I’ve been attempting to go as close to 100% plastic waste free (and waste free in general) as possible for the last year, with pretty reasonable success.
As it was World Environment Day last week, I thought it was an apt moment to write a post on the topic.
There are many factors to take into account when choosing what foods to eat.
In my series “What is Food?” I looked at how to make decisions based on nutritional value and taste. Choosing foods that will be tasty, filling, provide sufficient but not too many calories, the right balance of nutrients, and that will also help maintain healthy gut flora.
Eating a tasty and nutritious diet that supports optimum health and wellbeing, while simultaneously not being too restrictive or boring is important to me.
This isn’t the end of the story, however, as I am also concerned with the impact that my consumption habits have on the rest of the planet and its inhabitants.
A food may well be delicious and nutritious, but if it’s causing animal suffering, exploiting workers or causing problems for local people, damaging the local or global environment and ecosystems, or contributing to climate change, I personally don’t want to eat it.
As always, the Live Now Thrive Later philosophy is to look for synergy – is there a way to have your cake and eat it ethically? To find the options that are simultaneously the tastiest, most nutritious, and the kindest to the planet?
Generally speaking, we can look at the ethics of a food from three perspectives: Packaging, Transport, and Production.
I’m going to mainly focus on packaging in this post, as it’s the most straightforward by far of the three areas.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you surely can’t have failed to have missed the news that plastic waste is reaching catastrophic proportions.
Our seas, oceans and many developing countries are swamped with it, and aside from the eye sore factor, it has serious repercussions on the health of people and the planet.
The solution? Stop buying food that come in single use plastic packaging.
“But I recycle them!” I hear you cry. Sorry, but it’s not good enough. Even if the packaging does get recycled (which a very high proportion of it never does), the energy and pollution cost of collection, cleaning and remoulding is very high.
On that front, I’d actually challenge you to go a step further, and to try to minimise buying any foods that come in single use packaging, including glass jars, aluminium cans and cardboard cartons. Though perhaps not as bad as plastic, the production, transport, collection and recycling/disposing of any type of single use packaging always comes at a cost.
Really, plastic is not the problem – Indeed, for me, it actually forms part of the solution – the problem is single use packaging.
A much better alternative is reusable packaging – I have a collection of Tupperware and plastic jars which are lightweight and durable, that I take out with me every time I go shopping.
You’re going to have to avoid the supermarket – but we’ve already established this is already a good thing that can save you time, money and benefit your heath!
Find good a good butcher, fish monger, delicatessen where you can buy products by weight and ask them to put your food straight into your reusable containers. I’ve never had anyone say they can’t or won’t – on the contrary they usually point me out to their other customers and say they should do the same.
In the green grocers I go to unfortunately they still use plastic bags to weigh items. While they are happy to forgo the bags on larger less numerous items, I obviously don’t expect them to try to balance a load of cherry tomatoes on the scale. The solution? I just keep the same bags and reuse them over and over again. If they get dirty I wash them. If it ends up in the ocean, it’s a pain that plastic bags take centuries to degrade, but if you choose to reuse them the durability, coupled with the fact that they weigh nothing and take up no space is a great feature.
I of course am lucky living in Spain where I can go to my local market, and buy local produce “a granel” (loose by weight) very easily. I can buy meat, fish, cheese, cereals, legumes, olives and pickles etc, and all my fruit and veg without packaging. I’m not 100% packaging free, I’m still buying olive oil in either glass bottles or metal canisters, and yoghurt in 100% paper pots (thank you Pastoret for making Grass Fed Yoghurt in paper pots!), but I think that’s pretty acceptable.
There are of course plenty of foods that you won’t be able to buy packaging free – ready meals, pre made deserts, sugary drinks, biscuits and so on. This is why just as avoiding the supermarket can boost your health, so can reducing your waste help reduce your waist!
It’s not just food that comes in packaging of course – drinks also invariably come in plastic or glass bottles or cartons. Cutting out soft drinks and juices will save your waistline, your health and your teeth, plus save you money, all while reducing your impact on the planet. Talk about win win win.
Though bottled water won’t harm your health, it’s completely unnecessary. We are so lucky to have clean, safe, drinking water brought to our homes in pipes. To transport water in trucks in plastic bottles is just total madness! If you want water on the go, just fill a bottle at home and take it with you.
If you read my previous post, you’ll know alcohol is my main vice! This can of course be a source of packaging. When drinking beer out and about, I always go for beer on tap. This is the most efficient way to transport it, and the kegs are reusable. If I’m buying alcohol for a party, I take my growler and get it filled with beer, wine or vermut. I also make my own beer at home, and reuse the same bottles and barrels every time. Where there’s a will there’s a way!
Yes, there’s an effort involved to all this – one has to plan ahead, I can’t just nip to any shop at anytime. I have to go to specific places, at specific times with all my shopping bags, Tupperware, jars, vegetable bags and bottles, but now I’m in the habit it’s no hassle. It also saves me the hassle of taking the rubbish to the recycling (which where I live is almost a kilometer away).
Generally speaking, eating as locally as possible is usually the best option.
Food that has flown halfway around the world is definitely not a sustainable choice.
Perhaps at times, food that has travelled from further a field by boat might be a better option than something that’s travelled by road. Finding this information and making the calculation however is not likely to be an easy task!
Also, sometimes the same food produced locally might have a bigger negative impact than transporting it from further afield due to environmental differences – it may better to ship a food from an area where they have more appropriate terrain and climate.
That doesn’t mean however one should eat 30 bananas per day imported from Brazil as they don’t grow in Europe. It’s generally better to try to stick to local produce.
Again, I’m fortunate living in the mediterranean to have an abundance of great local food. I’ll concede it’s probably easier to forgo bananas when you have lots of other equally delicious alternatives – I have a fig tree in my back garden, can’t get much more local than that.
Sticking to local, seasonal fruit and veg in the UK isn’t quite so much fun. Probably even less so if you live in Iceland. It’s swings and roundabouts though. In the UK grass-fed beef is a great sustainable, nutritious and delicious option. In Spain, not so much.
This is where things get really complicated, and unfortunately, I don’t have any definitive guidelines.
Producing food requires land, water, energy, fertilizer, pest control, human and/or animal labour, and invariably creates waste.
It would be nice if there were simple hard and fast rules to follow like organic is better than non-organic, Non-GMO v GMO, fairtrade better than not, vegan better than omnivorous. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case.
Organic farming can end up requiring more land, more water, and more energy input than “conventional” farming (i.e. that done with judicious use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides). There’s also no evidence that organic produce is better for health, nor that the organic pesticides used are any safer for the environment or the consumer. (Not to mention more than 99% of pesticides we consume are made by the vegetables themselves)
In my opinion, the “organic” label is basically useless. It doesn’t actually arm you with any useful information about the environmental impact, sustainability or nutritional value of a food. This is not to say that you should avoid organic products – in a great many cases they may well be the best option available, I simply mean to say that it’s no guarantee.
This is the same with the GMO debate, which I’ve written about before in detail so won’t go into again here.
Many claim that going vegan is the only sustainable mode of eating for the future. As an ex vegan however, I would beg to differ. You can read here my reasons for converting back to omnivorous eating. I’d certainly agree however that industrially raised meat, and many species of fish should be off the menu.
Choosing Fairtrade products sounds like a no brainer – surely choosing products where the farmers are guaranteed a living wage is the best option? Again, however, many have pointed out flaws in the various schemes and say that we should let market forces play out.
Local vs Global
The Fairtrade issue leads me to bring up a question which I’ve been pondering for some time.
For the most part, I try to eat locally, as close to KM0 as possible.
Not only does this reduce food miles, but thanks to the regulations in Europe it also increases the likelihood that the products are produced in a (relatively) safe and ethical manner, without the use of slave labour, dangerous chemicals, deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats or displacement of people.
What I can’t decide at the moment, is whether purchasing some food products from the developing world can have a positive (or at least neutral) impact, or whether it would be better to stick to a 100% locavore diet.
- The downsides:
- The potential upside:
I first became aware of the potential downsides (aside from the aforementioned food miles of course) of buying food stuffs from developing countries when I was vegetarian. I used to eat a lot of quinoa – a vegetarian “superfood”, one of thew few plant foods that contains all the essential amino acids in relatively high concentrations. I used to eat loads of it, substituting it for rice and pasta, and even eating quinoa porridge for breakfast!
I later learned, however, that my quinoa consumption potentially had very negative effects for both the local people of the Andes, and the local environment.
A traditional staple food, demand from wealthier nations pushed the price up to a point that was too high for local people. No longer able to afford what was a locally available, highly nutritious crop, they were forced to by lower quality imported foods.
The high price that could be earned from quinoa also encouraged farmers to switch to more intensive farming methods, and devote more land to quinoa production, reducing biodiversity, the availability of diverse locally produced foods, and increasing pressure on fragile ecosystems.
The Guardian has a pretty balanced piece on the quinoa debate here:
“When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost,” – The Guardian 2013
The above is only one side of the debate, however. There is also the argument that exporting food can be an important source of income for developing countries, helping to redistribute wealth from the richest countries to the poorest.
In his latest book Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker notes that the wealth gap between nations is gradually shrinking (though of course it is still vast). The export of food crops is one valuable source of this exchange.
For many Andean farmers, the quinoa boom was very positive, enabling them to vastly increase their income and improve their standards of living.
That said, the situation with quinoa was far from normal, with Andean farmers having much more control over their businesses, and share of the profits than is often the case with crops produced in the developing world.
More often than not, farms and plantations are owned by large corporations registered in other countries. The local people suffer from all the negatives – i.e. cost increases of the crop, land, and the utilities needed to grow it, plus any environmental repercussions, while getting very little monetary remuneration – the corporations retain the large share of the profits, pay their taxes elsewhere (if at all), and only a tiny tiny fraction actually goes back to the local people and economy.
Can you have your coffee and drink it?
Currently, the only product I consume on a regular basis that is produced in the developing world is coffee.
Coffee is delicious, and while perhaps not “nutritious” per se, there’s certainly no evidence to indicate it is harmful to health, despite what you might read in the press or what Californian lawyers might believe!
But can it’s consumption be considered ethical?
- Coffee can’t be produced locally
- Coffee doesn’t require plastic packaging
- Coffee isn’t a staple crop
- Coffee can be grown sustainably
Coffee only grows in the coffee belt (see photo), so getting coffee grown locally is not an option for Europeans or North Americans. If you want coffee, you’re going to have to stump up some food miles.
On the positive side, it’s relatively light (We consume perhaps 300g per week in our household), can be shipped, and doesn’t require refrigeration, which is a relatively low-carbon method of transport.
I buy loose beans, which are shipped in coffee sacks, typically made out of jute, a sustainable fast growing crop, that produces a durable, reusable, but biodegradable material.
The love of coffee across the world has made it into one of the most valuable crops on the planet. Unfortunately, this means that many of the people who live in the coffee producing countries, cannot afford to consume it.
On the one hand, this does seem very unfair. On the other hand, however, coffee is not an essential or dietary staple (feel free to debate that in the comments). Potentially money earned from the sale of coffee can go to local people to help them increase their standard of living in many other ways that are more important than a cup of morning joe.
Of course, one also has to bare in mind that buying coffee can also have the knock on effect of increasing the cost of locally produced food staples, as it could drive up the cost of arable land and resources such as water, energy, fertilizer etc.
Like pretty much any other crop, the production of coffee can be done sustainably in a manner that doesn’t damage the planet, and even encourages biodiversity and carbon sequestration, or it can be done intensively in a manner that destroys local habitats, leads to deforestation, destruction of local habits, overuse of resources and contributes to climate change.
When it comes to coffee, one should be on the look out for Shade Grown Coffee. This is coffee that is grown under the rainforest canopy, thereby helping maintain and protect the rainforest and biodiversity.
Currently, I’m still buying coffee – fortunately there’s a place near me that sells loose beans of a Peruvian shade grown coffee from a single origin plantation. I just have to hope that the workers are treated well and get a fair share of the profits!
Whether there is actually a real benefit to Peru or it’s people from my consumption, however, I could not really say for 100% certainty.
Do what you can
I appreciate that a 100% packaging free, KM0 diet is a big ask, and also that its relative ease, or even possibility will vary wildly depending upon where you live, your available time and money etc.
I’m a big believer in “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good” however, and truly believe that any steps you can take to make more ethical food choices can help.
If everyone reduced their plastic packaging by 50% that would make a huge difference, and make it easier to ensure that the remaining 50% could be properly disposed of or recycled.
It doesn’t have to be an abrupt change either. You could start by just cutting out bottled water to begin with. Next step, cutting out plastic wrapped factory farmed meat with the occasionally trip to the free range butchers with your tuppers (you can always buy in bulk and freeze).
Hopefully this article provides some food for thought, as always, I’d love to hear your feedback.