AN ECO-FRIENDLY PLATE
Food is such a big part of our daily lives but most of us might not think about where it comes from. The relationship we have with food is having a negative impact on the environment that is getting much worse as the human population increases.
Scroll down to the 'Recap: What Can We Do?' section at the bottom if you just want a brief summary of the actions you can take to help solve the problem.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Food production is a massive contributor to global warming. Worldwide between 20-30% of green house gas emissions are connected to food. This is split between energy used for farming machinery, getting water supplies, transportation, nitrogen emissions from fertilisers and the methane produced by livestock among many other reasons.
Rainforest deforestation is a huge problem caused by food production. Forests are cleared for space for livestock as well as even more space to grow animal feed. This destroys the homes of threatened plant and animal species; approximately three-fifths of global wildlife loss is connected to agriculture. Deforestation also contributes to global warming, as all the carbon stored in trees is released when they are destroyed.
Palm oil is another reason why food is causing deforestation as many of the foods we buy in supermarkets contain it. Find out more about palm oil problems and solutions here.
Seafood is also a big food-related concern. It causes big problems in our oceans such as overfishing, pollution, coral destruction, wildlife loss, noise pollution and bycatch; the accidental capture of non-target species, e.g. turtles and dolphins, in commercial fishing.
Another issue with food is packaging. Plastic pollution is having devastating affects on the natural world and when it comes to single-use plastics, food packaging is one of the biggest contributors. Click here to find out more about the problems and solutions to plastic.
One of the biggest problems with food could be food waste. On average in the UK, we waste 30% of food we buy. That’s our own money wasted as well as the energy and resources to grow, rear, transport, package and then dispose of that food. If we could put a stop to food waste this could make a massive difference to both humanity and the natural world.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Plant-based food immediately has much less environmental impact as less space is needed for livestock and animal feed, as well as less water and energy. This isn’t saying that everyone has to become vegan or vegetarian. However, everyone cutting down on meat and dairy consumption would have a massive positive difference to the planet. Everyone is different and making individual choices is important.
If you’re considering making changes, cutting down on beef and dairy is a good place to start. These have more impact on the environment due to the methane produced by cows. Other animals also generate methane but cows produce more as they're so much bigger than other livestock animals.
If cutting down on meat and dairy isn't for you then there are still ways to be greener whilst continuing to consume meat and dairy. Purchasing locally sourced produce is a great way to be kinder to the planet and local butchers and farmer's markets are generally the best places to find it. Be wary though as there are plenty of loopholes, for example, livestock which has been reared locally could still have been fed soya which has come from a deforested area of the Amazon rainforest. Fast-food chains may be the biggest culprits for doing this.
Cutting down on meat and dairy can be a great way to experiment with new foods and cooking. Plant-based food can be full of flavour. You could take inspiration from dishes of the eastern world and the Mediterranean; pasta, curry, stew and rice dishes are easy to switch to vegetarian or vegan meals.
If you’re set on what’s in your meal, there are plenty of great plant-based alternatives to meat items available, from diced chicken to sausages, 'fishless' fingers and even crispy duck. Options are now available in most supermarkets across the UK. Although these still have an environmental footprint, it is considerably less than that of meat.
Many of us lead busy lives and you may not have the time to be looking through recipe books. If that’s the case then maybe try changing one meal a week to start, if everyone were to do that it could still make a massive difference. Take a look at our plant-based recipes page, we've tried to make it that bit easier for cutting down on meat consumption. You could also try talking about plant-based food with other people, you never know who may have some great recipes to share!
Eating plant-based food when it's in season is another great way to make a positive difference. Not only that but it’s far tastier to eat food when it’s fresh. That doesn’t solely mean buying food from green grocers and farmer’s markets, though that’s a great way to go. Tinned and frozen food is often preserved when it’s at optimum freshness and so can still have all its best nutrients.
Seafood also has big impacts on the environment and switching to plant-based alternatives is the greenest way to go. However, there are ways to continue eating seafood in a more eco-friendly way; opting for sustainably sourced fish is a great step in the right direction. This means ensuring enough fish are left in the ocean for a healthy balance of wildlife and minimising the environmental impact. You can look for the Marine Stewardship Council logo on products shown below for sustainably sourced seafood.
The Good Fish Guide webpage and app by the Marine Conservation Society are also great tools to help. They have put together a list of how sustainable different types of seafood are by using a five-point scale. There’s even a list dedicated to the most sustainable fish fingers.
They have also put together a collection of recipes for different types of fish and the months in which they are best to eat.
Switching to other types of seafood from the most common is also a good way to help. Tuna, salmon, cod, haddock and prawns are eaten more than any other seafood in the UK. If we were to branch out and vary the seafood we eat this would help keep a healthy balance in the oceans.
Packaging is another big issue when it comes to food and finding produce that doesn’t come stored in plastic can be very difficult. Other types of packaging also have their environmental impact. Using zero waste shops is one of the best ways to drastically cut down on packaging waste and they are growing in numbers around the UK. You can find your nearest shop here.
The same goes for using your local green grocers, bakery, butchers or farmer’s market. Whilst all these places may not be encouraging less packaging, it's certainly much easier to purchase packaging-free food from them. Take lunch boxes or produce bags to put your goods into, request no packaging where possible and you’ll create much less packaging waste. You’ll have the added bonus of fresher, tastier food too.
If you haven’t got a convenient zero waste shop or farmer’s market then there are still ways to reduce packaging waste in supermarkets. Some supermarkets will now let you take lunch boxes for deli counter items. You could also take your own produce bags for loose fruit, veg and baked goods instead of using the plastic or paper bags provided.
If this isn't at all practical for some then there are still ways to be more eco-friendly in a standard supermarket shop. Opting for items in glass and metal packaging is a good way to do this as these materials are much more recyclable than others. For example, opting for peas in a tin instead of frozen peas in a plastic bag is a much more sustainable choice. Just make sure the tin goes in the recycling bin when you're finished with it.
When shopping for food it's also much better for the Earth to take your own bag instead of buying plastic bags in the shop. Plastic bags-for-life may be better than single-use plastic bags however they are still not a sustainable choice compared with other options.
Only buying what you know you are going to eat is a good place to start with food waste. For example if you know you only need six carrots, opt for the loose ones when available instead of the packaged bag of ten. Not only does this cut down on food waste but it also wastes less packaging.
Putting left overs to use is a great way to cut down on food waste. Making more use of the freezer is a great way to do this, that way not only will you reduce food waste but you could also save some time as you’ll have another meal prepared.
When choosing food we generally select the best-looking goods. We can probably afford to be a bit more relaxed with this. Opting for the ‘ugly’ fruit and veg from time to time is a great way to be greener; often this food ends up going to waste despite being perfectly edible!
The same goes for sell by dates. We often have a habit of choosing the item on the shelf with the longest sell by date. If you know that you're definitely going to use the food on that particular day or the next day then you could go for the option with the shortest sell by date. Shops can no longer sell products past their sell by date and for this reason masses of food go to waste.
Growing your own food is one of the best ways to be more eco-friendly. Did you know that on average food travels 1,500 miles before it's consumed? Growing your own food means you can avoid the damage done by packaging waste, transport emissions and pesticides. Even if you only grew six tomatoes in a year, every effort makes a difference! The RHS have some great pages on how to grow your own fruit, vegetables and herbs. Thompson & Morgan have an information page for the 10 easiest things to grow to get beginners going. Vertical Veg offer some great tips so even those with little or no garden space can still grow food!
There are plenty more helpful tips available on how to be more sustainable with food in our Food and Drink section. We've split these into three sections, In the Home, On-the-Go and Dining Out to make it easier to find more specific solutions to the problems with food and drink.
RECAP: WHAT CAN WE DO?
Try cutting down on dairy products and meat, especially beef. Take a look at our plant-based recipes.
When eating meat, try to source local, sustainable options from butchers and farmer's markets.
Try to only eat sustainably sourced fish using resources like the Marine Stewardship Council logo (pictured above), the Good Fish Guide webpage and app and the MCS's collection of sustainable seafood recipes.
Branch out from the most commonly eaten seafood: cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns.
Try eating plant-based food seasonally. Use local farmer's markets, bakeries and green grocers to eat more locally sourced food and opt for ‘ugly’ fruit and veg.
Take a look at our page on Sustainable Palm Oil for tips on how to avoid food that has caused deforestation.
Try using zero waste shops to cut down on packaging waste.
In the supermarket try opting for items in more recyclable packaging such as glass and metal.
Take your own bag when shopping for food.
Reduce food waste. Try to buy only what you need, make use of your freezer and use up leftover food when possible.
When feasible, select items with shorter sell by dates if you know you are going to eat the food quickly.
Try growing your own food. Use resources such as the RHS's how to grow your own fruit, vegetables and herbs page, Thompson & Morgan's 10 easiest things to grow page and Vertical Veg's tips for those with little or no garden space.
Look at our Food and Drink section on the website where we explore ways to make it easier for us all to be greener with food and drink in the home, on-the-go and eating out.