegian livestock production is efficient and results in little pollution. The animals have good health and therefore we use the least amount of antibiotics per produced kilogram of meat and milk in Europe,” said Reksen and refers to the studies carried out by State of the Environment Norway .

Less meat in Norway – more import

But are people willing to reduce their consumption of meat? Studies show that, on the contrary, we are steadily increasing our consumption of meat on a global basis.

“If we reduce meat production in Norway, we will have to import – if we do not reduce consumption at the same time. Then we risk getting meat with more antibiotics, more pollution and poorer food safety than we have today”, states Olav Reksen. “That would be a lose-lose project”.



Laila Aass is a researcher in the field of livestock production. She highlights food safety as a key issue if we are to contribute to sustainable agriculture. It is possible that there will be nine billion people on the earth in 2050, and that climate change will create considerable problems for food production. The United Nations urges all countries to safeguard their food safety by producing as much food as possible on national agricultural land.

Senior scientist Laila Aass.

Janne Brodin
“If we are to meet this challenge, the composition of diets will have to vary widely from country to country." In Norway, we have smaller areas on which to cultivate food, but good conditions for animal husbandry with locally-produced fodder. Here, around 70% of beef is produced in combination with milk, as opposed to most other countries in the world. “This type of production generates lower emissions because it produces more food compared with the use of animal feed”, says Laila Aass.

Sustainable food production is about more than climate, it must also provide food security. The studies pointing out that beef is to be cut, have a global perspective and do not take into account the great variety that exists between countries and continents when it comes to the natural basis for food production. “We do not have the opportunity to grow soy and other protein crops to a large extent here, so we have to import cereals every year also to human food in addition to what we grow ourselves,” says Aass.

She points out that if, in the future, we have to prioritize grain for human consumption due to global food crises, meat production from pigs and chickens will probably have to be reduced considerably.

“Here the ruminants, i.e. cattle and sheep, play a key role in maintaining the national food supply of protein and energy, precisely because they can live exclusively on grass. Milk and meat from ruminants are the only types of livestock production where Norway has an inherent advantage for producing a large volume of nutritious food”, says Aass. She explains this with the need for more ingredients to make grain feed for mono gastric animals, such as chickens and pigs.

Today's chickens and pigs are demanding eaters when it comes to the composition of the feed. There is the greatest percentage of carbohydrates in the grain feed, that is to say corn and maize.

“It is not certain that we can allow ourselves to have such demanding mono gastric animals in the future, or as many of them as we have now. It's important that we have more legs to stand on. We need to produce as much as possible of both plants and livestock based on Norwegian acreage. Then we stand stronger in emergencies”, says Aass.


Published 7. March 2019 - 15:32 - Updated 7. March 2019 - 15:33