What kind of choices should I make if I want to support environmental sustainability in my food choices? I try to be sustainable when it comes to eating but I also like many edible things that have to travel from far away to reach me. I have often tried to choose differently – more local and more seasonal – but it can be hard when you crave for grapes or mandarins. With food, sustainability and environment in mind, I decided to write down a few things that I myself try to follow in my eating habits.
CHOOSE ORGANIC, LOCAL AND SEASONAL
The easiest way for me to eat sustainably is to choose organic, local and seasonal foods. If can’t have all of them in one package, I try to choose products that have at least one of these traits. It isn’t always easy to stick to this. Sometimes you want those grapes or mandarins.
When you grow fruits, vegetables and grains organically you are being good to the Earth. Natural Resources Institute Finland states that the basic principle of organic farming “is to secure the well-being of nature, humans and animals”. Organic farming uses practices that are designed to minimise the human impact on the environment and at the same time makes sure that the agricultural system works as naturally as possible. Some of these practises are, e.g. strict limits on synthetic fertiliser use and wide crop rotation to use on-site resources efficiently. (EU Agriculture and rural development: Organic Farming).
Organic farming is carefully regulated so you can rest assured that it is good for the soil and good for the body. I prefer to choose products that are both organic and local. When I choose local, I know that my food is transported across short distances which means that the transportation has less effect on the environment.
I also prefer seasonal food, i.e. fresh food that hasn’t been stored for long periods in certain temperatures or grown in greenhouses which consume a lot of energy. Here in the north the growing period for fruits and vegetables is quite short. If you want to eat foods that do not grow in your country, you can choose foods that are imported at their harvest time. The large harvest time quantities are transported by ships, and this mode of transportation causes less emissions than airfreight. Despite being able to choose seasonal veggies from abroad, my favourites are still local and seasonal berries, cabbages, tomatoes, rhubarb, potatoes, kale and salads.
When I am at a grocery store I try to pick foods that are in danger of being labelled food waste, i.e. getting thrown into the trash. Food waste is edible food that might have passed its best-before date, is a funny-looking vegetable, a little darkened fruit, or ingredient that consumers do no want. Finnish grocery stores throw away more than 65 million kilos of food yearly and the whole food chain produces 400-500 million kilos of food waste. Add the environmental resources invested in food production and the emissions caused by food waste to that, and it makes the burden on the environment quite staggering. I try to keep that in mind when I’m choosing my fruits and veggies.
My own sustainability compass has deemed a shopping list to be a perfect way to avoid creating food waste. When you write down what you need, you don’t buy extra food on impulse. If I have bad-looking fruits or flour that is nearing its best-before date, I try to use them in one way or another. Even though I recycle biowaste, I can be fairly conscience-stricken when I have to throw food into my biowaste container.
GO VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN
I have been a vegetarian for 20 years. I have eaten some meat during that time but nowadays I lean towards a vegan diet. If you want to be very kind to the environment, going vegetarian or vegan is a good way to do that. From the environmental point of view, plant-based diets are better for the environment than meat-based. Growing fruits, vegetables and grains require less land and water than meat production. They also cause less greenhouse gases than livestock production, including meat, milk and eggs.
The world’s largest user of agricultural land is the livestock sector which also has “a major role in climate change, management of land and water, and biodiversity” as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations points out. In an ideal world, the land and water that is used for the livestock, would be used for growing food that is directly fed to human beings. I have always thought that this way everyone would get enough to eat. But this view also poses the question if it is applicable everywhere in the world. It is easy to say “go vegetarian or vegan” but it would be interesting to know if it really is that easy in a different social or environmental setting.
At first glance, the idea of fair trade seems to clash with sustainable eating. To reach us in Europe, fair trade goods have to travel long distances. But if I enjoy grapes and mandarins, I have to consider fair trade as a part of my sustainable eating puzzle. Fair trade is environmentally friendly. One of the 10 fair trade principles is respect for the environment meaning that fair trade producers are committed to use materials from sustainably managed sources, to reduce energy consumption, to use renewable energy if possible, to minimise the impact of waste and to use organic or low pesticide production methods. (World Fair Trade Organization) Abiding by these principles makes fair trade fall into a suitable slot in my sustainable eating map.
I try to balance my eating habits between local and fair trade. What doesn’t grow in my own country, I buy fair trade if it’s possible. Some people say that fruits that do not grow in our northern latitudes should not be bought at all if you want to be completely sustainable. I could choose not to buy a banana at all since it is shipped from the other side of the world. But if I really want a banana, I buy it fair trade and organic.
MIXING AND COMBINING
As I wrote down my thoughts, I decided to see if I could whip up a breakfast following my own ideas. The result is in the pictures. I have found the above guidelines to be good signposts for myself. I want to be kind to our environment and I have spent quite some time figuring out how to do it. Mixing and combining local, fair trade, seasonal, organic and vegetarian or vegan foods and not throwing anything to waste is working for me. I don’t know if being a completely sustainable eater is possible but you can get very close to it at least.
Text by Tiina junno
Sources: Natural Resources Institute Finland, EU Agriculture and rural Development: Organic Farming, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Fair Trade Organization.