The food sitting in tins, bottles, cardboard boxes and plastic bags in your cupboards and fridges can have a huge impact on your family’s carbon emissions. Processed convenience food, is the answer for many people who need to get around the problem of a hectic lifestyle, but it has a huge disadvantage; the amount of energy required to produce it. In addition, the amount of additives, preservatives and artificial colours and flavourings contained in a lot of processed food, although being reduced by some manufacturers, is still a consideration when choosing what to buy.
Fruit and vegetables are an important part of most people’s diets, and although we all strive to hit our 5 a day quota, cooking from scratch is not possible for everybody. The fresh fruit and vegetables we buy also have important considerations however, in terms of their production and origins. Cheaply produced fruit and vegetables are usually grown intensively on a large scale, therefore likely using harmful pesticides and fertilisers to make up for the goodness lost from the soil through the intensive processes being used to grow it. In addition, the food miles our veg has travelled is an issue that can’t be ignored. Often supermarkets carry apples shipped in from New Zealand even when there are British apples on the trees in UK orchards. Where goods only grow abroad, such as bananas, pineapples and coconuts, this is obviously unavoidable unless people choose to stop eating these fruits, which will never be a practical solution to the problem. However there are still steps we can tale to reduce the carbon emissions of these items, as well as a large number of other items on the weekly shopping list.
Step 1: Say ‘no’ to processed food. Choosing the homemade option rather than purchasing processed food, whether it’s pasta bakes, stirfry, cakes or biscuits can help reduce the amount of artificial ingredients in your food and you know exactly what you’re eating. In the time it takes to cook ready meals, you can often have whipped up your own version, so the common belief that it takes longer to make your own is often not the case.
Doing some home baking for the sweet toothed people out there is also both satisfying and a great way of spending time with other family members. The other added bonus with home cooking is that you can often save money by making bigger portions and either freezing or making enough for two days, and if you cook meals like a roast, you can make the food go further by using bones to make stock for soups and mince up leftover meat for the next day’s dinner.
The other bonus is that eating home cooked food is healthier for you thanks to the lack of artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. Processed food can often make you feel sluggish after eating or leaves you still feeling hungry so you end up snacking on other less healthy options between meals or throughout the evening, whereas a tasty wholesome meal with plenty of vegetables, perhaps followed by a homemade pud leaves you feeling much more satisfied. Your skin, hair and nails will show the goodness you are eating, whilst the extra energy you have, and often better health such as greater resilience against colds shows the benefits of eating more naturally and less energy intensive sources of food.
Step 2: Try to avoid imported goods. Checking where fruit and vegetables have been produced can be quite enlightening and even shocking, but food miles don’t only apply to your veg. Look for locally produced or UK grown food, whether it’s for your meat, veg, milk or butter. Beware of items saying ‘packaged in the UK'; sometimes the ingredients will be from the EU or further afield and have been shipped to the UK for packing before being sent off to the supermarkets. It can be interesting to keep a log of where all your food has come from and total up the miles a shopping basket or meal has travelled. You can also see how much progress you’re making by referring back over the weeks.
Step 3: Go organic. Organically grown food promotes natural growing processes without the use of harmful chemicals and sprays that not only get on your food but can seep into the ground creating problems for wildlife, and if we’re eating the foods, we’re also getting a dose of whatever chemicals have been used. The chemicals that are used on our foods have to be licensed by the EU, and only a ‘safe’ level of them can exist in our foods; a level which is determined by politicians.
Pesticides are blamed by some for the decline in bee populations, and earlier uses of chemicals have affected foodchains killing birds through the buildup of toxins in their food sources. Reducing the amount of these chemicals can only be of benefit to humans, animals, plants and the planet as a whole.
Although organic food costs more than cheap mass produced food from intensive growing systems, the price gap has decreased over recent time, and both the better taste of the produce, and the knowledge that your consumer choices help secure the future of more sustainable growing practices for the future is worth the extra cost to your pocket.
Step 4: Switch to a weekly veg box. This not only helps support smaller local businesses rather than concentrating money in supermarkets but can also help greatly reduce the food miles your fruit and veg has travelled, and means less packaging wrapped around your veg. There are a number of companies offering veg boxes; some nationwide, some local to a certain area, and most will tailor your order to suit your needs, so if there are particular vegetables or fruit you don’t like, or particular items you want to be certain you have each week, you don’t have to worry.
Veg boxes usually change with the seasons meaning seasonal produce, and eating food when it’s in season also makes it much tastier, and gives you something to look forward to as the months progress. The added surprise each week to see what you have in your box can also be great for inspiring you to try new vegetables you might not have picked up in the supermarket, introduce you to a new favourite fruit or encourage you to become more creative in the kitchen. Eating seasonally helps you feel like you’re eating a more natural diet in tune with the time of year, such as soups and stews in winter and salads and berries in summer.
Step 5: Choose fairtrade products. When you’re buying goods from overseas, whether its tea, coffee, sugar or hot chocolate for your brew, chocolate for the kids, or fruit such as bananas, mangoes and pineapples, choosing fair trade means that the producers growing the food you purchase have been paid a fair price for their crops. Fair trade is an essential part of ensuring the promotion of ethical and sustainable growing practices and preventing the exploitation of both people and the land.
The range of fair trade goods has increased making it a lot easier to choose the more ethical option; Co-operative Food has even committed to only stocking fair trade products for their own brand range of hot beverages, as well as boasting an exclusive range of fair trade wines. The other consideration that we need to bear in mind it that there is a large number of products we buy that include ingredients such as fruit, sugar and chocolate that aren’t always ethically sourced. Some manufacturers are making commitments to use fairly traded ingredients, or products sourced through initiatives such as the Rainforest Alliance, which also help ensure sustainable and ethical practices, whereas other companies offer fair trade ranges. The options are out there, so where there is a choice to be made, make it fair trade.
Step 6: Animal welfare. If you can’t afford organic which naturally secures a happier healthier life for animals before they’re sent for slaughter, there are a number of other considerations which can help make the carbon footprint of your shopping basket lighter. Where meat is concerned, there are a number of marks you should look out for on food labels. One of the most widely used and recognised is the RSPCA Freedom Food label which ensures that meat has been reared to minimum standards imposed by the RSPCA. For food to be labelled as Freedom Food, animals have to have been raised, transported and slaughtered according to welfare standards set by the animal charity, and the label is applicable to chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, sheep, salmon and beef, as well as dairy cattle and laying hens.
Fish is also an important aspect of our diet, and its origin is equally important and worth careful consideration. Sustainable fishing practices are essential in ensuring that fishstocks do not run out, however overfishing and poor management of the planet’s fish populations has led to increasing concern about the future of a number of once prolific species of fish. Choosing sustainable varieties of fish is therefore a very easy and significant way of reducing our carbon footprints.
Avoiding over-fished species such as cod, opting instead for other white fish such as whiting, haddock or pollack could make a huge difference, but it doesn’t just affect choices for the chip shop. Tinned fish such as mackerel, herrings and tuna can have a negative environmental impact if not sourced responsibly.
A number of supermarkets now make it easier to see where their fish is sourced from and how it is caught. Read the information on the tin and if there isn’t any information provided, don’t risk helping support unsustainable practices. Sainsbury’s have a good range of responsibly sourced fish, with Co-operative coming in close behind. Surprisingly the green credentials of well known brands such as Princes and John West have a lot to be desired.
Making changes to shopping habits can seem a daunting prospect, but with simple steps such as those outlined above, and more thought about the food on your family’s plates, you can make a significant change to your carbon emissions, and enjoy better, tastier, more responsibly produced food at the same time.