Food production occupies ~30% of the total land surface area, generates around 30% of all greenhouse gases, and is responsible for ~80% of all freshwater use. These figures are set to worsen with climate change and population increases. So, surely, we should be trying our darnedest to reduce our food impact?
I have been vegetarian now for 4 years, but I am in no way claiming that my diet is as environmentally friendly as it could be. I did my dissertation on the environmental impacts of meat and meat substitutes – and what I learned from that, is that often the changes we make to be better come with their own, equal set of issues. With all this in mind, I thought I’d share some ideas about the simple ways in which you can try to eat more sustainably and reduce your food environmental footprint.
I think everyone should be trying to reduce the amount of animal products in their diet, just for health reasons, if nothing else. But if you wanna keep eating them (I know how hard it is to kick cheese) then here are some other changes that you could try making!
- Switching from Beef, Pork etc. to chicken
The environmental impact of chicken is vastly smaller than that of most other meat-producing animals. So, if you want to eat something meaty – choose chicken.
- Weekday vegetarianism/veganism
It is quite daunting to quit meat cold turkey. So, perhaps try being ‘flexitarian’ – this way you can indulge your meaty desires and feel no guilt. In my opinion, it’s all good as long you’re making an effort!
- Reducing the amount of animal products
You don’t need meat for every meal of the day, or everyday for that matter. Eating less meat in general will be good for both you (many medical conditions have been linked to meat over-consumption) and the environment. And, if you are just using milk in your tea or cereal etc., then maybe consider swapping animal milk out for a plant-based alternative.
Cows are the most environmentally damaging livestock animal – so avoid eating cow products wherever you can.
- Don’t eat Quorn!
A lot of people are forgoing meat and replacing it with Quorn. I applaud and fully support your move away from meat BUT Quorn actually has the same environmental impact as chicken. So, if your choices are being made on environmental grounds – Quorn probably isn’t the best shout.
- Better meat replacements
It is often tough to imagine a meal without something to fill the gap left by meat – this is why meat substitutes are so useful. They perform the same functional role as meat – being both high in protein and similar in texture etc. Meat substitute products made using wheat and soy have reasonably low environmental impacts (much lower than Quorn) – so these are the ones you should look for.
Quorn is popular for a reason – it has a great range of products that are very similar in sensory quality to meat. So, if you want the Quorn experience without the environmental price tag – look for the own-brand versions of their products, as they will likely be made of soy instead. This is beacuse Quorn holds the patent on mycoprotein (what Quorn is made of) so they are the only company that can legally produce it.
- Food of low nutritional value
Most people love a big ol’ plate of chips, a bar of chocolate, or a cold glass of their fave fizzy drink. But, you guessed it, these are all really bad for the environment. Not to mention how bad they are for us! Cutting down on these items will save large amounts of energy and resources – and, subsequently, reduce your environmental footprint!
- Food waste
Some of the biggest environmental impacts come from the incredible amounts of food that gets wasted. Roughly 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption, is wasted each year. The amount of food wasted in Europe could feed 2 billion people – that is enough food to feed the entire population of Brazil!
This wasted food is sent to landfill where it breaks down, releasing lots of greenhouse gases – this is mostly methane, which is a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Food waste occurs at every point in the food production chain – during production, at supermarkets, and after purchase.
Reducing food waste is so important, here are some ways you can do it:
1. Keep a waste list
When you have to throw something away, make a note of it. That way when you next go shopping, you know that maybe you don’t need to buy so much. This is a really good way to make you more aware of just how much food you are wasting – so you can guilt yourself into being a better person.
2. Use by dates are just guidelines
You’re all pretty smart. If food looks like you shouldn’t eat it – don’t. But if it’s past it’s ‘use by date’ and still looks/smells good to go, then it probably is. Please don’t waste food that you could eat.
Tesco is going to remove ‘before before’ dates on its fruits and vegetables as these dates are completely arbitrary and increase the amount of food wasted. With food storage and packaging methods today, food is often good for some time after its ‘use by’ date. This store exclusively sells products that are (often years) past their ‘sell by’ date – which are much cheaper and still good to go! There are number of stores like this popping up all over the the UK and online.
3. Try ‘freeganism’ or dumpster diving!
Freeganism is the practice of buying a little as you can, and surviving mostly on reclaimed food items. This follows on from the point above, often food is thrown out when it is damaged or past its ‘sell by’ date but is still edible. A lot of the food wasting occurs before anyone can purchase it, so this practice can reduce that amount significantly.
There are a a lot of charity groups that use the concept of freeganism to make a difference. They work with businesses to take food that would otherwise be wasted and re-purpose it for those in need of a meal. UKHarvest is a national charity that also that has counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, and soon in South Africa. FareShare is a similar nationwide project. The Real Junk Food Project is a global (or at least hopes to be) network of local projects aiming to abolish food waste through pay-as-you-feel cafes. The Brighton branch of this project will cater events – so you could have your wedding catered using food previously destined for landfill!
When farmers produce crops they often have quotas to meet, once they have met this there is no point in harvesting the rest of the crop. OR the fruit/veg is too ugly for a supermarket. This is where gleaning comes in. People go to farms to harvest any leftover crops, which they can then keep for themselves. There are plenty of gleaning groups all over the place, so get in contact with your local one and snag yourself some free food!
This one is pretty self-explanatory. You go diving in a bin to find some abandoned treasures. I dumpster dived a few times when I was living in Adelaide (see above) and got SO much food. It is shocking how edible food just gets tossed. Many shops etc. now lock their bins to stop people rummaging through them, unfortunately. So, if you find somewhere that doesn’t lock their bins ensure that you leave them as tidy as you found them. Also, don’t take more than you need, as you could be taking the food out of the mouth of someone who really needs it.
Olio allows people and businesses to share surplus/unwanted food etc. with others rather than throwing it away! It’s a good way to clear out your cupboards or to snag yourself a free meal. This app was really useful when we had to move out of our house, as we had so much food that we just couldn’t eat! The food was claimed within minutes and collected the same day – it’s a great way to clear out your cupboards and get more involved with your community!
They have an app or you can log in on their website – so get sharing!
5. Meal Plans
Planning your meals is a good way to ensure you don’t waste any food. If you know what you’re going to eat, you won’t buy food you don’t need. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate plan, but just think about what you actually are gonna eat until you next go shopping.
6. Less food on your plate
If you find that you end up not finishing all the food on your plate, try putting less food on your plate. If you are still hungry, you can always go back for seconds! This way you don’t end up scraping good food into the bin, and you can have any food leftover for lunch tomorrow! It seems like a no-brainer but it would have a lot of benefits. We have become accustomed to having such large portion sizes, when we don’t really need that much food. Eating less food would be good for your waistline, your wallet, and the environment.
7. Petitioning supermarkets and producers to reduce waste
In the last couple of years there has been a change in the way some supermarkets operate. In 2016, a law was passed in France that prohibits supermarkets from disposing of unsold food and instead requires them to donate it to charities and food banks. Unfortunately, this is only one country – but it is a start.
Part of the problem lies with us – the consumer. Much of the food wasted, is done so due to ‘cosmetic imperfections’ (it’s ugly), but is otherwise still edible. If you have a choice in the supermarket between a beautiful looking orange and an ‘ugly’ one – please choose the ugly one. Chances are it’ll still taste exactly the same. If everyone made this choice then maybe the retailers and producers would take the hint.
This TEDTalk on food waste by Tristam Stuart sums up this point quite nicely.
8. Cook recipes that use up what you’ve got!
‘Kitchen sink’ recipes such as a quiche, soup, chilli, or a stir fry are a great way to use up products just about to go over. Recipes like these usually have a lot of room for experimentation, so you can bung just about anything in and it’ll still be bangin’.
The environmental impact of a person’s diet is HUGE but there are things you can do to reduce your dietary footprint. Reducing your food waste and cutting out foods of low nutritional value can be better, environmentally, than going vegetarian or vegan!
This is by no means an exhaustive list so if you have any other ideas or thoughts, let me know in the comments!