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  • Will Downes

9 Easy Changes You Can Make To Your Diet For The Sake Of The Planet

Will Downes, a British chef currently working in Mexico City, discusses the issues that exist within the supply chains of the food industry, and what individuals can do to eat sustainably.

Hi, my name is Will Downes. I am a young British chef currently working in Mexico City. Working in the food industry, I have been exposed to the destructive effect that different food trends have on the climate. As a result, I am trying to reach as many people as possible with some suggestions of how to achieve a more sustainable diet.

One of the greatest challenges in the fight against climate change is the lack of public awareness of what ‘we’ can do to help. While many may know basic ways they can live more sustainable lives, like cutting out single-use plastic, buying an electric car, recycling or donating to conservation efforts, more can be done. That something more is eating sustainably. By approaching our diets with a sustainable mindset, we have the power to save our world from the looming environmental disaster. Collectively, we can make a difference.

I have noticed the main excuse for an unsustainable diet that people give is primarily based around...

... (1) a lack of awareness of the scale of the environmental impact of certain foods and (2) simply not knowing the alternatives.

These are two issues that I hope to tackle in this article where I have outlined 9 easy changes that you can make to your diet for the sake of the planet.

1. Eat less meat.

Eating less (or no) meat is the single most impactful decision that you can make about your diet regarding the environment. The idea of cutting out meat entirely is unrealistic to most people. A more achievable target would be to reduce your average daily meat intake to less than 50g per day. As you can see from this graph there is more of a jump in terms of GHG emissions between a high meat and low meat diet then there is between low meat and vegetarian. Granted 50g per day is a very small portion (equivalent roughly to one sausage) but if you look at this allowance as a weekly average it becomes a lot more achievable. Abstaining from meat across the week will allow a relatively carnivorous weekend whilst remaining within the guidelines.

2. Understand the impacts of ruminant meat.

The family of ruminant animals encompasses cows, sheep and deer. Ruminant animals ferment their food in their stomach in order to ease digestion. This process produces a large amount of methane which is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. Pork and poultry are substantially less environmentally impactful to farm than beef and lamb simply because their biology does not contain this feature. This graph clearly illustrates the scale of the disparity in GHG emissions of ruminant animals compared to pork and poultry. This is something to consider when making your meat selection. If you are going to eat meat tonight, why not swap a steak for a pork chop or roast chicken?

3. Drink an alternative milk.

There are so many good alternative milk options that this should be an easy transition to make if you have not made it already. The production of dairy has a similar impact as ruminant meat for the reasons outlined above. For a lot of people, cheese and butter is understandably irreplaceable. Once again, we can employ the concept of meeting in the middle here. Why not switch to an alternative milk for your coffee to offset your continued consumption (hopefully to a lesser extent) of cheese?

4. Buy ingredients from the UK.

Contrary to popular belief, the transport of the food from overseas has a negligible environmental impact compared to the GHG emission from the production of the food itself. As seen represented in red on the graph of GHG emissions across the supply chain at this bottom of this page. However, the benefits of eating local extend further than simply reducing transport impacts. Farming practices in the UK are among the best in the world. Our high standards heavily limit the use of environmentally harmful herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Additionally, due to the established agricultural infrastructure in Britain, land used for growing food has largely always been used for this purpose thus eliminating the ‘Land Use Change’ portion of the supply chain (represented in green on the graph) which is so prominent in countries without these farming practices such as in countries across South America where vast swathes of rainforest or land dedicated to environmental protection are cut down to provide space for agriculture.

5. Buy seasonal ingredients.

Understanding what fruit and vegetables are in season will help reduce the environmental impact of your weekly shop. Additionally, perfectly ripe seasonal fruits and vegetables taste astronomically better than their out-of-season counterparts. Take strawberries, for example. Strawberries are available all year round in most large supermarkets. In December, the strawberries will be imported from Africa or from a polytunnel in Spain. They will be large and pale with little natural sweetness due to their artificially accelerated growth time to meet our demand for year-round fruit. Compare these to perfectly ripe and juicy British strawberries in July. It is a completely different product. Here is a link to a useful month-by-month guide to seasonal ingredients in the UK.

6. Do not waste your food.

Approximately one third of food produced in the world is wasted. Wasting food, amid what is to become a global food crisis as populations rise, is non-sensical. There are loads of culprits along the long supply chain that takes food from the farm to your plate that contributes to this figure including poor farming practices, transportation, unsustainable preparation techniques and excessive portion sizes, to name but a few. Large restaurant chains are a chief offender. When preparing food on such a large scale, as in fast food restaurants, it is impossible to control food waste. Due to stringent (but necessary) food hygiene laws, unsold food must be thrown away. Buffets run into a similar problem. Where possible only eat at small, trustworthy, independent restaurants that have sustainable food preparation and ordering practices as well as reasonable portion control (run away from anywhere boasting ‘all you can eat’). At home, learn to cook with leftovers and try to plan your week’s meals before you shop to reduce waste. Think before you throw anything away.

7. Eat a variety of foods.

Three quarters of the Earths food supply draws on just 12 crops and 5 livestock species. This heavily unbalanced weighting necessitates the use of monoculture farming practices to be adopted to meet our incredibly high demands for specific crops. Monoculture farming pillages the soil of certain minerals required for the following year’s crop to grow. This means large quantities of fertiliser are needed to continue farming, having obvious environmental impacts. Eating a more varied diet will help to increase demand for the less ‘fashionable’ crops thus incentivising farmers to grow and rotate a wider range of crops. This method of crop rotation naturally replenishes the soil’s nutrients thus reducing the need for harmful artificial enhancers. By trying quinoa, amaranth, lentils or fonio instead of rice or pasta a few nights a week you will help to contribute to this diversification. Here is a link to a great WWF article that outlines 50 super sustainable food alternatives which, if adopted into mainstream diets, will be hugely beneficial to the environment

8. Reduce your dependence on supermarkets.

For me, this is the big one. Supermarkets in the UK completely monopolise the food retail industry. They dictate prices, pressure farmers and shirk the responsibility to promote sustainable production practices, to name but a few transgressions committed for the sake of their bottom line. In fact, the 'Clone Town Britain Survey' in 2004 aimed to understand the wider impact that the increasing monopolisation of retail and consumer products has on British local economies and communities. One relevant finding of the survey was that by February 2005, Tesco opened one Express store every working day whilst at the same time small general stores closed at the rate of one per day and specialist stores, like butchers, bakers and fishmongers, shut at a rate of 50 per week. The Report concluded that we were reaching a critical juncture...

...'We can choose to take action that will lead to thriving, diverse, resilient local economies across the UK; or, we can do nothing and condemn ourselves to bland identikit towns dominated by a few bloated retail behemoths. The choice is ours.'

Clone Town Britain Report, p.2

Finding alternative, independent food suppliers locally to you is a great way to help further reduce the environmental, social and community impact of your diet. Only buying meat from a butcher or vegetables from a greengrocer, for example, is a step in the right direction. This will help to support a more localised food supply chain that is considerably more sustainable. On top of this are the benefits to you of eating organic (and far more delicious) produce.

9. Propagate the message.

Last but not least, by considering the environmental impacts of the food we choose to eat we can help to curb the climate crisis that we are faced with. This approach, however, requires maximum participation. By propagating the message of the power that sustainable eating has to aid the environment’s recovery, you can do your bit to save our planet. Each act. Each conversation. Each person has power. Together, we can each make a difference. Be bold enough to make sustainability the dinner-table conversation. Do not shy away from explaining why you are not eating a certain dish or food type. Be generous with your beliefs and convictions. Embrace the challenge of changing your diet. Be courageous enough to lead the way for your friends and family.

‘Eating healthy food might be the single most important way of contributing to save the planet.’

Johan Rockström

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