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Simple ways to eat for the environment
'Sustainability’ is the buzzword of the year – but what does it really mean when it comes to your diet, and is it really possible to eat better for the environment? The answer is yes, there is such a thing as environmentally friendly food, but as with anything to do with science, it’s not all that straightforward. To understand how we can eat better for the planet, we need to understand food sustainability issues and this in turn might make us starting thinking about what we decide to put in our supermarket trollies.
It might be hard to believe that every single one of us makes a million choices that impact the environment every day, but in fact we do, especially when it comes to food. When you’re off to do the food shopping, the top things you think about are most likely price, appearance, taste and convenience. And we all do the same! However, whilst all of these things are also important to us individually, it can mean we are neglecting choices that might in fact be more environmentally friendly. Below we will explain what sustainable food actually is, what sustainable foods look like and what the deal is with eating less meat for the planet. We’re also going to discuss environmentally friendly food shopping and food waste reduction.
What is sustainable food?
Sustainable food is food that is healthy for the consumer, but is also produced in an ethical way. Sustainable food promotes low carbon production, avoiding the use of fertilisers and encourages local and seasonal eating. Sustainable food is produced in a socially and economically fair way.
So what does this mean? The dictionary definition of sustainability is ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’, and this is absolutely essential for understanding how this relates to our diets and what we put on our plate. Basically, sustainable foods maintain ecological balance, meaning they don’t create unnecessary carbon emissions, they don’t use unnecessary amounts of water and they don’t destroy habitats needed for our natural world. Of course, this does muddy the water, as all food production needs water and land space, and lots of foods are transported across the world via plane, hereby creating a carbon footprint. However, over recent years many scientists have poured expert knowledge into figuring out which foods create the biggest problems for the planet and the findings are staggering. Food products, which are made with less fertiliser, grown in a humane way and ethically managed, also fall under sustainable foods.
Why is sustainable food important?
Currently there are 7.7 billion people on this planet, and a large proportion of them are eating a low quality diet or worst still, are severely malnourished. According to a study done by Oxford University in 2018, food production is responsible for over a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable food is essential for limiting the rate of which our planet is warming, but also for feeding our expanding global population.
Sustainable Foods to Eat
So how does this translate to what you choose to eat?
How can fertiliser use be detrimental to the environment? Farmers use fertiliser to create a larger yield of crop, as it is thought to promote soil fertility. However, not all fertilisers are made the same and some are thought to be damaging for our own health, which is why many people opt for organic products. Organic products are farmed without using chemical fertilisers. One of the ways chemical fertilisers are thought to impact the planet, is via groundwater contamination, which puts underwater species at risk. Therefore when shopping, you may choose to opt for organic products which are fertiliser free.
If you look around the fruit and veg aisle, you will notice over half of it is packaged in plastic. Plastic is one of the single most damaging products to our soils and our oceans, and so opting for plastic free where you can is a brilliant way to help the environment. It is thought that the world is producing 300 million tons of plastic a year – and over half of this is produced for single use purposes. Therefore, simply opting for package free fruit and veg is a brilliant way to help the oceans.
Meat free alternatives
Why should I eat less meat? Well, in 2018, Oxford University published a study, which stated that the single best thing a person could do for the environment was to eat a plant based diet. The study looked at 40,000 different foods and evaluated the impact they had on the environment, from water use, to land use, air miles and carbon emissions. They found that fruits and vegetables had a significantly lower impact on the planet. Opting for plant based proteins and more grains and legumes is a great way to eat mindfully for the planet and also expand your culinary skills.
The demand for seafood has rapidly increased in the past ten years and making sustainable fish choices is another helpful way to eat sustainably. Climate change, biodiversity changes and pollution are all impacting the oceans, and in turn, impacting the fish that inhabit them. The Marine Conservation Society says 90% of global fish stock are being fully or overexploited and urge people to try fish they haven’t tried before, to take the pressure of well-known white fish like cod. The Marine’s Conservation Society recently published a ‘Good Fish Guide’, which shares some of the most sustainable fish choices – including sea bass and anchovies.
Eating seasonally is such a simple way to eat for the planet, as it means that extra farming effort and resources don’t have to go into producing foods that aren’t ready to be grown or harvested. You can use our Ultimate Seasonal Food Calendar to see what’s in season.
Supporting your local farmers and producers means that your food has to do less travel, hence saving on the air miles and reducing carbon footprint.
Growing your own
On the same theme as keeping it local, growing your own herbs, vegetables and fruit is a great way to eat well for the planet. Try these fruit and vegetables you can grow at home
Environmentally friendly food shopping
There are a few other things you can do when your food shopping to eat more sustainable – and these are really super simple.
1. Take your own bags (save on the plastic bag charge!)
2. Take your own Tupperware (ideal for lose items like nuts/oats/granola etc)
3. Use metal or paper straws
4. Carry your own cutlery (save on using single use plastic cutlery)
5. Invest in a reusable coffee cup and water bottle
Food waste reduction
Roughly one third of all food produced goes to waste, which is pretty shocking when you consider how much of the earth’s resources are going into making it! Not to mention the millions of people on the planet, who are eating a low quality or malnourished diet. Therefore, another simple way to eat well for the planet is to look at your food waste and try to limit it as much as possible. There are a few fuss free ways you can do this.
1. Get a food recycling bin
This is simply a food bin provided usually by the council and is purely for food waste. This will then be recycled and used in an appropriate way.
2. Treat expiration dates as guidelines
Expiration dates are only a guideline – you might be surprised to know that you can eat many fruits and vegetables well past their sell-by date if they look okay! Look out for mould or a funny smell, but generally fruit and vegetables are fine to be eaten past the sell by date. Approach meat and fish with more caution and judge based on appearance/colour/smell.
3. Shop smart – what do you actually need?
When you’re doing your shopping, make a list so you only buy the ingredients you actually need. This reduces throwing stuff away that you didn’t get to eat at a later date.
4. Don’t over serve food
Similarly when you are serving up portions, try to serve what you think you will eat, rather than making bigger portions than you can consume.
5. Make the most of your freezer
Freeze anything you don’t think you’ll be able to eat! That goes for fish, meat, and leftover meals like curry, pasta sauces etc. You can even freeze fruit to be used later in a smoothie.
The bottom line
Whilst this might all seem a little overwhelming, you are now armed with the knowledge and practical steps to eat more sustainably. Even if you just started with a few of these things, you would already be helping the environment. Achieving a more sustainable food production process is a challenge for governments, individuals and communities alike – but every small change that really can make a difference.
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