How To Eat Sustainably (Without Going Vegan)

In 2018, food is starting to get a bad name. Food's plastic packaging has been found clogging our rivers, documentaries have delved in to the murky side of the food industry and unsurprisingly, veganism is on the rise as a way to eat without harming the planet.

After all, reports have claimed that the meat industry could be responsible for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But what are you supposed to do if you want to be good to the planet but can't face a life without cheeseburgers? And is a plant basted diet the only we can make a difference with our knife and fork?

The first and most important thing is to really consider where our food comes from. Every day, we make hundreds of small choices about what we eat and each one has a huge effect on the environment.

Before it even reaches our plate, food is raised or grown somewhere in the world, then clipped, shipped, refrigerated, processed, packaged, trucked, stored, sold and cooked. It might feel like the environmental impact of the food industry is beyond our control, but we can all be more mindful of what we put in our mouths and make it better not just for ourselves, but for the entire planet.

Photo: Shanice Garcia
Keep it close to home

Let's just agree that growing enough food for seven billion humans takes a lot out of our planet. We use over 70% of the world's water to grow our food, 37% of our landmass is devoted to feeding us and almost 30% of the global population is, one way or another, employed by agriculture. Meat and dairy are two of the most energy-inefficient food groups; for instance, it takes 255 litres of water to produce a glass of milk, compared to 27 litres of water for one cup of tea (black, of course). In general, fruit and vegetables require much less water – but even if you go fully plant based, not all vegetables are good for the planet.

Unfortunately, this includes the toast topper du jour: avocados. Greenpeace Mexico has warned that, due to our love of guacamole, Mexican drug cartels are taking over avocado production, terrorising local communities and forcing farmers to deforest land to grow avocados and use illegal chemicals on their fields. Even if your avos don't come from Mexico, their production involves a lot of water – it can take more than 1,000 litres of water to grow two medium avocados.

Almonds, too, require a crazy amount of water – over five litres per almond – and can only be grown in very specific environments, which are slowly being racked by drought. And that's before these tasty seeds (yep, we thought they were nuts, too) are shipped off to be processed into almond milk, packaged and shipped back around the world. A single gram of chocolate, meanwhile, uses over 170 litres of water.

All of this can feel overwhelming, after all if the "superfoods" can't save the planets what can? But you can follow a simple rule - if you have to chose between a veggie grown on the other side of the world and one grown nearby, the one grown closest will likely be the greenest choice.

Quick and easy tip:

Switch avocados for lettuce, tomatoes and cucumberAvocados need so much water because they have evolved to grow in wet, tropical climates. It's possible to grow the same amount of equally delicious European veggies – like tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce – for less than one tenth of the water sucked up by the food blogger fave.
Photo: Carissa Gan
Avoid processed food

Processed food has a bad reputation for what it does to your insides but have you ever thought about what it does to our environment? Generally, the further your food has travelled, the more energy and water it's used. The long list of ingredients means it probably has a pretty considerable carbon footprint.

If you cook your food from scratch, the environmental impact is easy to assess. Once grown, cleaned and shipped to store, you transport your ingredients to your home, prepare and cook them, then dispose of any leftovers or packaging. Walking to the shops or choosing an energy-efficient cooker will reduce this impact further.

But if you buy your food pre-processed or pre-cooked it becomes much trickier. Raw ingredients are usually frozen and shipped from all over the world to various factories, cut and cooked down before being packaged and shipped again to a depot. From there, they'll be transported to your local supermarket for you to chuck in your basket, take home and cook all over again. Generally, you have no control over where those ingredients come from, how energy-efficient those factories are or how much waste or pollution was created along the way.

We get it. When you're on the go, processed food can be a lifesaver – but if you have time to cook from scratch using fresh ingredients, you'll be so much greener. No matter how healthy processed food claims to be, fresh is usually better for you and better for the planet. Cutting out processed food could also drastically reduce your food packaging.

Quick and easy tip:

Make your own pasta sauceA simple jar of pasta sauce often contains a lot of processed ingredients, including modified ones like fructose and maize starch. Why not try one of these simple pasta dishes instead – you can even make them when your fridge is bare.
Photo: Lukas Budimaier
Unpackage

Yes, packaging! We all know the drill: less packaging = better for the environment. You might already be using canvas bags instead of plastic, but there is more that you can do.

The government is bringing in measures to lessen plastic packaging, but these won't be fully in force for decades.

Instead, before you buy your food, simply check to see if the packaging is recyclable – not all of it will be, but these symbols will let you know what you can recycle, and what will have to go in the bin.

Also, look to see how much packaging there is in total; boxes of loose teabags or tealeaves are greener than individually wrapped teabags, for example. Think about buying bigger packs of dry goods, as well. You can store most uncooked rice almost indefinitely, and one 2kg bag has far less packaging than four 500g bags (plus it's usually cheaper).

Where you can, though, avoid packaging full-stop. Look for fresh food sold loose rather than in packs – it uses less energy when being transported from field to factory. Buying your vegetables loose or your meat, fish and bread from the deli counters in supermarkets can really reduce the amount of packaging you take home, too. And if your nearest supermarket doesn't have a deli counter, try shopping locally.

Quick and easy tip:

Take inspiration from zero waste livingBelieve it or not, some people – like BeZeroWasteGirl and ZeroWasteNerd – live a life virtually free from waste by reducing the packaging they consume. This is by no means quick or easy, but check out our guide to zero waste living and see how you can cut down your packaging, too.
Photo: Leonie Wise
Eat local

If you're lucky enough to have a local greengrocer, fishmonger, baker or butcher, you can be greener just by shopping there. True, independent shops are sometimes a little more expensive than supermarkets but if you support them, they will support you back.

Studies have found that small businesses may be better for the economy, community and of course the environment. If you shop close to home, you can avoid driving long distances and are more likely to buy produce that was grown or created locally. This is incredibly important.

In any UK supermarket you'll find food imported from everywhere from Vietnam to Peru, which requires huge resources. In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that importing food was responsible for over 250,000 tons of global warming gases. That's the equivalent of almost two power plants. Before you buy, think about what it took to get that food to you.

Not all food can be local, of course, but where you can, eating vegetables, meat, fish and grains grown or raised in the UK or Europe is good for the planet. If you have no choice but to shop at a supermarket, look out for the country of origin on the packaging and choose one close to home.

Quick and easy tip:

Subscribe to a local veg boxIf you don't have a local greengrocer or can't easily get there, try subscribing to a veg box. Search online to find a fresh, local and often organic fruit and vegetable box that can be delivered straight to your door.
Photo: Elli O
Stop wasting your food

Food waste happens all the time, all over the world. The World Resources Institute found that, between being grown and getting to your plate, about 25% of the world's food is lost or wasted. Often this is because food goes off during transport, because factories process food poorly or because supermarkets throw it away.

WRAP says that the UK alone wastes 10 million tonnes of food each year, 60% of which could be avoided. If Europe stopped wasting food today, we could feed 200 million people. Eating local, unprocessed food can help – but the scary fact is, 70% of UK food waste happens in our own homes.

Partly, this is down to packaging and supermarkets. Over half of the food we waste hasn't been used 'in time', including 17 billion portions of fresh produce. We've all done it – thrown away that surplus pepper when the stir fry recipe only calls for two.

The easiest way to avoid doing this is to stop buying packs in the first place: if you need two peppers, buy two peppers. And if that seems like too much of a faff, have a regular check of your fridge. If you have food that's about to go off, cook it and freeze it. Love Food Hate Waste has tons of tips on how to use your leftovers.

But first, learn what 'gone off' actually means. 'Best before' dates, according to both the NHS and the Food Standards Agency, are simply an indication of when food will be at its freshest, not when you should throw it away.

Both 'sell by' and 'display until' dates are added by the supermarket, not by an authority: store your food well and, even past these dates, if it's not mouldy or yeasty, it's probably fine to cook with or freeze. But pay attention to anything marked 'use by' – after this date, food may become contaminated with bugs like norovirus. Reducing waste is important but if food has passed its 'use by' date it could make you ill, so throw it away.

If you do need to throw food away, ask your council for a food waste bin and cut down on the amount of food waste in landfill. If all edible food waste in the UK was eaten or properly disposed of, it would reduce as much CO2 as taking a quarter of cars off the road.

Quick and easy tip:

Learn to love leftoversIt's easy to throw away an extra portion instead of saving it but cooked food can last three to four days when refrigerated, and will do nicely for a packed lunch. Check out our guide to see how long your leftovers will last.
Photo: James Wei
Eat meat and fish, but better

Here's what you don't want to hear: the meat industry is seriously damaging the planet. Factory farming has led to deforestation, vast greenhouse gas emissions, waste dumping and massive water consumption. But if you do eat meat and fish (like 90% of the population), it is possible to make environmentally friendly choices. On top of everything we've already mentioned, the biggest things you can do are buy from small farms and eat the right kinds of meat.

Firstly, with meat the biggest environmental impact comes from factory farming so try to buy from small, sustainable farms, which usually treat their animals more kindly. If your meat is labelled 'pasture fed' or 'grass fed', the animals will eat naturally growing grass rather than grain, which has to be shipped to the farm. If you buy meat labelled 'organic', the farm won't have used chemical pesticides or fertilisers, which means less water pollution and chemical runoff. Shop at a butcher? Ask them which meat is farmed nearby and in the most environmentally friendly way. Some meats are kinder to the planet than others, too.

The best thing a meat-eater can do to help the planet, though, is to cut out beef. Studies show that the carbon footprint of a meat-eater who avoids just beef is almost the same as a vegetarian's. The National Academy of Sciences in the US confirms that beef needs 28 times more land and produces five times more greenhouse gases than other meats. Being kind to the planet could be as easy as ordering chicken instead of beef.

Eating fish is having a devastating effect on the planet too. Overfishing is leaving some parts of the ocean into barren wastelands, and other sea creatures like dolphins and whales are often killed - either by fisherman or starvation. To start to save our seas, we've created full guide on how to eat fish more sustainably.

Quick and easy tip:

Become a flexitarianAll meat impacts the environment so if you can't give it up altogether, try Meat Free Mondays or only eating meat on the weekends – otherwise known as flexitarianism. Find more advice on how to go veggie in a healthy way here.
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