Change Your Habits, Change The World
Most of us tend to think about the personal effects of changing our diets from time to time – cutting down after Christmas; losing a few pounds before a holiday – but with world food consumption on the up and a noticeable increase in our intake of meat, fat, processed foods, sugar and salt – each one, a marked enemy of a healthy, balanced diet – isn’t it time we considered the bigger issues associated with this? The ones that go beyond our plates.
Changes in agricultural practice over the past 50 years specifically have increased the world’s capacity to provide food for its growing population, which is currently estimated to be some 7.4 billion people. Although this all sounds pretty positive on the surface, the methods by which we’ve got to this point are, sadly, not much to be proud of. The drivers that are largely responsible for our increased consumption – the rise of supermarkets; year round availability of most food; processed products with suspiciously long shelf lives; and intensive food production methods such as factory farming – all have a counterbalance, not least the decline of the local shop and the increasingly blurred lines where seasonality is concerned; surely we shouldn’t be able to buy strawberries in winter?
In a nutshell, producing food for our growing population has been a cause of concern and debate for hundreds of years, but world food production has grown faster than our population, so per capita food consumption has increased. The availability of food has outstripped the need (in the western world, anyway), so most of us are eating too much to the tune of 500 calories daily. 2.3 billion people are living in countries with under 2,000 calories available per person per day, but on the flipside, 1.9 billion people are living in countries where the population is gorging on over 3,000 calories each. The balance is all out of whack and needs to be redressed, which is a pretty big ask and a problem that won’t be solved overnight. There are changes we can make, however – to the way we shop and what we eat – that will make a positive impact on the world and that we can all effect immediately.
Watch your waste
Odd, but true, that in our developed western world, composting is still considered a pretty radical and forward-thinking practice – not many of us, especially city dwellers, do it, but we all should. According to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, approximately one-third of global food is wasted and a recent report published by them has put into context the shocking environmental impact of this waste:
“Without accounting for greenhouse gas emissions from land use change, the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated to be 3.3 tonnes of CO2 equivalent: as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after the USA and China. Globally, the blue water footprint – i.e. the consumption of surface and groundwater resources – of food wastage is about 250 km3, which is equivalent to the annual water discharge of the Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva. Finally, produced but uneaten food vainly occupies almost 1.4 billion hectares of land; this represents close to 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land area.”
Wow. Along with our aforementioned lacklustre attitude towards composting, the selection by farmers and supermarkets of fruit and vegetables based upon their ‘perfect’ looks as opposed to their taste and nutritional value is also a factor that’s adding to the world’s massive amount of wasted food.
So, what can we do about it? Get composting for starters. Even the tiniest of city kitchens has room for a small, worktop composter and you can use the soil in your houseplants. Check your fridge and make a list of what you need when you go food shopping as opposed to buying what you usually buy and finding later that you’ve doubled up. Use up your leftovers – fruit and vegetables that are slightly past their best make for really flavoursome soups and smoothies. And, if you have the garden space, have a go at growing your own food; kale and spinach grow like the clappers once they start!
Cut down on meat and fish
Since 1974, our consumption of takeaway food has almost doubled, rising from 80g per person per week to 150g, around 56g of which comprises kebabs, chicken and burgers. But, just one quarter-pounder burger takes around 30 showers worth of water to produce – getting meat from the farm to our forks is a massively water-intensive process, which in turn has a significant negative effect on climate change, as does our general consumption of meat; red meat in particular.
In fact, the environmental impact of eating beef dwarfs that of other meats and research has shown that eating less red meat could be as effective at cutting your carbon emissions as giving up your car. It requires 28 times the amount of land to produce beef than chicken or pork and 11 times the amount of water, a process that overall results in five times the amount of climate-warming emissions being released.
A recommended daily portion of lean meat is the same size of a deck of cards – firstly, we’re eating too much, and secondly, a lot of us are eating too much cheap, non free-range meat, which moves the debate into a very grey, ethically murky area where chickens are packed into senseless facilities and force fed, and animals are somehow bred to feel no pain – which says enough, really. As a rule of thumb, cheap meat means corners are cut where the safety, health and welfare of animals is concerned, so it’s better to buy good quality meat and eat it less frequently.
What else can we do? Stop eating as much fish too – the quick-fix global fishing practices being employed to cope with our increasing seafood consumption are contributing to man-made climate change and damaging our oceans. And, when you do buy beef, choose grass fed rather than grain fed – a lot of grain feeds are associated with added drugs and hormones to speed up the growth of the cow. Eat less and buy better: environmental harm occurs during the production of meat, and not the consumption, so to reduce this harm we need to affect the decision to produce.
Eat and shop local
Between production, packaging and transportation to the enormous supermarkets from which many of us buy our weekly shop, a lot of our food travels an awful long way. I’m ashamed to admit that, barring the ‘perfectly imperfect’ strawberries that found their way to my fridge via Kent (and, incidentally, may well be shaped more like potatoes, but taste divine), for the process of research I’ve just checked my own fridge and found tomatoes from Holland, grapes from Chile, and blueberries from Morocco.
Eating local is not only a way to cut down on food miles and pesky emissions caused during transit, but is also a way to support your own community economically as opposed to further lining the pockets of the large companies who make billions annually from our constant need for convenience. Buying food locally promotes solidarity with smaller scale food producers and is an opportunity to eat more natural foods – or ‘whole’ foods as non-tampered with, less-travelled foods have always been known.
Whole foods are higher in nutrient levels because they don’t undergo all of the packaging, artificial lighting and changes in temperature that fruit and vegetables which have travelled across the world (or even from one end of the country to the other) will have. Which isn’t to say that non-local produce isn’t nutritious, but is to say that its levels of nutrients and specifically vitamins A, B, C and E will be significantly lower than fruit and vegetables bought from local markets where the produce sold hasn’t had to travel far and so has had more time to ripen on its branches, vines and bushes. Shopping locally, your food will not only be healthier for you, but it will taste better too as anyone who’s ever been to a ‘pick your own’ and eaten fruit fresh from the plant will contest.
Eating local also means that your diet will naturally follow the seasons as you’ll buy whatever the farmers have in abundance. It’s too easy to go to the supermarket and pick up the same produce from the same spot along the same aisle, which sounds boring because it is boring! The rise in popularity of home-delivered veg boxes, filled with colourful, and, crucially, seasonal food however, shows that more people are choosing to eat what the world is producing when the world is naturally producing it, which is great news for our nutritional needs and makes for a much more varied and interesting dinner plate.
Find out where your food comes from
Every seller of food should be both knowledgeable about and accountable for the supply chain along which the food they’re selling travels. Sadly, the appalling sweatshop conditions for which numerous high street clothing stores are criticised exist in the food industry too, and the way in which many workers in the fishing sector are treated is tantamount to slavery. Forced away from their families due to financial need, they are stranded at sea in unsafe, rust-bucket boats with inadequate sanitation and forced to work excruciatingly long hours for very little pay.
Fortunately, organisations like Greenpeace are fighting the food slavery fight and helping improve conditions for poorly treated food industry workers through engagement with governments all over the world, and there’s nothing stopping any of us lending our support too. Knowledge is power where this is concerned and there is a wealth of information out there, so arm yourself with it and choose to buy food from ethically sound sources with a trusted environmental and social track record.
Value your food, not your savings
This is a tough one for most of us, especially in light of the government’s constant calls for austerity that ring in our ears (whether we like it or not), but Gillian McKeith called it back in the 90s and she was right: we really are what we eat, and in the main, better food costs more money.
We’re not suggesting you splurge and be frivolous; buying big name brands or suddenly developing a penchant for white truffles – but while buying whole, local food will likely dent your wallet a little more, the health benefits you’ll receive from it will far outweigh how much you paid for it and you’ll be supporting local, hardworking farmers in the process. Anyone with a conscience who’s watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gallantly giving intensively farmed chickens a voice, or Jamie Oliver fighting against appalling school dinners can’t deny that they’ve both got a point. Simple steps like buying free-range eggs and chicken will take a while to get used to financially, but will help to put a stop to the ceaseless production of low-quality, nutrient-poor food and will also encourage your children to make better food choices along the line – an organic banana, or a turkey twizzler? I know which I’d rather see my kids eating.
You can also think about upping your shopping budget as donating money, albeit not in the traditional sense. Paying more for fresh, local fruit and vegetables ensures the growers who’ve got them to market in the first place can continue tending their crops; pay a premium for fair-trade certification on things like sugar and tea and you’re guaranteed that the harvesters who gathered it are being paid a fair wage in return; and when it comes to animal products, a higher price tag is an indication that they’ve been raised humanely.
Bully for us Brits, the signs are all there that as a nation, we are becoming more prudent about what we put on our plates; our consumption of fruit has increased by 50 percent since 1974 and the internet can bring high-quality, nutrient-rich food to our doors at the click of a button. Likewise, eating locally is becoming easier with food festivals and farmers’ markets popping up all over the place. When it comes to our eating habits, we have a lot more power to make positive global changes than it may seem – think before you eat and you’re helping not only yourself, but the rest of the world too.