The necessity of permaculture

Following our banana article, let’s keep the lights on sustainable food production.

This is permaculture (source)

This is permaculture (source)

The past sixty years have seen a huge growth in agricultural yields on large parts of the planet. The issue is, this modern revolution in agriculture only went so far thanks to an extensive use of all kind of chemical inputs like pesticides and fertilisers. Huge arable areas have been taken over for cultivation of single crops or breeds (monoculture) which has led to the disappearance of biodiversity and degradation of the soil itself to alarming levels. The impacts on human health of monoculture are extensive; it has been linked to the propagation of all kind of diseases, including cancers, in populations, and the spread of antibiotic resistance due to overuse in livestock farming.

Perma…what?

The term ’permaculture’ comes from the concept of ‘permanent agriculture’. It consists of an ensemble of cultivation techniques inspired from the interactions happening in natural ecosystems. Its integration into the local ecosystem results in minimizing the environmental impact of growing crops. It is not a reserved to professionals; its principles can be applied to anyone, anywhere, such as in window boxes, suburban garden, conservation areas, schools or farms…

(source)

Technically speaking, the chemical and biological interactions needed for satisfying yields are being generated by smartly arranging complementary plants. Plants actually buddy with each other, improving their mutual resilience and providing each other with nutrients! Exposure of the ground to the elements is avoided by ensuring crop cover year-round, even if it means covering it with straw. Different canopy levels are exploited to make the best use of land space and enable different species to interact with each other.

Permaculture evolved into a broader philosophy of reuniting with the land and natural things. It goes hand in hand with “agroecology”, a concept promoted by French agronomist Pierre Rabhi. Communities living by these principles are also called ecovillages. Agroecology aims to learn from traditional techniques, understand what local resources are available, promote ecologic and economic diversity to understand agriculture within a broader natural and social environment, and make produce accessible and affordable to all.

So… is it better than organic?

This field could be 'organic', yet it is a biological desert

This field could be 'organic', yet it is a biological desert

If you’re not especially sensitive to the philosophical background of permaculture, why not…just focusing on buying organic food? Well, there is one primary reason for that: organic farming is greener than conventional agriculture, but it still bears an environmental impact. Organic crops can be just as demanding in water and soil supplies, and the use of fertilizers is permitted if they are organically produced. Monoculture can still sport the organic label. The principle of permaculture is more holistic: to keep arable lands healthy and productive, and the soil nurtured and resilient.

Consumer choices

Organic labelling alone is not the panacea to sustainable food production, as the road to sustainable agriculture is much more complex. The quality of ingredients depends on how exactly they are produced, and permaculture currently is the most environmentally-friendly option to get tasty meals.

If you think all this sounds great, you might be wondering how to support it, and identify permaculture-grown fruit and veg in the shops. However, there’s no labelling system currently in place to identify produce grown using this principle. There are a couple of ways you can get around this:

·         Permaculture is not fundamentally complex; you can do it on your balcony and complement food supplies for cheap, healthy and tastier food.

·         If you live in an urban area without a chance to grow your own, you can talk to producers and ask about their production techniques, in local organic shops or farmers markets.

If you still had some doubts…

·         Real-world experiments showed that permaculture can lead to similar, and even better yields, so it doesn’t imply more hunger in the world!

·         Permaculture can help sustain food supply in drought-prone regions, and avoid population displacement, by cultivating soil resilience.

Bananas don't grow on trees.

I usually start here: what do bananas grow on?

If your first thought is a tree, then you and I have a lot to talk about.

The second question in the banana trivia pop quiz (don’t worry, there are only two) is: have you ever eaten an organic banana?  If you’re thinking “yes” and you live in Europe or the United States, you’re most likely wrong, no matter what the sticker at the grocery store said.

At this point, you might be rolling your eyes, because none of this is your fault and there are a lot of problems in the world.  But I think this is one you should pay attention to, and I’ll tell you why.

First of all, bananas are the most popular fruit in the world.  The UK spends over £750 million a year on banana imports and imports more than 5 billion bananas per year.  Beyond being an in-demand export, bananas account for a substantial portion of daily nutrition for people in a number of developing countries.

Black sigakota disease

Black sigakota disease

Unfortunately, bananas are plagued by several tropical diseases.  The big ones are panama disease and black sigatoka, but in general bananas suffer most from what I’ll call “the tragedy of monoculture.”  Bananas, like many of the crops we eat, are grown in massive swaths of land devoted to nothing but that one single crop.  That enormous international demand for bananas I mentioned earlier can really only be fulfilled by monoculture, miles and miles of nothing but shiny green banana leaves.  This intensification can cause a concentration of insect pests.  Banana companies tend to deal with this by raining a plethora of chemicals down on their plantations.

These chemicals have been known to cause serious health problems amongst banana workers.  A group of Nicaraguan banana workers has been fighting for years to be compensated being exposed to chemicals that Dole Fruit Company knew were dangerous to their health.  And that’s just one group that managed to find legal counsel and get their case tried in the United States; most banana workers that suffer injury or illness as a result of working in the plantations never connect their ailments to the chemicals they apply (often without proper protection), and they never see a lawyer.

A plantation 'duster'

A plantation 'duster'

As if the pesticides, fungicides and herbicides weren’t enough, banana roots are shallow, and since it rains frequently in many of the places that grow bananas, topsoil is quickly washed away.  For this reason, chemical fertilizers are applied generously as well.  

The banana you ate grew on a stem inside a giant blue plastic bag also infused with chemicals that prevented insects from munching on them, but these bags are so toxic that they get used for many, many stems of bananas, from flower to harvest.  And these chemicals often wash off these plants in that very rainy weather I was talking about earlier and flush into local waterways, killing invertebrate life in streams and rivers and encouraging suffocating levels of blooming algae.

All of these chemicals can only sustain banana plants for so long, though.  When the land is well and truly depleted, banana plantations often just pack up and go cut down forest somewhere else to build a new plantation.

Rainforest Alliance plantation 'protecting' local waterways

Rainforest Alliance plantation 'protecting' local waterways

And all this is true also for plantations that put stickers on their bananas for “Rainforest Alliance.”  This certification claims to hold banana plantations accountable for planting vegetation buffers between plantations and waterways, but I saw very little that would inhibit chemical runoff when I visited those plantations.  (I am inclined to also be skeptical about the “fairtrade” label, but I confess I haven’t had as much experience with it.)

This is all worsened by the fact that I mentioned at the top.  Remember how bananas don’t grow on trees?  They grow on herbaceous stems, and most banana varieties produce seeds.  However, the variety that we eat, the Cavendish, is a sterile hybrid variety, and these stems reproduce by “sprouting” or cloning themselves.  This means that every single banana you’ve eaten has come from a genetically identical plant. And remember how many diseases are after the banana?  Without genetic variation, bananas as we know them can never build up any sort of immunity to any of their diseases.  Non-cloning plants will be selected for their survival and resistance to a disease will develop in a population, but bananas do not have this advantage.  The only solution banana producers have is to shower the plants with an ever-thickening concentration of chemicals.

Now, this is a very dark picture I’ve painted, and if you’ve made it this far, I want to believe it’s because you see what I see: that there’s hope.

You see, we love bananas an awful lot; they’re a terrific deal of a fruit, providing a plethora of essential nutrients in just 110 calories of delicious mushy goodness.  But botanists and pathologists who study bananas and the diseases that affect them give the current variety of banana, the Cavendish, about 10 years until it collapses and becomes commercially unviable under the weight of all these diseases.

That’s going to leave us banana-less and it’s going to leave thousands of people across the developing world without a paycheck, even a small one.  So, what can we do?  A radical change in the way we consume bananas may be the only way to keep our favourite fruit in our lives.  

One of the reasons the Cavendish, the cloning banana, is so popular with the big commercial banana growers is that it can be picked two weeks before it’s ripe, when it’s very green, and packed into shipping containers to be shipped across the ocean to the United States or Europe.  Sending fruit off in shipping containers is incredibly cheap, and is the main reason, apart from cheap labour, that bananas cost around 20 pence a piece in the grocery store.  

Banana 'raisins' - forgive them for not looking super appetising - they are still very delicious!

Banana 'raisins' - forgive them for not looking super appetising - they are still very delicious!

But what about the other varieties I mentioned?  The ones that reproduce via seeds.  There are likely hundreds of varieties of edible bananas.  And many of them are delicious!  The biggest barrier to getting these to the grocery store is that they would never last two weeks in a shipping container.  Some independent banana farmers, though, have started experimenting with food dehydrators, creating “banana raisins.”  These dehydrated fruits contain all the nutrients of the normal fruit, and the great taste!  But dehydrated bananas also have incredibly long shelf lives, allowing them to also be shipped anywhere.

It’s a radical solution, but maybe we need more of those.  After all, no one wants to lose the banana.

Behind the label: sourcing your seafood

So far on the Ecotarian, there has been a focus on the huge environmental impacts of land-based farming and agriculture – we even hosted a panel discussion on it.

But what about seafood? In this blog post, we'll talk about where your fish comes from, the real cost of providing it and why we don't need to head out to sea to find seafood.

In 2016, fish stories made the mainstream news for some weird and worrying reasons. First, there was the realisation that there is a crazy amount of plastic rubbish in our oceans -  and that it might be in our seafood. Then, beer-drinking became a non-vegetarian activity when we found out that chemicals from fish guts were used to make beer looker clearer

Also last year, the United Nations' "foody" people (The Food and Agriculture Organisation - FAO) produced their yearly report on global seafood production. 204 pages about fish. It is not a thrilling read but they showed that seafood provides around half the world's population "with almost 20 percent of their average ... intake of animal protein". They followed up with the big questions:How do we provide this much food, considering the practical difficulties of sourcing food from the seas? What are the negative consequences of eating all this fish?

In the UK, we are advised to eat between 50-60 g of protein per day (that's about two chicken breasts and an egg). On average, in the UK, less than 10g comes from seafood. Well then, why should you care about seafood?

It's already been 6 years since we realised that the amount we eat is more than the amount the UK waters can provide. So we import a lot from other countries supplies. Can this continue?

Fish farming

Let's start with a not-so-simple question: how do we even get our seafood? If the first image that comes to mind involves a big boat, nets and some grizzly old fishermen/women: think again. As of 2012, wild-catch fishing is no longer the main method of producing seafood. Aquaculture - the farming of finfish, crustaceans and seaweed in controlled environments - has taken over on a global scale.

Old MacDonald had a farm...: ..and on that farm the fish can be tended in many ways. Aquaculture can take place in lakes, paddy fields, bays or nets out at sea.

Old MacDonald had a farm...: ..and on that farm the fish can be tended in many ways. Aquaculture can take place in lakes, paddy fields, bays or nets out at sea.

Seafood farming can be split into two types. "Extensive" farms have the space to allow fish to swim freely in a naturally-enclosed space. On the other end of the spectrum, "intensive" farming uses tanks and controlled diets to ensure that production rates are big, supermarket shelves are filled and money is made.

Instead of farmed fish sustaining themselves naturally on small fish, "fishfeed" is introduced into the fishes diets. Fishfeed contains land-grown crop (like soy and corn), agricultural livestock waste (bones and cartilage) and fishing "by-catch" (unwanted fish which are caught and killed by accident) ([Naylor et al, 2016]). This is better for making fish big and healthy, at a faster-than-normal rate. Antibiotics can also be added.

As well as sounding like an unnatural diet for marine critters, these ingredients have can have a dirty history of negative impacts on the environment: from pesticide leakage during crop growth, to fishing by-catch (accidentally fishing too many fish). On top of this, seafood contains a high omega-3 content if the fish eat... other fish. This fatty oil reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Now, there is evidence to suggest a reduction in the amount of omega-3 in farmed fish because of the poor nutritional value of fishfeed [Fry et al, 2016].

It can get worse. There is a great risk from "monoculture farming" - harvesting one species at a time. If a disease, which only affects that particular species, enters a farm, spread is rapid and a whole harvest can be rendered inedible. China, the land of big aquaculture, is doing well in this respect, promoting multi-species farms which produce several fish species as well as seaweed [see Cottier-Cook et al, 2016].

Wild fishes & wilder fishing

Meanwhile, the fishing industry (nets and boats) is plagued by destructive practices. By-catch (again!) is an inevitable result of "efficient", widespread big-net fishing. All sorts of marine species - from dolphins to turtles - are caught alongside with the desired fish, killed by entanglement or re-released with injuries [WWF].

This is technically not illegal at the moment. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) practices include using TNT to kill whole schools in one go, or fishing in government-designated protected areas. It is no small task to track and stop this. There may be many reasons why fisherman choose this path: increased competition, lack of awareness or desperation. Either way, IUU practices most probably contribute to ecosystem destruction, and, ironically, reduced fish stocks. 11-26 million tonnes of seafood each year, is estimated to come from these harmful practices [World Ocean Review report] - this makes up a scary 10% of the global production amount.

One of the "next big things" in environmental concerns is the amount of waste in our oceans - particularly plastic waste. To put it bluntly, an insane amount of plastic reaches our waters, from whole plastic bags to clothing fibres. These fragment into microscopic pieces and have been found to contaminate the whole food chain, from the plankton to the albatross. The effects on seafood, and indeed humans, are still to be tested.

There is also the risk of contamination from chemicals leaked by factories, but I'm running out of words...

The UK's position

With the dire consequences and hazards of wild-fish production, it's no surprise that aquaculture has taken over, despite its shortcomings too. Developing countries are the trend-setters when it comes to aquaculture. The UK farms considerably less than it catches yet. Assuming we eat more and more each year (because population grows and grows), is it alarming to see our total production at a standstill?

The origin of seafood isn't always listed, even on "responsibly sourced" packaging, but the production figures [check the graph] imply that we rely more and more on imports. So, we - the consumers and shoppers - cannot always know where our seafood comes from and what has happened to it along the way.

50:50 – From humble beginnings 50 years ago, aquaculture (fish-farming) now provides over half of seafood globally. In the UK, there has been a long trend of decreasing fishing activity, while our farming growth has stalled. Is the country eating less fish? Or are we relying on imports?  

50:50 – From humble beginnings 50 years ago, aquaculture (fish-farming) now provides over half of seafood globally. In the UK, there has been a long trend of decreasing fishing activity, while our farming growth has stalled. Is the country eating less fish? Or are we relying on imports?

 

A special mention goes out to Scotland (woop woop), where there are only slightly more fin-fish sites than the rest of the UK (415 compared to 384) but they produce a whopping 94% of our farmed fish [HM Government Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science: CEFAS]. Now that's efficient.

What the future holds

That's enough bad news, I think. Let's talk about hope...

...sustainability. The word is thrown around so much that it risks losing its importance. Let's be clear, sustainable fishing means all of the following: catching/farming enough fish now and in the future to feed a growing population, making money, splashing out on technological advances, creating secure jobs while protecting the quantity and diversity of wildlife.

The United Nations place great importance on food, fish and the marine environment - many of their aims for the next few decades [see the pretty chart below] can be partly achieved by sorting out the problems in this article. Go check them out.

Big goals, big list: the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) do what they say on the tin. Sustainable seafood can contribute to #2, #6, #14 ... and more?

Big goals, big list: the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) do what they say on the tin. Sustainable seafood can contribute to #2, #6, #14 ... and more?

Both fish-farming and fishing can provide so-called "responsibly-sourced" food. To help us distinguish the good from the bad, we have the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) and the ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council). These are independent organisations; fish sold by their certified producers are identified by the MSC or ASC logos and, fortunately, these products can be found in all major supermarkets. The MSC and ASC both revisit suppliers - their work continues into the future.

The labelling system is not the final answer to the problems mentioned. Yet it shows that there is a willingness to change to responsibly-sourced seafood. To protect our oceans, food supply and future jobs - fulfilling those sustainable development goals - the consumer has to meet the industries half-way. That begins with your weekly shop.

Hungry after that? Dive straight into our recipe page for our head-chef's classic "Coconut and Fish curry". Sustainable and sustaining.

The Marine Conservation Society's app provides information and a funky traffic-light system to help choose what fish to eat and buy - check out the site.
 

Resolutions for an Ecotarian revolution

Happy new year, foodies! Here at the Ecotarian we're ready to green up our food system in 2017, buoyed up with fresh faces, ideas and determination. And, because change begins at home, we've reflected on some of our personal goals for the year below! Send us yours in the comments, or on twitter @The_Ecotarian

Naomi: Eating well without breaking the bank

It turns out that going vegetarian doesn’t mean you’ll be healthier! Early last year I made the decision to ditch meat, fish and as much dairy as I could manage, excluding food either cooked for me by friends or destined for the bin. Plans of weekly farmer's market trips and top-ups at the organic shop were replaced by takeaway pizza and more chips than I care to admit as my time, money and imagination trickled away (for the 5am chicken shop trips I can only ask forgiveness). This year, I’m planning to tackle this by being realistic with my budget, planning ahead, and getting inspiration for home-cooked meals from my ever-growing pile of vegetarian cookbooks. I may have to switch out organic for everyday value now and again, but being an ecotarian is all about finding a balance that suits you!

Clea: Byebye to dairy & hello to creative baking

My sweet tooth wakes me up in the morning and puts me to bed at night: I love a piece of toast in the morning with a thick layer of honey and a good many squares of dark chocolate with my peppermint tea before going to bed - oh yea and that afternoon snack! But this also means that if I am offered a piece of cake, I will never say no! Typically these will contain high-fructose corn syrup and dairy. My eco-resolution of the year is to scratch out the dairy from my diet as much as possible! This means saying no to cakes, saying no to those easy-to-grab cereal bars and satisfying my sweet tooth with some home baking, home made oat bars, a cheesecake with no cheese - and how about a healthy style carrot cake? Oh, and eliminating those chocolate bars and replacing them with vegan treats.

Arnaud: eat more sustainably, beyond labels and fancy vegetarian products

For the new year I’ll do all of what I can to ditch the plane and use the train as much as possible when I travel on the European continent. And since that has actually not much to do with food...I’d really want to put what I’ve learned through the Ecotarian perspective into practice. It’s about getting contextual and understand what is actually harmful for the environment. For example, in the UK and in other European countries, boars and dears are in some regions too numerous, and it can be a good thing to regulate their populations. On the other side, I would not buy organic apples from remote places such as New Zealand, reduce my consumption of processed food because it’s often full of palm oil, and be careful about avocados which can be very harmful for the environment to grow, because of world demand.            

IMG_5801.JPG

Ian: Prepare for good food

This year is all about being prepared. Even the most optimised diet plan can crumble when it meets reality, so this year I will be preparing meals over the weekend to stick with it when the going gets tough during the week. This will save time, money, and energy, and allow me to further reduce my consumption of processed foods and animal products, as well as cut out dallying in the Sainsbury's on the way home for the third time this week. The plan is for a more verdant diet while still hitting nutrient and budgetary targets for a healthier and wealthier year. For a treat, I am hoping to find interesting, fresh, and sustainably caught seafood from our own coasts and maybe do some of the catching myself.

Ronan: Keep learning, keep progressing

Being an ecotarian is complicated. It ain’t easy knowing the history of your entire shopping basket, let alone having an idea of reasonably-priced eco-friendly alternatives. This takes time and sometimes it’s impossible to know. So, my humble contribution to the ecotarian movement is to keep making small changes to my diet based on the facts and figures I find out along the way. Like swapping cow’s milk for soy milk because cows let greenhouse gases out of their backsides, or eating more vegan meals because livestock require much more land, energy and water. If I can become a half-decent ecotarian while still shopping at a local and affordable supermarket, I should be able to convince other people to do the same.

Rogier: Determined newbie

I'm shamefully new to the ecotarian game, but have lived with a set of staunchly vegan (no honey!) housemates for a few years now. When we cook together it's pure vegan but I'm substantially slacker when out and about in the big bad world of cheap and readily available cheesy/meaty snacks. I'm determined to slash my meat and dairy consumption over this year, lessening my personal contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and ethically questionable food production.

Moritz: Remain an epicure!

My new year’s resolution is to continue and to improve my commitment to only eat meats that I either have sourced myself or where I know much about the quality & locality of the product (epicure). As it is sometimes difficult to stick to when eating out, I am aiming to limit myself to only eat meats on weekends or on special occasions. The same applies to my dairy intake. I generally only consume limited amounts of it, but sometimes have to indulge when I am in the appropriate area (you must have cheese when in Switzerland!). This weekday-vegetarianism (as it is sometimes called), if applied to the whole world, would resolve the food crisis by itself. I generally don’t have an appetite for heavily processed foods, but will nevertheless strive to further reduce my intake of them and replace it with fruits & vegetables that are in season.

Next to changing eating habits, I aim to use my time at university to research issues further down the food supply chain and to do my bit to educate people about sustainable agricultural practices and the importance of sustainable hunting practises as a mean of protecting nature & conserving biodiversity.

Jackie: Growing, growing, growing

Living on a remote campus outside of London, you’d think the surrounding picturesque landscape would result in mountains of fresh produce, but fresh and sustainable food is surprisingly difficult to come by.  Most students put in massive orders with large supermarket chains every week, and packaging and food waste happens, even amongst a tight-knit group of environmentally-conscious ecologists and masters students.  A new allotment space is being built on campus, nearly outside my window, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty and putting the pile of gardening books I’ve gotten from the library to good use! Fresh vegetables, here I come!

How do we grow from here?

In our trilogy of articles exploring the environmental impacts of the food system we’ve discovered that the greatest damage is done before the business end: processing, distribution and storage. Arguably, adapting the ways in which crops and livestock are farmed would have a much more profound impact than simply buying food more locally; transport contributes only 10% of the industry’s greenhouse gases emissions. Of course there are other benefits to being a ‘locavore’, but food production is fundamental to the the concept of ‘ecotarianism’, and should be used to inform it. We’re organising a debate to shed light on sustainable agriculture in its many forms, so that we can establish what role can play each of us on the road to sustainability.

Read on to find out what to expect, and if you missed out on a ticket, follow along live!

Food production depends on a wide range environmental factors, from soil quality to weather. Meanwhile, its impacts are also felt throughout the natural world.

Atmosphere

  • Agriculture makes up a massive 24% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including methane, a potent GHG which escapes from livestock waste.
  • Agrochemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides, contain the third-most heat-absorbing GHG after CO2 and methane – nitrous oxide.
  • Converting land from forests to farm reduces the potential for greenery to absorb carbon dioxide.  

Land

  • Agrochemical leakage into surrounding natural habitats, via rivers and groundwater, has created some high-profile stories of severe damage to ecosystems.
  • Extensive agriculture allows livestock to roam free and crops to be planted sufficiently sparsely to avoid soil degradation. In Europe, it takes on average 500 years for the formation of only 2.5 cm of soil. Unfortunately, this greatly increases competition for available surface.
  • In the European Union, around 12.7% of arable land - the entire surface area of Greece - is estimated to suffer from moderate to high erosion. Simply put, this area loses more than five tonnes of soil per hectare, per year.

Water

  • Agriculture accounts for, approximately, a massive 70% of all water consumption globally.
  • Re-directing the supply of groundwater to farms forces people to dig further for drinking water, seen in 2/3 of cities throughout China.
  • Agriculture is also a major cause of water pollution. Rivers bring nutrients to coastlines where they form toxic algal blooms. Pesticides, of course, are already toxic.

Wildlife

  • Food production is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss worldwide. Loss of habitat and overfishing are the main culprits.
  • Only 12 plant species provide 75% of our total food supply, and only 15 mammal and bird species make up over 90% of livestock production!  
  • The recent findings of the RSPB’s State of Nature report highlights agriculture as the biggest driver of UK biodiversity loss.
  • Overfishing is an enormous threat to the marine ecosystems, and recent research suggest that actual fishing and stock rates are far more alarming than previously imagined.

Humans

  • Only a third of the world’s population is adequately nourished, while the global trend for diets is becoming energy-rich but nutrient-poor.
  • Heavily processed foods or those which contain excessive amounts of sugar and trans fats are widely believed to cause vitamin deficiency, high rates of obesity, heart diseases and premature deaths.
  • Exposure to chemicals due to the carefree use of pesticides in the production of livestock is also a huge concern for our health; higher cancer rates, increasing number of allergies and weakened immune systems. Meanwhile, the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has contributed to the frightening prospect of antibiotic resistance.
  • As market control of seeds and fertiliser shifts to just three large corporations, there are fears of economic stress on independent farms which could lead to rising food prices

The future of farming

A successful and just food system provides adequate sustenance and nutrition for everyone, but following current trajectories, food security looks set to worsen, with a projected 60% increase in demand by the year 2050, and climate change already impacting yields of important crops like wheat. So how do we halt the destruction agriculture is inflicting on land and ecosystems, whilst maintaining yields - necessary if efficiency is not clawed back by tackling food waste, for example. Can ‘conventional’ agriculture be redeemed using new technologies? Should pesticides and fertilisers be shunned and replaced with organic methods? Or do we just accept that farming is incompatible with nature and completely separate it from assigned ‘wildernesses’?

Agriculture today

The unprecedented increases in food availability and affordability that contrast so spectacularly with malthusian predictions of impending famine are credited to the intensification and industrialisation of agriculture. Human labour has been freed up as the responsibility to provide food has fallen to a smaller and smaller proportion of the population. But most of the world’s calories now come from a few staple commodity crops, with 75% of diversity lost between 1900 and 2000. Intensification of both crop and livestock production is increasing to meet demand. In regards to animal husbandry, this means larger, more confined facilities like CAFOs (Centralized agriculture feeding operations). What these gain in efficiency and reduction in land area, they lose through dependence on chemical inputs and antibiotics, issues of ethics, and pollutionNevertheless, many organisations, including the Royal Society in the UK, argue that ‘sustainable intensification’ of the current mode of agriculture must be a priority. Technology continues to develop, providing targeted irrigation and application of fertilisers, as well as robotic harvesting. These techniques alongside genetic manipulation are boosting the efficiency of crop and livestock cultivation

Increased mechanisation and innovation can improve security for smallholders. However, it’s hard to imagine long-term sustainability in farming becoming a priority if control lies in ever fewer, and more powerful hands. Indeed, the shifts towards monopolisation of seeds and chemical inputs by agrobusiness may increase precarity and propagate the decline in rural communities worldwide. Narratives of ‘feeding the world’ can substitute the goal of a truly sustainable food system, which provides sufficient nutrition, fairly distributes food and is resilient and durable, for one in which the base requirement of calories is provided for the global population. This inherently elevates conventional, industrial methods over diversified agriculture. 

Re-thinking 

Organic farming is often seen as a luxury for those in the western world who can afford it, and dismissed as unfeasible and utopian. It's enjoying a recent increase in popularity but still makes up a tiny proportion of the market share, at 1.4% in the UK last year, and 5% in the USA number of well-respected academics, and indeed the UN, have encouraged the scaling up of more inherently sustainable modes of agriculture. A panel of world food experts this year advocated an even more ambitious shift to ‘diversified agroecological systems’. This type of farming aims to build long-term fertility, and resilience to the stresses of climate change by stimulating interactions between species and optimising biodiversity. There's growing evidence that these systems, can reverse the release of greenhouse gases from the soil, and be even more productive than conventional input-based methods. 

When it comes to animal agriculture, conflicts of interest between efficiency and welfare arise. Some argue that factory farming has a lower environmental impact than pasture-fed livestock, and that ruminants (e.g. animals that eat grass, such as cows) should be replaced by pigs and poultry. However in some parts of the world, especially in the UK, land is best suited to grass cultivation and grazing - inherently more favourable for our livestock. As meat consumption looks set to increase globally, difficult choices will need to be made on whether we value wild spaces, or the welfare of our food animals more highly. 

Cosmopolitan crops

If we want to halt the expansion of agriculture into wild spaces, growing food in our cities might hold the key. The diverse world of urban farming spans community allotments to high-tech ‘aquaponics’ (plants and fish farmed together in a closed system); but all have in common their relatively small footprint and close proximity to the consumer. Innovative ways of producing high value goods such as salads (GrowUp Urban Farms) and micro-herbs (Growing Underground), are impressive in their efficiency and circular nature. However, it’s unlikely urban agriculture will meet demand for staple foods, and there are clear constraints on what can be produced. A recent assessment found that a third of the global urban land area would be needed to provide enough vegetables for urban dwellers! But if growing spaces reconnect city-dwellers with food and encourage community hubs to form, why not make the most of the space we have?

Left-field lunches

Gaining traction in the media are novel ways of getting our protein - both from lab-grown meat and unconventional 'livestock' like insects. But who does this appeal to? Although insects have comparable protein and nutrient content by weight to meat, and are actually more efficient than livestock, it's difficult to imagine demand outside of the realm of adventurous foodies. The same could be said for test tube steaks, for which technology is in its infancy. The backlash from genetically modified food - actually not that different in makeup from traditionally bred crops - is still powerful, so will consumers root for 'frankenfoods' enough to allow cost efficiency?

We look forward to delving into these issues with you further on the 18th October. You can tweet us questions and comments using the hashtag #SustFood!

Environmental Impacts of Food: Land Use

Welcome to the third in our series of blog posts about how our food system impacts the environment. The ecological footprint of agriculture has been highlighted in recent years. It has notably been related to the rising global population and to an increased production of biofuels. In this article we will give you some background to the issues around land use and what you can do to reduce your footprint.

How do we define "land use"?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), land use, as defined since 1997, is “the total of arrangements, activities and inputs that people undertake in a certain land cover type (1).” The concept of land cover type is simply the earth’s land as it is observed, whether it be as vegetation or man-made and includes everything from forestland to wetlands, croplands and urban land. The definition of land use was later specified as being the use of a given type of land to “produce, change or maintain it (2).” Types of land use include agricultural - whether it be for the production of crops, livestock or biofuels - residential, commercial – for business and factories – recreational and transport. 

Did you know that Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use contribute to 24% of global greenhouse has emissions?

To put this into perspective, electricity and heat production in 2014 accounted for 25% of global emissions, while transportation accounted for 14%! 

Why something needs to change in the way we use our Earth's land

Land is a finite source and every way in which we decide to use our land will be at the expense of an alternative activity.  While economies are prospering, demand for urban expansion is growing which, among other reasons, also leads to deforestation and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide that accumulates in the atmosphere.  

In the agricultural use of land our society is being faced with a conflicting choice of activities. On the one hand, there is the production of biofuels, such as wood pellets, which, we argue, can replace fossil fuels to close the loop on our carbon cycle, reducing energy sector emissions. On the other hand, the use of this land for crop-based biofuel production draws away from the cultivatable land that could be producing human-feeding crops. With a steadily growing global population, the demand for both food and fuel will grow with it, and while just under 800 million people in the world are underfed and in the dark, it seems obvious to us that we need to make the most efficient usage of our land. 

Bringing us to our food-y Ecotarian mission...

Today, the land use question is getting global. It is true that if one country fails to satisfy its nutrition needs, it should be able to import food resources by one way or another. Nonetheless, the problems we face today, such as soil depletion and exhaustion or agricultural water pollution, are felt at a scale never seen before. They are sometimes the result of the addition of many local human activities. For example, the cycle of nitrogen, which is essential to ecological processes both in wild and managed environments, is being altered globally by the local production and use of fertilisers, burning of fossil fuels and industrial activity (3). Overall, the world has lost a third of its arable land due to erosion and pollution in the last 40 years (4), and one tenth of the extent of wilderness over the past two decades (5). Continents that were used to surpluses, such as North America and Europe, have started to worry about soil degradation (9).  

Easter Island civilization’s collapse has been related to environmental damage.

Easter Island civilization’s collapse has been related to environmental damage.

One of our big concerns is indeed the inefficient use of land for agriculture. A staggering 33% of croplands globally are used for the production of feed for livestock, while the production of livestock only provides 1/4 of global protein intake and 15% of dietary energy. Essentially, a lot more energy goes into feeding and cultivating livestock than is actually provided by eating chicken, beef or lamb. An ecologist from Cornell University found that the energy required for the production of beef meat is 54 times the amount of protein that meat provides (3).  

To get this amount of cattle, you need far, far more land. 

To get this amount of cattle, you need far, far more land. 

How can we do something about it?  

A large proportion of processed foods today still contain palm oil. Aside from the devastating human rights violations that stem from the production of palm oil, its production is also associated with a large land use requirement which has induced deforestation in tropical primary forests (4) and we should bear such factors in mind when choosing to intake processed foods. Behavioral change is a key to helping the world adopt better land use strategies and we believe that talking about your concerns when choosing your items at the grocery store or preparing a meal, will raise awareness amongst your peers and spread the “Ecotarianism”.

Below are some tips as to how you can make a difference to our environment in your daily life choices. 

  • Favor plant-based proteins over meat, and white meats over beef. On average the production of beef requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer and 11 times more water than is need for the production of poultry (similar numbers apply for lamb) (6).   

  • Lower your intake of processed foods. These typically contain higher proportions of palm oil, will have travelled a long way to get to your local retailer (see our previous blogpost on the impact of Food Transport) and require a lot of energy for their packaging.   

  • Embrace a diet adapted to the season and the region you’re in. Diet can be adapted to where you are and varies by season. Think twice when consuming almonds that come from drought ridden California. Check out the BBC seasonality table showing that it is currently the best time to consume blackberries, broccoli and figs! Additionally, you could reduce your pork consumption, as pork sold in the UK mostly comes from resource intensive factories that have serious adverse effects on rivers and wildlife (8).  

 

If you would like to know more on shifting diets, this WRI paper will help you giving great sustainable happiness to your taste buds!  

 

A sustainable food system: how to get there?

Our new contributor, Arnaud, shares his thoughts on creating a more sustainable food system!

For diverse reasons, we are not all active advocates of building a more environmentally friendly food system. Our specific impact in the food sector also remains unknown, partly because we are sometimes assumed to be “consumers” only. So what does this position imply and how can overall improvements benefit us personally?

Current issues in our food systems

Globally, around 800 million people suffer from hunger (1), despite the astonishing 30 to 40% of food production discarded globally (2). Food waste is expected to increase substantially in the years to come, notably in India and China, due to so-called “western food habits”. Reducing food waste would be one of the most beneficial food policies in terms of sustainable development (3).  Besides that, more people are over-eating and consuming products damaging to health (4). The seemingly contradicting issues of malnutrition and obesity can even impact single countries, such as India (5). Malnutrition in India is due to a combination of insufficient affordable food availability in rural areas, and of so-called “western food habits” in urban areas (obesity rates are also impacted by a decreasing share of active travel modes overall). All of this comes at the environment’s expense. Our agricultural sector today is one of the most prominent agents of global land use change, biodiversity loss, water contamination, and greenhouse gases emissions (6).

Troubleshooting

Food supply chains are extremely diverse and involve hundreds of millions of people around the world. However, there are four categories of solutions that can be applied anywhere.

  • Come back to local supply chains as much as possible to cut emissions from transport and extended refrigerated storage (see our last blog post!).
  • Improve yields through technology. Technological innovation has been comparatively low in the sector for the last thirty years. Innovation has been historically poorly welcomed in Europe, suspicion being high on multinational’s goals, the Monsanto cases having caused several public outcries. (7). Still, many start-ups, that enjoy a better public image, are now betting on promising techniques to enhance productivity and reduce waste (8). And the scope for improvement is humongous!
  • Strengthen legal frameworks. Not all supply chains can or will turn local, at least in the medium term. Supermarkets are big actors in food waste (along with consumers). France just proved that for such actors, making it mandatory for them to give unsold stocks to charities and food banks is feasible and impactful (9). Other rules could further target over-packaging to reduce substantially the use of energy-intensive and polluting materials.
  • Engage farmers and producers when making changes. Central governments and big companies have often forgotten the human factor when analysing food production – to their own expense, as the UK energy crops plan exemplify (10). If you’re interested in the farmers’ exposure to uncertainty, it is worth taking a look at the recent report from the House of Lords on agricultural resilience (11).

So, what about us?

We now have a synthetic vision of the overall global issues and the directions suggested to address them. How to locate ourselves and our actions as “consumers” in this framework?

  • Favouring locally-produced food will reduce your carbon footprint, stimulate change through market forces and strengthen the feeling of community where you live. Organic apples from New Zealand surely don’t fit in the ecotarian scope. Check out our guides here and here!
  • Adapting your behaviour to reduce your waste can make you discover new personal skills - check our banana cake recipe!
  • Adopting a new habit or behaviour doesn’t mean that you need to be strict about it. You can start reducing your meat consumption but allow yourself for the once a month beef burger that you worship.
  • We are what we eat…and becoming an ecotarian is just much healthier! This is due to reduced meat consumption (bad for cardiovascular condition), reduced salt intake (processed food), more organic products (less chemicals in your body) and proportionally more vegetables and fruits.

Consumer: the key change enabler

As mere citizens, it can feel as though we are just the end-piece of the banana cake. However, our actions have the power to set new trends upfront and directly impact the main issues that the world is facing in terms of food supply chains. 

Environmental Impacts of Food: Transport

Why be an ecotarian?

Welcome to the second in our series of blog posts about how our food system impacts the environment. The whole food system from farm to table (maybe by way of a factory or two) is responsible for a fifth of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but how much does flying, shipping or driving all that produce to our shopping baskets contribute? Can we as consumers help to reduce our own impact through buying food locally? 

Forgotten journeys

When browsing the sterile environment of a supermarket, it’s easy to forget that the produce surrounding us has a life story. The system than provides consumers with an almost constant supply of the same products throughout the year is globally interconnected and heavily industrialised. The environmental costs of our food are not well reflected in pricing, which enables food manufacturing and freight businesses to reap the rewards of cheap labour and subsidised fuel. We’ve never been so disconnected from the origins of our food, so it’s unsurprising that most of us don’t picture the field where the story of that produce began, potentially thousands of kilometres across the world.

Food miles

The distance a food product travels from producer to consumer is commonly called ‘food miles’. But foods from all over the world are transported in different ways, each with a different carbon footprint. Therefore, ‘food miles’ alone cannot tell us the environmental impact of transportation unless its emissions can be quantified. The ‘global warming potential’ of each mode of transport can be calculated in kilograms of CO2 (or CO2 equivalent if you include other GHG) per tonne of food, per kilometre. When you look at these figures, shipping comes out with the lowest emissions, trains second, followed by road transport, and finally with fossil-fuel guzzling air freight having about 100 times the emissions per tonne kilometre than shipping (1).

If you look at these figures alone, you might conclude that it’s more environmentally friendly to buy all your food products shipped in from outside Europe. But the distances involved in sea transport are much larger than road transport, and because of this non-EU commodities contain much more embedded CO2 equivalent (2). In the UK, road freight makes up about 80% of transportation, and uses four times the amount of energy as rail (3). As a consumer, we don’t have much control over this, but trying to shorten the distance you buy within the UK as much as possible will help. 

This graph represents the emissions from 5 fruits and vegetables consumed in the UK, split into production and transport. Note that this is in total volume, not percentages –most of our produce comes from the UK rather than from abroad, so this graph does not indicate that UK produce is inherently more polluting! What it does show is that the carbon footprint of produce from outside Europe is dominated by transport rather than production, mainly due to air freight. In contrast, for UK produce production makes up a much larger proportion of total emissions (2).

This graph represents the emissions from 5 fruits and vegetables consumed in the UK, split into production and transport. Note that this is in total volume, not percentages –most of our produce comes from the UK rather than from abroad, so this graph does not indicate that UK produce is inherently more polluting! What it does show is that the carbon footprint of produce from outside Europe is dominated by transport rather than production, mainly due to air freight. In contrast, for UK produce production makes up a much larger proportion of total emissions (2).

High flyers

Cutting air freight out of the food chain would at first sight seem to be the most obvious way of reducing emissions. This is often dismissed however, as 50% of air freight is carried in the belly of passenger planes, meaning it does not technically put more planes in the sky (just the extra fuel from transporting more weight) (4). There are two problems with this argument. First of all, there’s the other 50%, which has a staggeringly high impact of its own (2). Secondly, it is in the interest of transport companies to encourage long-distance food transport on the routes they operate, and air freight is forecast to grow partly because of this (3). As a consumer it’s almost impossible to know which produce is shipped and which is flown, so our advice is to prioritise UK and EU food items whenever possible if you want to reduce your impact. Worryingly, cross-boundary air freight is omitted from the GHG accounts of all countries, so the impetus may not even be there to restrict growth of this sector.

Seasonality

Eating locally and seasonally are inextricably linked. For example, out of season it has been suggested buying apples shipped from New Zealand rather than stored UK apples has a lower environmental impact (1). Environmental suitability is also important: greenhouse-grown tomatoes from the UK may actually be a worse choice than the equivalent import from Spain at all times of year, because of the intensive production costs. These are unusual cases, however – buying local and seasonal is still the safest option. It’s been found, however, that up to 70% of UK city-dwellers believe they should have year-round choice of any food product (5). Arguably, reductions in emissions through decarbonisation will fail to meet the UK’s targets if not supported by behavioural changes. 

Wishful thinking

So local is better, if the produce is in season. You could probably have guessed that beforehand. But what would be the consequences if all our food was grown locally? Surprisingly, we’re already about 60% self-sufficient in food items, an increase from 30-40% in the 1930’s (1). Without a change in diet, we would need to produce a lot more fruit, along with more vegetables, sugar and animal feed. However, most of the highest quality land needed for fruit and vegetable production is already used for that purpose, so some grassland would need to be converted, displacing dairy onto lower quality land that would likely be accompanied by a decrease in yield (1). Carbon emissions from land use change would result from any conversion of woodland or other non-farmed landscapes.

And what about the producers in developing countries who trade with the UK? Wouldn’t they lose out if we became self-sufficient? This is a complex issue depending on how each particular country controls its resources, and few studies are currently available. It's known, however, that countries which allocate large amounts of resources to export production can become more vulnerable to food insecurity due to dependence on sales of one or two main products. There are also conflicts over use of land and resources; although things are improving, some countries with large food exports, such as Bolivia, still have problems with undernourishment (3). Without this trade, though, food producers would lose a significant portion of their GDP, so clearly it's irresponsible to cut ties without rethinking the way food is distributed at an intergovernmental level. As a consumer, when buying products only grown outside the continent (like tea and chocolate), Fairtrade can help to ensure benefits of global food trade reach the growers directly.

The future for localism

A 2008 study found that for the average household in the US, buying local could achieve a maximum of a 4-5% reduction in GHG emissions due to the huge relative impact of food production. In contrast, cutting out one day of red meat consumption per week would have an equivalent impact as procuring all food locally (6). This is backed up by studies in the UK, too. Eating organically is also believed to have a bigger impact, as production and import of fertilisers and pesticides has a significant footprint. If you just want to make one change, it’s more worthwhile to eat meat and dairy less often, and buy higher-quality when you do. Eating locally has many more benefits than just the reduction in emissions, however. It’s really rewarding to get to know local growers and producers, to learn more about the process that brings produce to your table, and elevates eating to an altogether more wholesome experience. It supports small scale farmers, who often use more diversified and sustainable farming practices. It keeps money in the local economy rather than dissipating it out into the pockets of, ahem, tax-dodging / exploitative multinationals. It's also been suggested that eating locally has health benefits, as fruit and vegetables lose nutrients during transportation, and over-processing for longevity also reduces nutritional value.

This whole debate is pretty complex, and we don’t have all the answers. For now, we’re going to stick to buying regionally, nationally, and continentally produced foods in that order of preference, eating seasonally as much as possible, and cutting down on our good old meat consumption. A fool-proof method is of course growing your own! We can make an impact as consumers, but ambitious regulation and good governance must also be part of the solution. We all have a say in that, too. 

Next time we'll be discussing the impacts of land use change in regions where our food is produced, and how this can effect not only local but global environmental change. Head to the links page for more info on these topics.

New addition to our Eco-Foodie Map: ENROOT 107 Herne Hill

Nish and Harshil behind the ENROOT counter

Nish and Harshil behind the ENROOT counter

Cousins, Nishant (a.k.a. Nish) and Harshil Modasia (a.k.a. Harsh), and best friend Thomas Price (a.k.a. Pricey) launched on February 13th this year their goodness-on-the-go ENROOT café in the heart of Herne Hill at 107 Dulwich Road (on our Eco-Foodie Map). Their concept is simple and wholesome: serve healthy food that tastes great and that makes you feel even better at affordable prices for everyone with a £5 cap on all their products. ENROOT will provide you with all the nutrition you need at any time of day, from fresh juices and smoothies (£2.50) with superfood add-ons (did you know that chia seeds contain more calcium than milk?), a must-have Chai Avena Caliente breakfast oatmeal drink (heaven in your mouth!), hot pots that include variations of curries and stews that test out different ingredients every day as well as a weekend special ceviche pot (with tilapia, shrimp and salmon), a unique homemade ENROOT scotch bonnet sauce, salads, empanadas, 100% natural protein balls, mouth-watering desserts, great coffee and more!

But, their café is about way more than just the yummy nutritious food (what more do you want?!); it’s about breaking boundaries, promoting their local community and bringing together different cultures and traditions into a medley of palatability and dialogs. Nish, Harsh and Pricey also bring together an unprecedented combination of languages and nations; among them they speak English, French, Spanish and Guajarati and share extensive travelling experiences around the world where they have found inspiration for their combinations of ingredients and spices. From, India to Australia, South America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Europe, these young men have just about the whole globe covered and you can taste it with every mouthful! 

Ceviche pot with tilapia, shrimp and salmon topped with guacamole and the homemade scotch bonnet sauce

Ceviche pot with tilapia, shrimp and salmon topped with guacamole and the homemade scotch bonnet sauce

What inspired you to start the café?

Located in the heart of a very mixed community with young professionals, families and a widespread Jamaican influence, we want to push forward the health and wellbeing revolution, we want to show that it doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg to do so. We want to give back to our community and become a reference point for locals. We are anti big corporations and want to show that sourcing local ingredients is easy and sustainable. We want to share our love of good food, with minimal use of refined ingredients (such as sugar) and last, but definitely not least, we want to promote a meat free diet and give meat free alternatives for an environmentally conscious food intake. At ENROOT all of our dishes are vegetarian or vegan and only on weekends do we make the exception of including fish in some of our dishes!

How do you go about creating your menus?

Dhal mix

Dhal mix

Must-have spices: turmeric, cumin, salt, cayenne peper, fennel seeds, paprika and cinnamon. 

Must-have spices: turmeric, cumin, salt, cayenne peper, fennel seeds, paprika and cinnamon. 

We work very closely with our sources at Brixton market and Spitalfields market and stock up on fresh produce three times a week, always using what we have at hand to make our different dishes and as a result we have little to no waste! And the good thing about serving meat-free food is that all our ingredients stay fresh and last a lot longer. We also strive to use as little animal derived products as possible, never using butter, instead we use organic coconut oil (that we also sell in store for less than £5) or olive oil, and to use as little sugar as possible we will use natural sweeteners such as freshly squeezed orange juice or mango. 

What is your policy on waste management?

We have been brought up never to waste food and that is how we run our café. If we have left overs at the end of the day, we will either bring it home and have it ourselves or give it out to our friends and community. But we actually have a very good turnover and rarely have any wasted food at the end of the day – our curry-in-a-hurry has already been sold out! We also run Free Fruit Fridays where anyone can come by and pick up their free fruit of choice, whether it be an apple, a banana or an orange, we will give out whichever fruit we have the most of.  We also separate our food compost and give that directly to local Herne Hill allotments.

What are your three favourite ingredients? 

Plantain, chickpeas/chickpea flour and chia seeds. 

Have you encountered difficulties in trying to be environmentally friendly?

Packaging is the trickiest part about being environmentally friendly – but we do our best! We get all of our packaging from BioPac that provides 100% biodegradable products that can be composted alongside food waste. 

What is your objective/plan? 

We think the best way to start expanding our brand would be to cater at festivals and other such big events and eventually to franchise the concept of freshness and goodness-to-go.

ENROOT already catered at the Vagaband Kickstarter launch on March 2nd!  

Follow ENROOT on Twitter @enroot107 and on Instagram !

Environmental Impacts of Food: Livestock

Why be an ecotarian?

In the first of a series of blog posts to help you understand how the food industry interacts with the environment, we list some of the environmental problems caused by producing meat and compare to those of other foods.

Carbon Foodprint

A report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) [1] found that the farming sector is a BIG source of greenhouse gases - growing livestock, vegetables and fruit emits 15% of the GHGs that we pump out every year. The same reports estimates this is more than all the planes, ships and cars in the world.

Before this landmark report, a 2005 study [2] compared the fossil fuel energy required with the calories on offer in a range of foodstuffs. Plant-based foods such as corn, potatoes and apples are generally 10 times more energy efficient than red meat, poultry and dairy products. Fish – shrimp in particular - comes in last place. Simply put, the emissions released from producing a kilo of fruit & veg are much less than from a kilo of meat/chicken/fish/eggs/milk.

But we may not need to boycott the cows altogether. The FAO also found that if existing, energy-saving appliances and practices were rolled out across the livestock production cycle – in both developed and developing countries - this global industry’s emissions would be cut by a whopping 30% [3].

Why is farming such a big polluter? How much of this is down to meat?

Grain or grass: feeding our food

Let’s start with animal feed. “Grass fed” livestock are those allowed to roam in fields and graze the land. This can (but not always) ensures a comfortable life for the animal. However, a LOT of land is needed – more than is sustainable for 7 billion carnivorous diets [4].

A space-saving and cost-effective alternative exists - the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (does what it says on the tin). “Grain-fed” swine, cattle and poultry are tightly packed into a caged units for weeks until suitably meaty. Side-stepping animal welfare and the quality of mass-produced meat, there are other problems with CAFOs. Firstly, growing grain has its own carbon-dioxide footprint. We are using energy and water to grow food for animals which we could otherwise be eating ourselves.

On top of this, CAFOs produce a lot of manure …

Methane – a very natural gas

…which brings us onto the next problem: a big pile of crap. “Manure gases” include methane and nitrous oxide – two GHGs which don’t get as much media attention as carbon dioxide.  They much more potent in terms of their contribution to global warming but on a shorter term. So, any waste which is not reused as a natural fertilizer will inevitably contribute to GHG emissions.

Synthetic fertilizers also release nitrous oxide. These are used to grow cheap mass-produced maize for animals – but also for rice, cereal and wheat for us.

So far, so complicated. Now let’s look beyond the farm.

Flying pigs

Once meat has been prepared and packaged, it goes on a refrigerated journey to the supermarket shelves. Unsurprisingly, it takes a lot of fuel to fly in produce from the other side of the world while keeping it cool. Flying a kilometre releases the same amount of CO2 per passenger as a kilometre of driving [5,6]. Of course, what makes aviation a dirtier polluter is the long distances travelled.

In most British supermarkets, the food with the most air miles tends to be vegetables - we're quite proud of our own meat.

So, meat beats vegetables here?

Not quite. Transporting food contributes to less than 10% of the industry’s GHGs emissions [1]. This gives you an idea of the sheer amount of resources needed for all things which happen on the farm. (We're not suggesting that buying fruit and veg from the other side of the planet is now sustainable - far from it!).

A thirsty business

To grow a kilo of grain requires 1000 litres of water [7]. That’s about 20 showers. The same amount of cheese needs 5 times as much, and beef 16 times.

Clearly, farming animals is not a wise choice in regions prone to drought or with depleting water reserves. In more severe cases in poorer countries, grazing land can all but disappear along with the number of healthy animals [8]. Drought is very rarely our own fault but pre-existing water-saving techniques [9] would better prepare farms, from CAFOs to locals, for not-so-rainy days.

No solution till the cows come home

Like any industry, agriculture leaves dirty paw marks on the scale it works at. It requires a lot of fuel, space and water - currently almost 40% of the planet's land is used for agriculture [10]. To feed more and more people, with fewer and fewer resources, would require this land to be used as efficiently as possible.

As it stands, this would suggest a shift away from using it for livestock. Will the future bring a consumer movement away from meat? Should we treat it as a luxury? Will we need government policy to make meaningful progress? Is it fair to eat meat when so many of the world's poor have little access to it?

We leave you with more questions than answers - but also with some of the facts to make sure you're decisions are a little more informed.

Intrigued? Want to learn more? Check out the "Links & Survey" page for documentaries like Cowspiracy (the award for best-documentary name goes to...).

Ecotarianism for Dummies

“No turkey for him, he only eats peas”. 

 “Yeah, I heard you were turning funny”. 

 “Eco-what? Ecoterrorism?”

These are some of the messages of support I’ve received recently during my attempts to become ecotarian. Many people, including those I know who are “environmentally-conscious”, have not heard of the concept, let alone understand it. Even my word processor is telling me to correct it to sectarianism. Better add to dictionary. 

To be ecotarian is to enter into a web of trade-offs. Let’s say you’re aware poultry and meat are some of the most resource-intensive food products - so you opt for some cucumber, humus and pitta bread. In the supermarket, the damn cucumbers have been shipped in from southern Europe. You look for something you enjoy eating that hasn’t travelled more than a gap-year student and so you end up in the kebab shop. Fail.

It’s tricky. Don’t worry, The Ecotarian has prepared a few guidelines of ecotarianism – follow them all or pick your favourites.

TRANSITION

Take it slow - it’s a gallant effort to change your lifestyle like this. Small steps such as cutting down to one piece of meat per day can be a great foundation for larger changes, and help you save money too.

REPLACE

Initially, it is easiest to start cutting food that no longer fits into your diet, but this brings the risk of missing out on key food groups and nutrients. Make sensible switches – there a lots of helpful resources out there.

LEARN

Every ecotarian is different so be wise, pick up tips and share. Also, learning more about where your food comes from can be really rewarding and help you to rediscover the joy of eating!

ENCOURAGE

We have hope that a lot people are willing to act on their beliefs about sustainable living, and could benefit from knowing like-minded people. Discussing these ideas without preaching or judging others’ choices is a great way to build sustainable communities.

DON’T OVER-ANALYSE

Remember that the global food system is a lot, lot bigger than you. Although collective changes in habit can create consumer pressure, the nature of the beast means you won’t be able to be perfect. 

STEP UP

You may start to look at the bigger picture of the food system - getting involved in larger movements and petitioning those in power are great ways to make positive changes to the way things work. Of course, if for you ecotarianism is purely personal, that’s great too – and as a consumer you vote with your wallet. 

BE PROUD

There are many reasons for doing what you are doing - whether that be protesting against animal cruelty, preaching sustainability, reducing your carbon footprint or removing the temptation to have an extravagant appetite. 

This is not just about eating differently. It’s also about supporting local business, reducing your carbon footprint, boycotting environmentally-detrimental food production processes and aiming for a fairer distribution of food on a global scale.

Check out our guides for more ideas on everything from shopping sustainably to making use of tight gardening space in London!

10 ways to source your food more sustainably

These are our favourite ideas, both large and small, for tweaking your lifestyle to ensure peak ecotarian credentials. Disclaimer: Apologies to all my regional brothers and sisters, but I live in London now, and as such some (but not all) of these ideas are capital-centric. At home near Leeds I find it much easier to eat sustainably due to the proximity to where the food chain begins, on the farm; and the more metropolitan you become, the harder this can be. So here we go...

1: GROW YOUR OWN

Credit: IrishFireside

Credit: IrishFireside

Salad leaves, chillies and herbs are among a myriad of crops you can grow indoors or on your windowsill. If you have a balcony, you literally have no excuse…courgettes, beans, tomatoes…go crazy. Jack Monroe is brimming with ideas on the subject. Another great resource is Vertical Veg.

2: TAKE IT UP A LEVEL

Credit: Adrian Scottow

Do you have horticultural ambitions beyond Barry the basil on your kitchen worktop? A source of pride and satisfaction for many lucky souls, a small allotment plot can provide a surprisingly large amount of fruit and veg throughout the year. In London, allotments are more numerous than you might imagine, but have long waiting lists. By all means sign up – you can find allotments near you at gov.uk; in Haringey as an example, the average plot price is £32.50 per year. There are also likely to be other food growing opportunities in your local area, such as community gardens, which you can find out about by contacting the council or local authority. A very cool UK-wide initiative is Landshare, launched through River Cottage, which connects groups of ‘growers’ without land and either councils or landowners with usable land, sparking the creation of new plots and community gardens.

3. FORAGE

Credit: Inga Vitola

Credit: Inga Vitola

I don’t speak for everyone, but foraging is unlikely to become a part of your weekly shop. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a better way to spend a few hours now and again, especially in London where the wonders of nature and ecology can easily slip into distant memory. A few websites offer a combination of info for your own excursions along with courses with experts you can book on to - Forage London is a good place to start. More local groups like Urban Harvest often organise free community foraging trips more informally.

4. SHARE

Cooking together and sharing food is a great way to reduce food waste and buy less overall. Furthermore, eating food that would otherwise go to waste is one of the most sustainable ways of procuring your dinner. A fantastic (and addictive) new app is Olio – it enables the exchange of edible surplus food between neighbours and businesses in communities across London [and now the UK!]. You can donate and collect unwanted food items (e.g. bags of pasta, or day-old bakery bread) for free or much cheaper than sale price. 

5. BUY FROM FARMERS

An easy way to reduce your food miles, ensure a fair price for the farmer, and find a wider range of seasonal produce than your supermarket will stock. In London, the first place to look is London Farmers’ Markets (clue’s in the name). There are strict rules for producers to attend these so you can be guaranteed high welfare and standards of food production. City & Country is also a good shout and may have markets closer to where you live. Also, many organic farms are now running organic box schemes - find these near you at the Soil Association website. The Food Assembly brings this all together - you can order from a selection of  local farmers and foodmakers weekly, and collect from a designated community pick-up point. 

6. BUY SEASONAL

And buy British when possible. The nice folks at the BBC have made this handy table to help us out.

7. SHOP LOCAL

Although local greengrocers, bakeries, butchers and fishmongers have been in decline in recent years, there’s reason to believe they’ll make a comeback, and there’s no better way to ensure this than voting with your wallet. Be sure to talk to the shop owner about their sourcing, and try to still stick to seasonal produce - provenance may be not as well marked as in the supermarket. 

8.  EAT OUT

Happily, it’s becoming more fashionable for eateries to place localism, seasonality and eco-friendly alternatives at the forefront of their menus. Perfect for vegetarians with carnivorous cravings, Veg Bar in Brixton offers up crazily realistic meat alternatives. Save the Date Café, Dalston is part of the Real Junk Food Project and produces a menu of restaurant quality using surplus food. Slightly more pricey but a great spot for special occasion, The Shed's menu is totally seasonal with lots of exciting foraged ingredients. 

9. KNOW YOUR SUPERMARKETS

Credit: Kim-Leng

Credit: Kim-Leng

We all rely on them, and shopping wisely at supermarkets can have an impact – they will pay attention to consumer choices and demands. For seafood, Sainsbury’s and M&S came out on top of the Marine Conservation Society’s last Supermarket Seafood Survey in 2013, followed by the Co-op, then Waitrose, Booths, Iceland and Morrisons. Amongst those who declined to take part were Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and Asda. We’ll be keeping our eye on supermarket reports in the coming months. In the meantime, Ethical Consumer is a good place to check up on your favourite. 

10. CHECK YOUR LABELS

Credit: hadi

Credit: hadi

Of course, sustainable supermarkets and smaller local stores may still stock unethically or unsustainably sourced branded products. Here you can find a list of bodies that are recognised organic certifiers. ‘Free range’ products do not guarantee high animal welfare standards; ‘pastured’ is better - but to be safe it’s best to go local for eggs and chicken. For seafood, look for the blue Marine Stewardship Council logo. In general, it’s best to avoid any products containing palm oil unless it’s RSPO-certified. Lastly, bear in mind that the longer and more unintelligible a label is, the more processing, transport and fossil fuels are likely to have gone into that product. It will also be not at all nutritious.

Well, hope this hasn't been too exhausting, and got you all excited about the possibilities out there. Send more ideas our way in the comments box!

The Garden Champion

In a leafy suburb on the north-western fringes of Greater London, a 92-old man spends the summertime in his haven, the back garden. At a leisurely pace, he is tending to the cabbage, watering bright petunias and, once his work is done, sips on a cup of tea while basking in the sunlight. He contemplates how fortunate he is to be able to continue this rewarding and peaceful hobby.

Then, possessed by his own self-belief and infinite energy, he throws the shed door open, wrenches out a ladder twice the size of him and marches with intent towards the apple tree. There is a bountiful crop this year – not one can go to waste. The ladder is propped up with surprising precision against a thick branch, the old soldier climbs up. He returns in triumph a mere five minutes later with a bag full of the best cooking apples he has ever had.

If I was a better grandson, I would have offered to go up. But why clamber up a tree when the supermarket provides so well?

I am hesitant to write an article about growing your own food when it seems that most people, including myself, are so pressed for spare time. Shouldn’t we be focusing on tidying up the supermarket industry?

Yes, completely right. My answer is … grow your own food. Let the industry learn from the people (i.e. Grandad).

The UN 2013 report on food security, a compilation of studies by analysts, researchers and directors from the academia, business and NGOs, was alarmingly titled “Wake up before it’s too late”. Gulp. This could be said about any aspect of mitigation and adaption to climate change. In a fair world which provides enough food for all, while avoiding shameful extravagance, the main goal would be to “grow more food at less cost to the environment”.

Let’s look at a local but less serious example of food security. We import 3-4 times as many apples as we produce in Britain. This is the home of cider, the world famous Cox variety and the only country to grow the cooking variety. Despite this, Britain has plans to begin exporting to rapidly-developing economies. Simply put, if the UK did not import from France, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile, would the apple be a luxury, not an essential?

One of many: apples, no matter how unattractive, can remain fresh for 4-5 months if wrapper in newspaper and stored in a container outside during winter.

One of many: apples, no matter how unattractive, can remain fresh for 4-5 months if wrapper in newspaper and stored in a container outside during winter.

Answer – the apple would become what it is for Grandad. Seasonal. In the land of the supermarket this concept is sadly dead; instead we have too much all of the time and waste is inevitable. Not only does the old fella have enough for a winter of apple pies, but the neighbours and extended family all get a bucket.

Home-grown cake: An ugly fruit can go a long way.

Home-grown cake: An ugly fruit can go a long way.

The benefits of growing your own, seasonal foods are also threefold. Physical: it’s kept Grandad fit for several decades.  Environmental: there are no transport emissions, excessive packaging or refrigeration required. Societal? Yes: If the amount produced in a garden is more than what the household requires and it’s not hard to think of ways to distribute free food – neighbours, food banks. Small harvest this year? Well at least your weekly shop has been offset.

This is not some hippy-phase or some environmentalist whining. Growing your own food empowers and promotes self-dependence. It can bridge the gap between those who can afford too much and those who struggle to get by. Grandad can grow blackberries, rhubarb, potatoes, figs, cabbage and those infamous apples in a restricted green space in a London borough. He literally has enough to sell but he gives those he doesn’t need away. We need Grandad’s attitude and drive on an industrial scale.