There has been a lot of focus during ‘Food for Thought’ on vegetarianism and veganism as lifestyle choices through which to reduce our impact on the environment. The meat and dairy industries are the main contributors to climate change and environmental destruction within the food and agriculture sector, but they are by no means alone. Not ready or able to commit to a meat-free lifestyle? No worries, for there are many other food choices that we as thoughtful consumers can make to show we care about the world. Global agribusiness has deceptively cut so many corners so that we can have whatever food we want, whenever we want it, a system that we have inadvertently gotten used to; in our lives, let’s pick out a few and pay our dues.
Before we start, I must warn you that the issues behind the choices are often very complex, and sometimes I too feel overwhelmed when it comes to shopping and dining: “I cannot possibly weigh up all of these factors before buying some apples; I don’t have time for this!” As such, I write these tips purely from an environmental standpoint; it would be impossible to provide any solutions if I were to factor in ethics, animal welfare, international trade agreements, farmers’ rights, land use delegation, geopolitics. Explore further if you will, at your own discretion; I will claim no responsibility for any sleepless nights due to endless pondering. Oh – and I apologise in advance for the terrible puns. Enjoy!
tl;dr: ‘Are we consumers willing to pay more for our food so that the environment won’t have to?’
For those meat lovers among us, changing the type of meat you consume can have a big impact on the environment. According to the ‘Global Calculator’ tool by DECC, if everyone in the world were to replace half of their red meat consumption with white meat, the global warming targets would be met . Of course, the calculator is based on various estimates and projections, and the situation is far more complex. However, the truth remains that red meat requires more resources to produce and produces more waste than white meat. An area the size of a football pitch is able to produce 0.25 tonnes of beef, 1 tonne of poultry, and 15 tonnes of fruits and vegetables [1,5]; 1kg of beef requires 28MJ, while 1 kg of poultry only requires 12MJ . In essence, cows eat and excrete more than chickens do. Go to KFC instead of Burger King; make the steaks you eat very rare and exquisite. You get the idea.
The environmental impact of eating fish tends to be even lower than poultry . However, this varies massively depending on fish species and fishing techniques. Some fish stocks in certain locations are on the brink of collapse due to overfishing, so seafood from these places should be avoided. Bottom trawling, poison, and dynamite fishing techniques are all extremely destructive to marine habitats; on the other hand, aquaculture, pole and line, and trolling (trailing a baited line behind a boat, as opposed to sowing discord online) are much more environmentally-friendly. The Marine Conservation Society have helpfully compiled an extensive list of seafood sustainability. They list anchovy, mackerel, pole and line or trolled skipjack tuna, and King prawns and mussels from fish farms as OK; conversely, Bluefin tuna, European eel, and wild Atlantic halibut and salmon are terrible options . Buying fish from local fish farms or seas will reduce their footprint from transport emissions; if you insist on harpooned swordfish from the South East Pacific, which is actually preferable to swordfish from the Mediterranean, buy frozen to avoid airfreighting (more on this later).
tl;dr: Eat chicken not beef; fish can be very fishy.
The UK produces an estimated 5.2 million tonnes of food and drinks packaging in households every year, equivalent to 8.7 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent , the same as burning fossils fuels to power 920,000 homes . Two-thirds of this packaging waste comes from households. If every household in the UK were to stop buying packaged foods, it would significantly reduce carbon emissions in this area, not to mention the added benefits of less air and water pollution in waste management. Of course, this is not currently feasible, not least because there are some foods which would be very difficult to transport without packaging.
Often though, food is packaged simply for our convenience, so there are still significant steps we can take as consumers to avoid packaging. Many supermarkets will have loose fruits and vegetables alongside multi-packs. If not, try local farmers’ markets; there are many in Oxford [6,7], as well as SESI which allows you to ‘refill’ your jars and containers with dried grains and fruits, cereals, beverages, and even household products . Not a fan of juggling oranges and bananas on the way home? Try a canvas or jute bag.
tl;dr: Buy loose; use jute bags; reuse mason jars.
In 2012, households in the UK threw away 7 million tonnes of food, 4.2 of which was avoidable. This cost the average UK household £9 per week, with 19% of this waste in weight coming from fruit and vegetables, and a further 7% from meat and fish . Avoiding the avoidable food waste would save a household almost £500 a year. This is besides all the environmental benefits of reducing food waste: less agricultural land wasted and less pollutants generated from landfill. Eliminating Oxford’s avoidable food waste would cut 57,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent .
When going shopping, it is always helpful to have a shopping list to ensure you only buy what you need for the following few days. Also, be aware of advertising techniques which entice consumers to buy more, such as multi-buys and ‘buy one, get one free’; a few years ago, a House of Lords committee criticised supermarkets for doing this . This will help minimise forgotten food items which unexpectedly spoil in the fridge. When eating out, try ordering smaller portion sizes if you know you are unlikely to finish the whole dish; in a 2013 WRAP survey, 41% of survey respondents said they leave food on the plate mainly because the portion is too large . More is not always better.
For the unavoidable food waste, such as fruit peelings and egg shells, try home composting. If you do not have a garden, check with your local council about food waste recycling; in Oxford, food waste is taken to a processing plant, where it is used to generate fertiliser for local farms and electricity for over 4,000 homes . Food waste in landfill will only end up generating methane, a potent greenhouse gas 20 times stronger than CO2, and leachates which pollute natural water systems. Food ‘waste’ is in fact a very valuable resource; don’t let it go to waste.
tl;dr: Beware of multi-buys; compost and recycle.
In 2010, the UK produced 15,382,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from food transport . Many have advocated buying local produce as an effective way to reduce the carbon footprint; in reality, the issue of food miles is deceptively complex. As an example, tomatoes grown in the UK may contribute 3 times as much greenhouse gas emissions than those imported from Spain, due to higher energy and resource requirements in UK production . Also, supply-chain transport significantly outweighs retailer transport in terms of environmental impact, but most consumers tend to only think about the later . Buying local is not always easy either. Only 54% of food consumed in the UK is produced domestically, with another 27% is imported from the EU; the UK provides 86% of its own dairy and eggs, 84% of its meat, but only 23% of its fruits and vegetables . The growing trend for buying ‘British beef’ is likely a good one to jump on board; sadly, such a trend does not exist for ‘British potatoes’.
There are a two reliable and simple tips relating to food transport. The first is to buy seasonal, local produce; this has additional benefits of limiting emissions from refrigeration storage and commercial ripening, and helping you save money. Sadly, in a 2014 survey, less than 10% of respondents knew the seasonality of various fruits and vegetables . Of course, you would notice the absurdity of fresh strawberries and cream next to your Christmas pudding, but why not take a few minutes, go to Love British Food, and read up on the matter . The second is to avoid food imported by air; while only 1% of food by weight is airfreighted, it makes up 12% of the total emissions from food transport . Certain fresh fruits and vegetables like beans, peas, guavas, mangos, sweetcorn, asparagus, and cherries and berries are almost exclusively airfreighted if imported into the UK , as is imported fresh seafood. That being said, if you must enjoy exotic fruits, it is probably better to buy imported ones, as the environmental cost of growing them locally would likely outweigh the lower food miles.
Currently, less than 1% of the food consumed in Oxford comes from local sources . Low Carbon Oxford North have produced an excellent booklet, with an extensive directory of local farmers’ markets, farm shops, and box schemes . Check it out for some new and exciting places to buy local, seasonal produce. In other parts of the country, farmers’ markets remain popular even in large cities like London.
tl;dr: Buy seasonal and local; avoid high-flying food.
There are many other problems with global agribusiness from an environmental standpoint. I will quickly run through a few additional case studies, but this list could be inexhaustible. The best thing environmentally might be a world of subsistence farming, in fields and commons, allotments and window sills; needless to say, this is an idealistic fantasy – a utopian dystopia which is pragmatically impossible and ethically questionable.
Palm oil accounts for over 30% of global vegetable oil production, and is one of the major contributors to deforestation and habitat destruction. According to WWF, 300 football fields of land are cleared every hour to make way for palm oil plantations ; it is the leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia . Virgin rainforest in these countries are often burnt instead of logged, contributing towards animal extinctions and climate change in terms of emissions and diminishing carbon sinks. Additionally, this type of intensive monoculture results in severe soil quality erosion and water pollution. Avoiding palm oil can actually be very tricky as it is found in a wide variety of products, from baked goods and confectionary to toothpaste and household cleaning products. While the major driver in palm oil production is biofuels, reducing consumption in food and household products will make a difference; unintentionally, the average Western consumer uses 10 kilograms of palm oil every year . But now that you know … Anyway, WWF are working towards certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), and more and more companies have committed to using 100% CSPO. Luckily for us, this list includes supermarkets like Boots, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, The Co-op and Waitrose; and retailers such as Ferrero, Kellogg’s, Mars, PepsiCo, and Young’s .
A number of crops are also very water intensive. WWF lists cotton, rice, sugar cane, and wheat as global culprits in agricultural water wastage, as these account for 58% of irrigated farmland globally; producing 1 kilogram rice requires up to 5,000 litres of water . Other crops come as more of a surprise. California produces 82% of the world’s almonds; a crop which demands 4.5 litres of water for each almond , grown in a state of perpetual drought – such irony. Throw avocados into the Californian mix, a fruit which requires 720 litres per kilogram to produce , and we have to wonder why they decided it would be a good idea to build farms and megacities in the desert. Do your utmost to ignore the delicious, delightful, distinctive fruit next time you go shopping; should you fail, take comfort in the fact that I have likewise failed – many times.
Chemicals used in the world of agribusiness are major pollutants when ill-managed: excess nutrients can cause eutrophication and biodiversity loss in rivers and lakes, high concentrations of ammonia in water are toxic to aquatic organisms, and acidification of land and water bodies creates hostile environments for wildlife . Recently, there has been an ongoing debate in the EU regarding the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and their impact on bee populations . There are growing measures to ensure chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used responsibly and effectively within the agricultural process, and rightly so, but as a consumer an easy way to reduce the environmental impact in this area is to simply bypass all the chemicals entirely; pay a bit extra and go organic where possible. Play ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with SAO’.
In fact, the ‘Soil Association Organic’ symbol is one of many schemes which already exist to inform consumers in making ethical sustainable food choices. ‘Fairtrade’, ‘Rainforest Alliance Certified’, ‘Dolphin Friendly’, and ‘RSPO: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’ are but a few to look out for; they certify the ‘un-cutting’ of corners cut too often by producers and suppliers to the detriment of the environment. They aren’t perfect, but they help.
tl;dr: Palm oil and avocados are terrible; look for food certification like ‘Organic’.
by Sze Ching Cheung
Footnotes Godsen, E., 2015. Hate wind farms? Eat chicken, not beef. The Telegraph, [online] 28 January. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/climatechange/11373389/Hate-wind-farms-Eat-chicken.html [Accessed 20 February 2017].  Foster, C., K. Green, M. Bleda, P. Dewick, B., Evans A. Flynn and J. Mylan, 2006. Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. [pdf] London: DEFRA. Available at: http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=EV02007_4601_FRP.pdf [Accessed 20 February 2017].  Marine Conservation Society, 2016. Good Fish Guide. [pdf] MCS. Available at: http://www.mcsuk.org/downloads/fisheries/PocketGoodFishGuide_2016_high.pdf [Accessed 20 February 2017].  Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, 2016. Food Statistics Pocketbook 2015: In Year Update. [pdf] London: DEFRA. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/526395/foodpocketbook-2015update-26may16.pdf [Accessed 18 February 2017].  United States Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. [online] (Last updated May 2016) Available at: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator [Accessed 18 February 2017].  Oxford City Council, n.d. Markets and fairs. [online] Available at: https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20035/events/791/markets_and_fairs [Accessed 18 February 2017].  Low Carbon Oxford North, 2016. Act Global – Eat Local: A Food Directory for Oxford. [pdf] Oxford LCON. Available at: http://www.lcon.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2016/06/food_booklet_4web.pdf [Accessed 19 February 2017].  SESI, n.d. SESI Food and Household Refills. [online] Available at: http://www.sesi.org.uk [Accessed 18 February 2017].  Press Association, 2014. 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[online] Available at: http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue.php [Accessed 20 February 2017].  World Wide Fund for Nature, n.d. Palm oil & forest conversion. [online] Available at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/agriculture/palm_oil/environmental_impacts/forest_conversion/ [Accessed 20 February 2017].  World Wide Fund for Nature, 2016. Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard: Measuring the Progress of Palm Oil Buyers. [pdf] Gland: WWF. Available at: http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/wwf_palm_oil_scorecard_2016_1.pdf [Accessed 20 February 2017].  World Wide Fund for Nature, n.d. Thirsty Crops: Our food and clothes: eating up nature and wearing out the environment?. [pdf] Gland: WWF. Available at: http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwfbookletthirstycrops.pdf [Accessed 20 February 2017].  May, G., 2016. Healthy foods that are ruining the environment. The Telegraph, [online] 18 August. 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