Your diet contributes more to your carbon footprint than you might think. Before it reaches your plate, your food is produced, processed, packaged, purchased, and prepared. Indeed, agriculture accounted for 10% of the EU’s total greenhouse-gas emissions in 2012, and the overall global trend is upwards. Sustainable eating can positively impact your environmental footprint. Our top tips for sustainable eating are below!
Sustainable eating, deforestation, and meat
In terms of production, do you know if your food is contributing to deforestation? Cattle ranching famously accounts for 80% of Amazon rainforest deforestation. The question of whether or not you should give up meat for the environment is a complex one. Professor Peter Smith, from the UN’s IPCC, said that: “All meats have a higher climate, land and water footprint than the same quantity of plant-based foods. In the worst case (meat from ruminants, like beef and lamb), this can be 10–100 times greater than plant-based foods.”
But it’s not as simple as just giving up beef and lamb. Cows and sheep eat grass, converting food that humans can’t eat into food that they can. On the other hand, less-polluting animals, like chickens and pigs, eat the same plant-based food as humans. A recent increase in demand for chicken, and thus for chicken feed, has fuelled deforestation in the Amazon.
Around 65% of British farmland is only suitable for grassland. The most efficient way to turn this inedible grass into high-quality, nutritious protein is arguably to graze livestock. On the other hand, Professor Sir Ian Boyd, formerly of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently said that subsidising UK meat production harms the environment in the long run. Instead, to fight the climate crisis, he has recommended re-wilding at least half of this farmland, to store carbon through planting trees and providing habitats for the UK’s rapidly disappearing wildlife.
Giving up meat
It is unavoidable that all types of meat relate more carbon emissions than vegetarian or vegan protein sources. This is why there has been such a huge increase in the number of people giving up meat and/or animal products for environmental reasons. Research has demonstrated that going vegan is the single biggest change you can make to reduce your environmental impact.
This said, going vegetarian or vegan can seem daunting — particularly if you usually eat meat every night. Research shows that if every family in the UK swapped a red meat meal to a plant-based meal just once a week, the environmental impact would be the same as taking 16 million cars off the road. So if you can’t manage vegan or vegetarian, try flexitarian, which is where you try to reduce the amount of meat in your diet to twice a week or less, instead.
Sustainable eating requires sustainable purchasing. If you want to keep eating meat sustainably, you should cut down the amount that you’re eating, and ensure that you’re buying organic and local. At the supermarket, check that the meat you buy is certified by AHDB assurance schemes. Ask your butcher where they get their meat from, and what standards they uphold. Intensive farming, such as battery-farming chicken, is a significant contributor to environmental degradation, as well as being an animal rights travesty, and should be avoided at all costs
Sustainable eating means avoiding deforestation
You might be surprised to find out that other products including coffee, cocoa, and palm oil, all make significant contributions to deforestation. When buying coffee or chocolate products, check the label to ensure that they’re Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or Fairtrade certified. Products displaying the Rainforest Alliance or UTZ logo have to meet and sustain strict sustainable agriculture and biodiversity conservation standards.
Some companies, such as Mondelez International, which owns chocolate brands Cadbury’s and Green & Blacks, and coffee brands including Kenco and Tassimo, have dropped outside certifications, such as Fairtrade, from their products, in favour of developing their own in-house. Indeed, a number of large chocolate, tea, and coffee producers now choose to self-certify the ethical standards in their supply chain. This decision has been controversial.
Overall, it’s best to choose products that are certified by a third party like Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, or Fairtrade, and if possible, ones which have direct links to their farmers. This might seem difficult at first, but my pro-tip is that all of the Co-op’s chocolate own-brand confectionery has been Fairtrade since 2017, so you can get your sugar hit, at a reasonable price, and guilt-free! The Co-op’s irresistible range is some of the best chocolate I’ve eaten, so give it a try!
What about palm oil?
The devastation caused by palm oil production means that it’s best avoided, wherever possible. Labels can refer to palm oil using different names, so this can be difficult. For a comprehensive list of palm oil labelling techniques, and products to be avoided, click here. A quick glance through will show you that avoiding unsustainable palm oil is a huge task! Fortunately, this app, supported by the World Wildlife Fund, scans the barcodes of products and can tell you if the oil used was sustainable or not before you decide to buy.
Sustainable eating means eating organic
It is well-known that herbicides and pesticides are harmful both the environment and to peoples’ health. When buying fresh produce, or indeed, any of your food, it’s best to choose organic. Organic food is produced without the use of synthetic chemicals, to high standards of welfare, and is better for wildlife. Indeed, you can find up to 50% more wildlife on organic farms. Research has also demonstrated that organically produced food can be more nutritious than non-organically produced equivalents!
We’ve covered meat and plants, but what about fish? It’s important that you check where the fish you’re purchasing comes from. Trawlers catch the majority of supermarket fish. We have known for over 150 years that trawling is devastating for the marine environment, destroying habitats and unsustainably depleting fish stocks. For sustainable eating, you must avoid trawler-caught fish. Instead, aim to buy certified sustainable line-caught fish.
Something you might not know is that there are seasons to buying fish. You should not purchase fish during their breeding and spawning times, as this negatively impacts stock levels. If possible, buy from a local fishmonger rather than a supermarket, as they will be able to advise you.
Food miles and processing
So far, we’ve seen that knowing where your food comes from is important for assuring its sustainable eating credentials. Another reason why knowing the origin of your food is important is food miles. Food that has travelled further to reach your plate is likely to have a higher carbon footprint than food that was produced locally—particularly if it travelled by air freight.
The best way to mitigate this in your own diet is to eat local and seasonal foods. I’ve already discussed the benefits of using your local butcher or fishmonger, so it’s no surprise that I’m about to recommend supporting your local farm shop or farmers’ market when you buy fresh produce. Fresh produce purchased from farmers’ markets is often cheaper than that purchased in supermarkets.
Generally, the more complex the process your food has been through, the more emissions it has released. Heavily processed products are frequently less healthy than their raw counterparts, having been stuffed full of synthetic colours, flavours, and preservatives in order to make them more appealing. Sustainable eating often overlaps with healthy eating; for the sake of both your health and the planet’s, try to switch from ready-processed foods to home-prepared ones.
Sustainable eating means ditching plastic packaging
A lot of the food we eat comes in plastic packaging. While some companies have begun to provide re-usable, fabric produce bags rather than plastic, disposable ones, significant issues remain. You should avoid products packaged in black, as this is usually not recyclable. If you can, choose products packaged in paper or cardboard, rather than plastic.
In some regions of the UK, supermarkets are trialling ‘bring your own container’ stores. These prevent the use of plastic and encourage you to re-use and recycle the packaging that you already have. The Zero Waster provides a list of zero-waste stores in your local area — give them a go!
When purchasing your food, follow the guidelines provided here to be a conscious consumer, and support sustainable products. The more popular sustainable products become, the more big businesses will take note and make changes to their own structures!
The environmentally conscious approach to food preparation
Sustainable eating also involves sustainably preparing your food. There are a couple of small changes that you can make, that will be more sustainable, and work out cheaper. Obviously, you should recycle and compost as much of your waste as you can.
Less obviously, you should try to minimise the amount of time you leave appliances on for. If your oven heats up in ten minutes, don’t waste energy turning it on before you need it! If you live in a household with multiple people, try to eat your meals together, rather than all cooking separately. Not only will this save energy, but spending more time together will also help to improve your relationships!
Think about how much food you are purchasing and preparing. Food waste is a huge problem. We’re not just wasting food, we’re also wasting all the resources it took to produce it! The estimated area of land required to produce food thrown away by UK households is 19,000 square kilometres, an area just slightly smaller than Slovenia! Never go shopping when you’re hungry—you’ll end up buying far more than you need.
Even if you’re sensible about what you buy and cook, everyone ends up with leftovers sometimes. To find out what you can make with the odds and ends left in your fridge, why not try out these apps? Before you throw away leftover food, consider checking leftover recipe collections like this one, to see if there’s anything else you can do with it.
There are lots of things you can do to reduce your impact on the environment. If you enjoyed this article, you can check out our other sustainable lifestyle content here. Which of these sustainable eating tips was most helpful to you? Do you have any tips for us? Let us know in the comments below!