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.
 

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!

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.

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...).