Many of us already think about sustainability regularly, strive for it and take action daily. Over two thirds of people in a recent British poll considered themselves ethical consumers. But we are globally still consuming more resources than we are replenishing.
There is a growing awareness that our day-to-day food choices have far reaching environmental and social effects. In recent generations we've moved away from fresh seasonal produce, grown locally, what I would call 'real food', and now consume more industrially produced 'convenience' food and processed ready meals, laden with saturated fats, sugar, salt and harmful chemicals.
Real food to me is food that causes no harm to people animals or the environment. Real food is healthy and nutritious, seasonal, supports local economies, and helps to pay a fair wage without subsidies. Real food represents progress on many levels and is integral in developing a sustainable future.
As a vegan cook I try to educate myself about the food industry but I also realise that it's hard to keep pace. There is such a profusion of information out there and sustainability is not simple, it is an ever changing landscape with many factors.
Here are some food-based steps that helped me move in a more balanced, ethical and environmentally conscious direction…
REFLECT A LITTLE
Think about the ingredients on your plate. Where have they come from? Who grew/ picked it? Why did you buy it? What is the real 'cost' of the item and is there a better alternative? While you're there ask if the food is benefiting not only your taste buds but your own health and longevity?
Reflecting like this helps me to re-connect with what I'm eating. If we can't answer these questions, then we may be out of touch with our food (don't worry, you're not alone!), meaning we're not empowered to make effective, informed decisions.
LOSE THE ANIMAL PRODUCTS
Worldwide around 55 billion animals are killed for human consumption per year. Cattle grazing takes up 70% of arable land, and 80% of global grain stock is fed to livestock. The trail of destruction caused by animal agriculture globally reads like a burgeoning environmental Armageddon. There is no reason to eat meat or dairy from any point of view. A balanced plant-based diet is delicious, accessible and highly nutritious. Go vegan or cut back drastically on meat and dairy, the effects of which are life-changing.
Organic food should be seen as an essential investment, not a luxury item. The real cost of industrial food production, pesticide run off into water sources, obesity, subsidies and monopolies are not on the price tag. £120 million per year is spent in Britain cleaning pesticides from our water. I find organic produce tastes better and on average it contains 60% more antioxidants. Organic does not mean local, check where the food has been grown. 50% of the organic produce in the UK is imported.
Buying fair-trade counteracts the huge and distorted farming subsidies paid in many wealthier countries and guarantees a fair percentage goes to the farmer. It normally supports a more ethical approach to farming, with less chemicals used. Fair-trade gives us piece of mind and is helpful when selecting food that doesn't grow in our country. For me that means rice, coffee, some oils, sugar, chocolate, juices (orange juice especially) and wine.
KEEP IT LOCAL
Become a 'Loca-vore'! Local farmers and small food businesses suffer due to the supermarkets domination of the food industry. For every £1 spent in a supermarket only 9p makes it to the farmer. Fifty years ago that would be more like 50-60p. Nowadays 80% of the fruit and veg we buy is from supermarkets. In the 1970's 90% came from local green-grocers. Food miles are a major issue; over 50% of food in the UK is imported and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions are food chain related. This means that our industrialised food chain is directly linked with the oil industry. Due to oil price fluctuations, this could lead to catastrophic results. Food also loses much of its nutrition in transit and can be treated with many kinds of harmful preservatives to keep it 'fresh'.
MOVE WITH THE SEASONS
We have grown distant from the joys of seasonality. How delicious the first fruits of the year are and the diversity of indigenous varieties. Their vitality, freshness and flavour. By demanding these fruits year round we have the convenience but not the quality of experience. Seasonal produce is something to savour and is also higher in nutrition. When bought in local markets it can even work out cheaper than supermarkets.
CUT OUT WASTE
We used to use our senses to gauge the freshness of foods; a much more accurate way than dates on packets. On average Britons waste £50 food per month, although we are getting better. Check out the website www.lovefoodhatewaste.com for many creative ideas with perceived 'waste' foods. Sustainably produced kitchen consumables like cling film or kitchen foil are available. I use these items sparingly and try to cover cooking dishes with plates and lids. I also try to save jars and plastic pots to store food. If we use plastic freezer bags, we can wash and use them again!
LEARN TO COOK
Essential if we are to move away from processed foods. A home-cooked meal is a precious gift and doesn't have to take long to prepare. Build up a good seasonal base of recipes, some quicker ones and some more lavish ones for weekends. This gives confidence and inspiration when you pull on your apron. Cooking can be therapeutic, meditative and relaxing. Try to use the entire vegetable/fruit in a dish. For example a squash can be roasted or steamed, puréed or stuffed, the seeds can be toasted, and the skin/ pulp makes for a tasty stock. Beetroot or leek greens, carrot tops, kale/broccoli stems etc. can be served as a vegetable or juiced. Creativity and experimentation is the key to a happy kitchen. A great place for vegan recipes is www.veganuary.com or my blog www.beachhousekitchen.com.
Gather some friends, neighbours or work colleagues and buy in bulk from ethical food co-ops. This is convenient, saving money and food miles. You can search for local co-ops using www.foodcoops.org. It works well with dried goods and other larder items, as well as nature friendly cleaning products. Buy fresh produce locally in bulk in season. Preserve it by drying, juicing, pickling, fermenting and making chutneys or jams. Making good connections in a local community opens doors for good, old fashioned trade. You need apples, I'd like blackberries, we can swap. That's how things used to be done! You will also learn much about local produce and how it grows.
It’s free and totally seasonal. Foraging takes a little knowledge, but really, things like wild garlic (ramsons), nettles, walnuts, hazelnuts, elderflowers and berries, rosehips, blackberries etc. are easy to pick out. Mushrooms are generally a little trickier. Set an afternoon of walking and foraging aside. Urban foraging is possible. Supermarkets shamefully waste large quantities of food. Learn where they throw it away (normally in clean bins and with food sealed in plastic) and have a field day! Wasting food is shocking and there is no issue at all with liberating it.
GROW YOUR OWN
I grow my own veggies with differing degrees of failure(!) I've learned much from the experience, and grown closer to the seasons and how precious a commodity food is. When you've tended and nurtured a savoy cabbage for a few months, it’s going to be appreciated! Even if space is tight you can still grow herbs, radishes, lettuces etc. with little effort needed. There are even special indoor compost bins that you can buy to transform your kitchen scraps into gardener’s gold dust. Composting is essential.
We are free to protest any time we like. Boycotting certain companies and products can be highly effective, hitting sales where it hurts. Look into the details beforehand, ensuring that the farmers/workers are being helped and not hindered by your actions. Write to local government, shareholders, and support non-violent protests.
In a consumerist society what we demand, we get. What we buy, they sell. Every £ or $ we spend is like a vote. Who shall we support? Large corporations who profit from suffering; human, animal, and environmental, or local/ethical small-scale farmers and producers?
Positive intentions and not feeling overwhelmed are the key. Many small steps will bring about great changes. Taking responsibility for our actions and their effects is important, regularly using our hearts not just our heads when making decisions. Only by truly caring enough can we make change effectively.
It seems to me that living a sustainable ethical life, enjoying the benefits of real food, can be broken down to simply developing a greater sense of conscience, treating each other with respect and being fairer. Maybe it is simple after all.
Support the Barefoot Vegan Animal Sanctuary by purchasing the 2017 Art of Compassion Project calendar