The food we consume has a huge impact on the planet. But here’s why everything you thought you knew about eating sustainably could be wrong
We all know that eating less meat is good for our health and that of the planet. Earlier this year, the largest scientific analysis to date found that avoiding meat and dairy is the biggest single way you can reduce your negative impact on planet earth. Perhaps you’ve decided to swap some of the meat out of your diet, or gone vegetarian or vegan, as many people have, in an effort to eat in a way that’s more sustainable for the planet. It’s commendable, but unfortunately, the truth isn’t as black and white as it seems to be.
“The idea that a certain way of eating could be more sustainable and eco-friendly is certainly appealing, especially in the wake of the reports and news coverage about the catastrophic destruction we are doing to the planet,” says nutritionist Lizzie King (lizzieloveshealthy.com). “Veganism is often touted as the most effective answer for reducing CO2 emissions, however, it seems this brings a host of other problems in itself.”
The fact is, just because something is vegan it doesn’t mean there’s no big impact on the environment. Take almond milk, for example. The fridge staple of vegans, it can be used as a dairy milk substitute in everything from porridge to tea, and the growing shelf space given to it in high street supermarkets is testament to its popularity. But what people don’t realise is the damage being done by plantations in California, where more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds come from. It takes nearly 7000 litres of water to produce one litre of almond milk, and California has been in severe drought for the best part of the last decade.
Some tofu, the popular plant-based protein, is also far from innocent. Soy farming in Brazil is causing mass deforestation and destroying the country’s grasslands. Most of this farming is to produce feed for cattle, but still, it’s better to choose European tofu, which has a much smaller carbon footprint. “Some soy products from South America can have twice the carbon footprint of a chicken,” says Lizzie.
Avocados, whose rise to fame is credited to their Instagram-friendly appearance, have been so in demand that Kenya earlier this year banned their exportation and Mexico, which supplies almost half of the planet’s avocados, last year was considering importing a supply to feed its own citizens, creating a crazy carbon loop. The country makes so much from exporting the fruit that illegal deforestation to make way for avocado plantations is now commonplace. “The danger in saying simplistically certain ways of eating are better for the planet can lead to a very false sense of a box being ticked,” says Lizzie. “A much more valuable approach is to think about everything holistically.”
There is no blanket rule for sustainable food. Common sense says that a free-range, slow-grown chicken from the farm down the road would have less of a carbon footprint than fruit or vegetables flown half way across the world. “It’s true that vegan foods that contain ingredients like palm oil, which is devastating to forests, local communities and animals, are wreaking more havoc on the planet than locally-sourced eggs, for example,” says Lizzie.
So is locally-sourced a good signifier for planet-friendly purchases? It seems it is, in most cases, although there are exceptions. It sounds strange, but it’s backed up by a DEFRA report, which found New Zealand lamb has a lower carbon footprint than British lamb because it is grown at such a low intensity, even when shipping to the UK is factored in. Kiwi lamb aside, choosing fruit and veg that’s in season means avoiding produce which has been air freighted or grown in heated greenhouses. An easy way to do this is to use a vegetable box service like Riverford (riverford.co.uk), which sources in-season food from a network of farms. The company extends the vegetable growing season as far as it can using polytunnels but never uses artificial light or heat. Some commercially-produced vegetables are grown in glass hothouses which burn gas or oil, and for every kilo of tomatoes produced this way, two to three kilos of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. When the weather no longer allows them to be grown in this country, Riverford trucks the fruits over from Spain, which uses just a tenth of the carbon compared with growing them in the UK using heat.
Another way to ensure better sustainability is to shop for organic food, which has a lesser carbon footprint, as Claire McDermott from the Soil Association explains: “Organic farming means working with nature. It means higher levels of animal welfare, lower levels of pesticides and no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers. It’s a more environmentally sustainable way to manage the land and natural environment, which means more wildlife and healthier soils.” In fact, there is up to 50 percent more wildlife on organic farms.
One final word of warning: next time you set off for the shops with your bags for life, confident you’re doing enough to offset your carbon footprint, remember this. You need to reuse a bag for life eight times before its footprint becomes lower than a normal carrier bag, and if you think your cotton tote lets you off the hook, make sure you use it 149 times! Some experts have said reusable, thicker plastic bags might be making the problem worse as there are now more in circulation than ever – so whatever you use, make sure you reuse it.
We know about the health benefits but, when it comes to seafood, sustainability isn’t entirely clear cut, as it isn’t just the individual species of fish that determines whether it is a good choice, but how and where it lived and where it was caught. Helpfully, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) produces the Good Fish Guide, which it updates yearly. You can read in detail about any individual fish and its environmental impact by visiting mcsuk.org/goodfishguide/search but, in the meantime, here’s a quick guide for which to focus on:
5 most sustainable
5 to avoid
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