Sustainable food is food that has been produced within the limits of the ecosystem. It means eating food that has been produced in a way that benefits nature and doesn’t damage the environment. This means food that is grown without pesticides and fertilisers, but it goes further than that.
It’s food that has been grown in a way that benefits biodiversity, improves soil health and helps mitigate climate change. And then there is the public health side. Eating sustainably means choosing food that is healthy and nutritionally balanced. However, eating sustainably doesn’t mean environmental concerns alone. There is a critical social justice element too. Eating sustainably means providing farmers with a sustainable livelihood, which helps rural communities to thrive by helping to relocalise our food systems.
While we have had to focus on COVID-19 in recent months, we are still facing a climate and ecological crisis. Industrial agriculture has caused significant environmental damage and it is the agriculture sector in the UK is responsible for 9% of national greenhouse gas emissions, which is before transportation or refrigeration is factored in. Of course, the emissions associated with the production and transportation of the food that we import into the UK are also not part of this figure. This essentially means that we are offshoring our environmental damage. Therefore, it’s more appropriate to think of the emissions of the global food system, as opposed to country-by-country. Including the emissions from changing land use and deforestation, global agriculture accounts for around 30% of GHG emissions.
However, there is a difference between industrialised agriculture that is part of the problem and sustainable agriculture that is part of the solution. By choosing sustainable foods, you help to support farmers who are working to mitigate climate change, reduce emissions and improve biodiversity.
Be wary of the greenwash
It is important to understand which terms have integrity and which are just marketing greenwash. “All-natural”, “plant-based”, “responsibly sourced” mean nothing legally. Companies can just slap these terms onto a packet without any burden of proof to fool customers into thinking they are healthy or sustainable. There are a number of different certification schemes in the UK such as Fairtrade, Red Tractor, Pasture-Fed Livestock and RSPCA Assured. The problem is there are so many now that most consumers are confused about what means what. There is so much information and misinformation about our food that it can be overwhelming. This confusion is exactly why Greener Beans was formed: to give consumers greater clarity.
So what should we do?
If in doubt, organic is a good standard to fall back on since its rigorously enforced and transparent. Agrichemicals such as fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides are widely used in conventional agriculture. Their residues remain on (and in) the food we eat. Organic food doesn’t allow these products to be used, which means that biodiversity is higher on organic farms. It also has higher animal welfare standards to ensure that farm animals can live a good life. However, the underlying principle of organic farming is soil because healthy soils are essential for food security, climate change mitigation and public health. Instead of using synthetic fertiliser produced with fossil fuels, organic farmers use practices to improve soil health such as rotations, nutrient budgeting and closed-loop farming. All of which result in a healthier ecosystem.
With products (like chocolate, bananas, coffee) that have come from countries in developing countries, it’s important to choose Fairtrade-certified products since there is a high risk of worker exploitation. As our food system has become more international and more centralised, large food businesses and agribusinesses have gained increasing control. With size and the global reach to benefit from economies of scale, they ship huge quantities of food to the UK and the world.
Globally, this often results in subsistence farmers in developing countries being driven off their land to make way for export-based plantations. These grow commodity crops for the developed countries, which damage local food sovereignty and impact people’s ability to grow their own food. Instead of food that could support an exploitative system, consider Fairtrade. By buying Fairtrade, you are helping to ensure that growers are paid properly and are treated with respect. By buying Fairtrade certified goods, such as coffee or tea, you can help to reduce poverty, and safeguard humane working conditions.
This issue of unfair trading isn’t isolated to the Global South. In the UK, supermarkets have become more and more dominant in the last few decades. This increasing power has resulted in frequent accusations of unfair trading practices where farmers have been pushed into accepting lower prices because they have little bargaining power. If the UK is to have healthy citizens and a sustainable ecosystem, it is essential for farmers and supermarkets to work collaboratively. Together they can ensure the future of UK agriculture is environmentally healthy, and economically equitable.
So how will Greener Beans help?
Greener Beans is supporting this shift towards a more sustainable food future. By increasing the transparency of the UK supermarket shop and helping consumers to make the best decisions for their families. We are evaluating products across a wide range of environmental and ethical indicators. This will make it simple for you to judge the true impact of products you buy, and easy to make rewarding swaps. We are working hard to get our first free swapping service up and running, planned for early 2021.
Until then, we encourage you to reflect on your grocery shop, and consider how the food was produced. Typically, we have found that people pick up the same items without giving it much thought. After all, adopting habits is a natural behaviour. Instead, take a moment to consider what you buy and whether that production method aligns with your own political and philosophical beliefs. Just being conscious of these habits is an important start. If they do, that’s great. If not, it might be worth choosing a more sustainable alternative.