So, as a few of you know, I travel to London every year to go to Food Matters Live – a conference with lots of big names in nutrition, dietetics, food production and government policy – to help keep the sector up to date on new innovations, policy and research. Every year I learn something new and 2018 was no exception.
This time, Food Matters Live bought up the really interesting subject of what exactly a sustainable diet is. Sustainability is something that is being discussed more and more as climate change increases and as more people want to make a difference to help save the planet but everything I’ve read tells you just to cut down on animal products and buy organic. Therefore, I entered the conference hall expecting a talk on veganism, but instead I had my mind opened as to the different concepts that make up what sustainable eating is and how it differs between us all, so much so, I thought you guys might be interested too.
The panellists for this specific discussion entitled “Moving consumers towards sustainable nutrition” were incredibly diverse and all had a different perspective to bring to the table. Firstly Jack Monroe a journalist and author of the top blog ‘Cooking on a bootstrap’ who campaigns for poverty and hunger relief, Dr. Claire Pettinger a member of the British Dietetic Association and lecturer in public health dietetics at Plymouth University and finally Henry Firth and Ian Theasby who co-founded Bosh! An online vegan video recipe site that aims to help people eat more plants. So I thought I’d round up some of the topics that came up during the discussion with the panel, add my own thoughts on the subject and share my new found perspectives with you. Yes, I know some of these points are old-hat but I’ve included them to really help build the bigger picture. I hope you enjoy the blog and I’d be really interested to know your thoughts
1. Choose a More Plant-Based Diet
Ok, let’s start with the obvious one first. It has been scientifically proven that a plant-based diet (eating from more plant-based sources and avoiding an excess of meat and dairy) is better for the environment, making plant-based diets more environmentally sustainable. If you have seen the shockumentary ‘Cowspiracy’ or any one of a number of similar documentaries, you’ll know that the farming industry has a huge part to play in greenhouse gas emission and CO2 footprint. But just something as simple as buying less meat and replacing some meat-based meals with plant-based ones and, if/when you do buy meat, going for better quality such as grass-fed or free-range options can really help.
Change doesn’t happen overnight though, it takes many many years. Take eggs from caged hens, for example. Back in the early 00’s they were really cheap and everyone bought them because they didn’t know better. Over time we have been educated about the welfare of birds, the conditions of caged hens and consumers started shunning caged eggs and buying free range instead. Now the price of free range is lower and you hardly see caged eggs available. We need this same trend to occur for cheap, mass-produced, intensively farmed meat so that it naturally starts dying out and the higher welfare produce become the only acceptable choice for the majority of consumers.
2. Choose Organic Foods and Avoid Palm Oil
The farming of plants can be equally as horrific for the planet as the farming of meat, what with the use of pesticides which drain into our rivers and oceans causing dead zones and the deforestation going on to make way for palm oil plantations; a product which has found itself in a huge amount of our everyday convenience foods and sweet treats (including vegan ones). Therefore picking organic fruit and veg which hasn’t been covered in pesticides and avoiding products with palm oil are two ways in which we could make our diets sustainable.
However, nothing is clear cut. More recent reports suggest that organic food requires 25-110% more land than conventional farming methods and due to use of manure as a fertilizer, there is no difference in the carbon footprint between organic and non-organic farming practices.
3. Eat in Season
One not covered in the discussion at food matters but a hugely underdiscussed issue is eating fruits and vegetables out of season and, on from this, intensively farming certain fruits and vegetables which require a huge amount of water then flying them halfway across the world so that we can use them in our ‘sustainable plant based diet’ …. ahem avocado.
A new study conducted by Carbon Footprint Ltd claims a small pack of two avocados has an emissions footprint of 846.36g CO2, almost twice the size of one kilo of bananas (480g). Growing just 0.5kg avocados also requires 336L of water!
We need to disassociate ourselves with the food in the supermarkets and re-associate ourselves with what is available to us locally. Grow your own or just visit your local market. Keep an eye on what’s in season IN THE UK and try to stick mainly to those items. We’re so used to being able to eat what we want, whenever we want, all year round that this is another huge issue with sustainable diets because it requires a massive lifestyle shift than many people just can’t stick to.
4. Prepare to Beat Plastic
Avoiding convenience foods with lots of un-recyclable plastic packaging, carry a refillable metal water bottle rather than buying single use plastics, selecting fruit and veg without plastic packaging…there is so much you can do before you even leave the supermarket to help without even necessarily changing what produce you buy. If you want more help on reducing plastic waste then have a look at the WWF website.
5. Making the Best Choices you can with the Budget you have
But sustainable doesn’t just have to be for the environment. A diet MUST be economically sustainable for an individual or family too – a family on the poverty line simply can’t afford the extra mark up on organic produce, or free range meat that others can. Plus, with so much cheap meat available why would a struggling family opt for less food for more money? The discussion of taxing meat or subsidising meat-free sustainable options is an interesting one but something far beyond the scope of this post but an interesting one to think about.
6. It’s a Cultural Thing
For a diet to work, it must also be culturally sustainable. Plant-based options are becoming more widely available in restaurants and for on-the-go meals and snacking but it’s not always the case everywhere you go. Particularly abroad! But more than this, food is a celebration and something so deeply rooted in our (and most other) cultures as an excuse to get together with friends and family. If a diet is so strict that people can no longer enjoy food together then it is never going to become sustainable.
7. Teach, Learn and Spread The Word
Education is the another point I want to acknowledge. People are not going to change their diets if they don’t have the educated knowledge to go with it. This might be as simple as not knowing the facts about what could make a diet more sustainable but it could also be that people are unable to cook these more sustainable options if no one has shown them how, they may not be able to afford the equipment to cook or May not be able to read the recipe book in the first place.
To make a real change, education in cooking and nutrition is key from a young age and if we could all even do just one thing to make our diets more sustainable then maybe the future of the planet isnt quite so bleak. Learn a new recipe, teach it to your friends or children and get them involved in cooking and preparing food so that they are equipped to do the same with their friends and family in the future.
8. What a Waste!
So Christmas is often a time for excess but try not to waste the extra food you might have left over. Grate cheese and freeze it ready for sauces, pasta bakes or even fondue, make big batches of soups and stew with leftover veggies and freeze them to last you through the rest of the winter months. Going forward, try to plan your weekly meals before you hit the shops and check the cupboards and the fridge first. This can exclude excess spending on foods that you don’t need as well as excess waste, making your diet more economically sustainable as well as environmentally.
The amount of food wasted each year in the UK equates to 1.2 BILLION meals and 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, with each household wasting an average of £470 worth of food annually. – www.wrap.org
I hope this blog has equipped you with some knowledge to start making little changes for more sustainable choices for you and your family and the confidence to know that every little thing helps – so just do what you can as long as it works for you. Working together and doing what we can, even with the smallest of changes, means better choices for the environment and for our own pockets, making a better world for the next generation.