Back in May Cara Nicholson, an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews, shadowed the Environment Team for a day, collaborating with the team on communications. Have a read through what Cara and Mariya had to say on the topic of sustainable food…
We often don’t think about where our food comes from, and even if we do, it can be hard to know what we’re looking for. We’ve all been there, running around the supermarket getting distracted by the special offers and forgetting what we even came in for. But it’s important for us to take a minute just to reflect on what we are actually doing. Are we buying sustainable, fairly traded food? Or are we buying non-organic produce, and sending most of it off to landfill? Well fear not, because here are a few tips on how to make sure that the food on your plate is as sustainable as can be.
So what do we need to consider?
The first thing is Fairtrade and ethical food. There are a lot of different labels, and claims of fairly traded food, but we need to know what they actually mean. Fairtrade food has the well-known label on the packaging: the Fairtrade Mark. It applies to the specific product being sold, and the fairtrade premium you pay goes to disadvantaged workers who are often from developing countries. Fairly traded often means the products are produced ethically and workers are treated well, however the producers are small-scale and can’t afford the fairtrade certification. Even better is to try and buy direct-trade products – meaning the company (e.g. a coffee or a chocolate brand) works directly with the coffee and cocoa producers, cutting out the middle man and providing better value for farmers and workers. Ethical, fairly traded and direct trade food has no universal label, so it can be hard to spot, but is still important to know about. It is focused on protecting workers’ rights throughout a company, instead of just the specific product. So why should we worry about this? It’s important to ensure the food we buy and enjoy does not come at the cost of other people’s suffering and all it takes is a check of the label for the Fairtrade mark.
The next thing to consider is organic food. To be labelled organic, 95% of the ingredients in the food product must be from organically produced plants or animals. This means that it must be produced without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, animal feed additives or growth regulators. It also rules out most genetically modified foods. This is important to consider for two main reasons. The first is that they are better for your health, with more nutrients and less artificial chemicals. The second is that they are much better for livestock and for the environment, causing a significantly lower environmental impact than non-organic equivalents. So a quick glance at the label to spot the word organic can help you and the environment!
Of all the food that you eat, meat and dairy have the most significant carbon footprint. Eating meat can worsen your health, contributing a lot to ageing. It also has a very harmful effect on the environment, not least because of the land that needs to be deforested to keep the livestock on. The amount of animal feed that needs to be produced is also a huge burden. And it’s expensive to buy meat! Even if you don’t want to give up all your meat to become vegetarian, or even become vegan, simply cutting down on the amount of animal-based protein you eat, buying animal welfare-certified meats such as Red Tractor, and opting for local butchers over big chains can still have a great impact.
But what about the actual foods we choose to buy? Buying vegetarian and vegan options is much better for the environment, but we can still be a little bit careful with our choices. The less processed the food, the more natural and, therefore, the better for the environment it is. Probably the most important thing to consider is for fruits and vegetables – buy seasonal! Know your fruits by the season they grow in. If you buy strawberries in winter, it’s likely that they’ve been shipped in from abroad, harming the environment along the way, and taking lots of intense farming to grow them. Which brings us to another important point – buy local!
Packaging and Waste
Even if we buy all the right foods: Fairtrade, organic, seasonal, vegan food, it is not without its carbon footprint. The majority of food items come in plastic packaging, which can be greatly harmful to the environment – accumulating in fish, birds and sea mammals and ultimately in humans. Trying to buy foods with reduced packaging, such as loose fruits and vegetables, can significantly reduce carbon emissions and pollution. The other issue is food waste. We often buy more than we need, with around half of the food produced in the UK not being eaten. While it isn’t nice to run out of food, splitting your shop into two isn’t so bad given the amount of food – and money- it could save in the long run.
So how can we do this affordably? Fairtrade and organic food can be quite expensive, so what is our best bet for keeping the cost low? Cooking meals from scratch can be cheaper than buying readily prepared options. If you have any garden space, or access to a community garden, growing your own food can be a great option, and can also help as you know exactly how it was grown and prepared. Although buying more than you need can contribute to waste, buying cheaper seasonal food in bulk can be a good option – as long as your remember to portion it and freeze it. That way it lasts a lot longer, and saves you a bit of money along the way. And finally, opting for ‘wonky veg’ – vegetables that don’t conform to specific aesthetical standards, but are just are delicious and nutritious – is significantly cheaper than the conventional ones.
It can sometimes seem daunting to start checking for sustainable food, but just remembering a few simple things can help your health and can have a positive impact on the environment. Look out for the Fairtrade Mark, check whether food is organic, buy less meat, buy local seasonal food and try to only buy what you need. That way, you can make a real difference.