What is ‘sustainable food’ and what does it mean? Dr Clare Pettinger takes a close look at sustainability and how making informed food choices and minimising food waste can benefit both our own health and that of the planet
‘Farm to fork’ – our imbalanced food system
Food has a very complicated journey to get from where it is produced (farm) to how it ends up on our plate and is eaten (fork). Our food system is imbalanced – on the one hand (globally), two billion individuals are overweight or obese, on the other, 800 million are unable to access enough food, leading to various forms of malnutrition. We waste almost half of our food – either in the fields where it is grown, from the retail outlets, or directly off our plates, as left-overs. This unsustainable food system of ours is accountable for a third of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions (the leading cause of climate change) and this has other consequences, like deforestation, pollution and overfishing. If we continue with a ‘business as usual’ attitude, we will seriously limit our ability to feed a future population of nine billion.
Some of the factors at play are complex and out of our direct control, but others are well within our reach to tackle. What is ‘sustainable food’ and what does it mean? How can we make more informed choices about the food we eat and benefit both our own health and that of the planet?
“Look for sustainably sourced fish„
There’s no internationally agreed or legal definition of ‘sustainable food’ although some aspects, such as the terms ‘organic’ and ‘Fairtrade’, are well known and clearly defined. Different foods have different environmental impacts with the main culprits being livestock (cows, sheep) which account for half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Moving towards reducing meat and dairy consumption in favour of a more plant-based diet would have immediate and far-reaching benefits for the environment and human health. The UK Eatwell Guide (above) reflects this suggested shift and mentions ‘sustainably sourced’ fish.
The organisation ‘Sustain’ produces practical advice on eating sustainably, including seven guiding principles; https://www.sustainweb.org/sustainablefood/#good_food
If you choose to change your dietary intake to eat more sustainably, it’s important you consider the overall balance of your diet, so as not to miss out on essential vitamins and minerals. Check out the British Dietetic Association (BDA) Sustainable Diet policy and the Plant-based diet Food Fact Sheet at https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/plant-based_diet
“Livestock account for half of all greenhouse gas emissions„
Can we achieve a sustainable and healthy diet?
Recent evidence confirms that we can eat in a way that’s both good for our own health and the health of the planet. What does this look like on a ‘on a plate’?
No, there are not plenty more fish in the sea!
Fish stocks are in a state of decline, with overfishing a great threat to marine habitats. If we continue current fishing practices, it’s estimated that we will run out of seafood completely in just 35 years from now! With 90 per cent of world fish stocks over-exploited from fishing and pressure from climate change and pollution, we’re moving into dangerous waters when it comes to the fish of the future. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organisation who recognise and reward efforts to safeguard future seafood supplies. They run a fishery certification programme, to support sustainable purchasing decisions (see https://20.msc.org/).
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) provides advocacy for the protection of our seas, shores and wildlife (see https://www.mcsuk.org/what-we-do/). This website has a useful ‘responsible seafood’ section, including a handy ‘good fish guide’ to support fish shopping choices.
Find out if your nearest city is a ‘Sustainable Fish city’. Cities across the UK are joining the campaign to become places where sustainable fish is promoted, find out here: https://www.sustainweb.org/sustainablefishcity/
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – friend or foe?
A GMO is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Genetically modified (GM) foods are produced from plants which have had their genetic make-up tweaked in the laboratory. This is done to increase the yield of a crop (e.g. to feed developing countries) or allow the plant to exist in a more hostile environment than normal (e.g. extreme weather). GM foods are highly controversial and the extent to which they can help or harm humans and the environment is widely debated. For some useful information, see the ‘Genetically Modified Foods Fact sheet: Pros vs Cons’ here: http://www.geneticallymodifiedfoods.co.uk/fact-sheet-pros-vs-cons.html
and World Health Organisation’s frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods at http://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/
What about ‘sustainable cuisine’?
When you eat out, it’s important to know how to identify areas of ‘good practice’ by restaurants and caterers. DON’T BE SCARED TO ASK THE CHEF! Many eateries are taking sustainability very seriously. Look out for the following schemes:
1 The Food for Life Served Here Award is an independent award scheme that guarantees menu food meets certain standards. See https://www.soilassociation.org/served-here/
2 Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) Awards http://www.thesra.org/awards17
3 Good Egg Award https://www.compassioninfoodbusiness.com/awards/good-egg-award/
4 The Sustainable Food Cities Award is designed to recognise the success of cities taking a joined up to food on a range of key issues http://sustainablefoodcities.org/awards
1 BUY – Review your food shopping habits
Can you plan better? Avoid buying food that might go out of date. Buy loose vegetables and fruit and look out for ‘end of day bargains’ and ‘wonky’ veggies. Try to buy local and in season and support local farmers markets. Teach kids about seasons and the identification of fruit and vegetables. Check food labels carefully and look out for the country of origin (think ‘food miles’), ‘fish certification’ (e.g. tuna) and ‘Fairtrade’ (e.g. coffee, chocolate). Check for ‘GM’, levels of fat, sugar and salt.
2 EAT – Adapt and plan meals and recipes
If you eat meat, adapt recipes to use less meat and add more pulses, veggies and legumes to make up. Cut down on meat (buy smaller quantities of better quality meat such as ‘local’ or ‘organic’) and incorporate ‘meat free’ days every week.
3 WASTE – Use up leftovers
Challenge yourself with new ‘surplus’ recipes and dishes. Use a food compost bin (if available) and share food with your neighbours and friends. Use leftover veggies in stews and soups.
Grow your own – Given our lifestyles this is not always realistic, but try growing your own even in a very small garden or grow them in a window ledge box.
Look to the local community – Seek out local food projects, networks and partnerships and ideas about growing, cooking foods and composting. Share any surplus food and offer to foodbanks and community fridges. Consider lobbying your local Member of Parliament to implement and support local food and environment policies.
Spread the word in the workplace – Encourage workmates to think as to how they can change. Organise shared ‘left-over’ lunches. Use a staff water fountain.
Our actions count – every small change can make a big difference to your own health and that of the planet!
References available upon request.