By Daithí Turner

Increasingly we hear that our food choices affect the climate. The Beef and Dairy Industries are constantly under attack from environmentalists. But we have to eat! However, as the planet’s population grows, we need to fully understand the eco consequences of our consumption. 

Our grocery shopping is one of our primary interfaces with the wider world. How we spend our money here determines so much, mostly the health of our bodies, the health of our planet, and the ethics of food production. 

Surely this is just complicating a simple transaction? And if there is a problem, it lives on the industrial level? While both are valid questions, how we spend our money impacts many things, and shops will provide what we demand; consumer power shouldn’t be underestimated. 

So what should we consider? 

Before we examine food types, we should look at broader issues, like wastage. Again we often feel this is a commercial issue, but studies show that over 50% of food waste is in households.  

  • Reducing waste is the first step to eco eating

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, 75% of our food is provided by just 12 plant varieties and 5 animal species! This monoculture is one of the most damaging effects on the biodiversity our planet relies on. 

  • Eat a varied diet to help the environment

In the last few decades, we have become used to eating anything we desire. Historically food was seasonal, with dishes being made according to the availability of ingredients. Now there are rarely restrictions on the ingredients available to many of us. But this luxury of choice adds a lot of strain to our planet. Ideally, plants grown locally are the best choice, removing the toxic air miles from our foodstuffs.  

  • Choose locally sourced and in-season foods

The best way to achieve all of the above is to grow your own food! No space is too small; even city apartments can support a potted herb garden and some tomato plants! 

Specific Foods To Avoid

Meat: Greenpeace makes the distinction that it’s, again, industrial meat production that is harmful to the planet. That said, not many of us keep and process animals for meat these days. Beef is heavily scrutinised for its eco unfriendliness. Still, when farming is large scale and intense, the criticisms apply across the board. There are a staggering amount of chickens processed annually for the fast-food industry. 

Bananas: We don’t often consider fruits and vegetables as an environmental threat. Bananas are one of the most popular foodstuffs globally, but since they are not well suited to global production, they are responsible for many of the food miles contributing to rising CO2 levels. A banana in the UK has travelled over 5,000 miles to get there! Also, the water consumed to produce some fruits on a commercial scale can cause environmental damage; notable other transgressors are avocados, mangos, and peaches. 

Sugar: Again, sugar is a victim of its popularity. The vast quantities we consume globally mean that the biodiversity problems here are huge. We produce 145 million tonnes of sugar annually, roughly 65% from cane and the remainder from beet. The mass production of sugar causes the problem, so any negative is exaggerated by the sheer scale. In the EU alone, 3 million tonnes of soil are lost in the beets harvesting process.  

What Should We Eat? 

Leafy Greens: From lettuces and salad leaves to brassicas and kales, leafy greens are beneficial to both our bodies and the planet. They are full of nutrients, easily grown, and virtually free of fats. Ideally, choose locally grown, if possible, in your backyard to reduce the air miles! Whatever about importing foods not available locally, there is no excuse to fly in locally available produce from around the globe. 

Lentils and Beans: The WWF and Knorr produced a pamphlet on 50 Future Foods, and with the global population increasing, a large part of the focus was on sustainable protein. Lentils and beans can be grown quickly worldwide and are often very high-yield crops. They are among the first crops we cultivated and play an essential part in many regional diets. These foods are very versatile and can even be sweetened in processing. 

Buckwheat: Despite its name, it is not wheat but a pseudocereal. Extremely versatile, buckwheat can be used to make pasta, noodles, and bread or eaten in salads or casseroles. It is gluten-free and is a good source of carbs and protein, and can be grown in temperate regions. 

My take is that we should just approach our food sensibly rather than focus on an extensive good versus bad list. Buy what we will use, including a good variety of foodstuffs, try to purchase what is in season, sourced locally and has as little processing as possible. With a bit of effort, we can all eat in a more eco-friendly way.