Food is incredibly important. We eat food to stay alive. It influences our health. It brings us together as families and communities. It allows us to express ourselves culturally.
It is easy to get quite defensive about food, as it is such an important part of our individual and communal identities. But it is important to realise that our personal food choices have impacts beyond us, and the decisions we make about food affect other people, communities, and the environment.
The purpose of this article is not to make any kinds of judgements or guilt about food choices and habits. Nor is it supposed to offer a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to how to buy more sustainable food, it is just some food for thought (sorry, that pun seemed unavoidable) 🙂
A good place to start is looking at how much food we throw out. On average, a third of food produced is wasted, and this takes place at every stage of the food system:
- A third of food grown will not make it to food distributors…
- A third of that food will not make it to the market/supermarket…
- A third of that food will not be sold…
- Of the food that is sold, a third will be discarded, uneaten.
That is a lot of food!
The majority of this food
And this flaw in the system is serious, because in a world where each year we produce enough food to comfortably feed 12 billion people, having 795 million (out of 7.3 billion) people hungry is just not ok.
There are many resources, tips and suggestions for how businesses and households can reduce their food waste.
For organisations and businesses, useful resources include Ways To Reduce Food Waste In Your Business by the Australian EPA, Food Recovery Hierarchy by Recycle.Com, and 16 Tips for Restaurant Food Waste Reduction.
For households, the website Love Food Hate Waste is a brilliant resource for helping maximise food use and minimising food waste.
But it is possible to reduce the impact of our food by looking at the stage before it arrives in our homes: the purchasing stage.
There are many factors we can consider when we are deciding to purchase food:
- Price – by far the easiest, because this is what the most obvious label is!
- Brand reputation
- Advertising and/or brand familiarity
- Nutritional value
… all of these are factors that will affect us, personally. However, it is possible to also consider factors that go beyond just us…
- Packaging (how much is there, and what is it made from?)
- Country of origin (how are people growing and processing food treated? Does the making of this food have political or human rights implications?)
- Distance traveled (what are the associated transport emissions?)
- Method of production (which chemicals and resources were needed to create the food?)
- Have producers been adequately compensated for their work? (e.g. is it a Fair Trade product?)
- Have any animals used in the product been humanely treated? (e.g. free range)
- … the list can go on.
Of course, there are often conflicts when it comes to making more sustainable or more ethical food choices, and it can be helpful to choose to focus on just a few factors… because otherwise it is easy to end up not knowing what to choose:
- the Fair Trade coffee wrapped in plastic, or the Nescafe in a glass jar?
- the more expensive free range eggs, or the cheaper eggs from caged or barn hens
- and so on…
My top 5 considerations for more sustainable and ethical food choices (for reducing harm to the environment, people and other animals) are, in no particular order:
- Buying food that is local and seasonal, where possible (this means travel emissions will be lower, as will resource inputs – growing out of climate and out of season means a lot of energy and other resources are required)
- Buying food that has been produced with fewer chemical additions, where possible (organic and spray-free production is better for soils and the environment. Similar crops and animals produced with the addition of inorganic fertilisers, chemical pesticides, fungicides and hormones use more resource inputs and result in more negative impacts on ecosystems)
- Buying food that is less processed (every stage of processing requires energy, resource and labour inputs, which all have environmental and social impacts. Less processing usually means lower impact)
- Buying food that has less/no packaging, where possible (just like the food itself, packaging requires many energy and resource inputs, which all have environmental impacts. Avoiding excessive packaging means fewer resource inputs and fewer impacts. It also reduces waste generation)
- Buying food that considers the well-being of those involved (e.g. where human and animal welfare conditions are upheld)
Of course there are always exceptions, loopholes and conflicts to these considerations, but by-and-large following these considerations when possible will lead to more environmentally sustainable and ethical food purchasing decisions 🙂
Other tips and cool resources:
- If you can, growing your own food is a great way to source packaging free, organically grown food with zero food miles. Plus there are many health benefits of gardening, including being a source of light exercise, fresh air, and interaction with nature.
- Cutting down on meat and animal products reduces the carbon emissions and and resource requirements of our diet. Plus it is a win for animal welfare.
- For low-carbon eating, check out www.eatlowcarbon.org (I strongly recommend doing the fun and eye-opening quiz).
For avoiding plastic food packaging, have a look at plasticisrubbish.com.