…Considering the origin and sustainability of the food we eat
This piece was written by one of our contributors; public health registrar – Megan Evans
Vast shelves of food line every supermarket aisle, there are endless food choices, and it can be very tempting to pick up a snack without a second thought. However, behind every product line lies complex food supply chains dependent on smooth trade, economic stability, and adequate weather and climate conditions, amongst many other factors.
It is estimated that 50% of (unprocessed) food that is consumed within the UK has been imported from another country. After the UK, most of the food that we eat in this country has been grown or produced in the European Union (EU).
Figure 1: A graph showing the origins of food consumed within the UK (1).
This imported food often relies on highly sophisticated and complex trade and supply relationships which allow: “the free flow of goods between the UK and other EU member states, free of tariffs, veterinary and customs check, and subject only to necessary phytosanitary checks; and many operate under an array of regulations and programmes derived from Brussels and applicable to all EU businesses” (2).
The biggest food groups that are imported into the UK are fruit and vegetables, meat, and beverages. A huge 84% of all fruit and vegetables consumed within the UK have been imported from another country (this number is up from 53% in 1962). The vast majority of this imported fruit and veg comes from within the EU.
While trade with the EU is currently relatively low-cost, the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU on trade and food prices are unknown. Indeed, global shocks such as climate change, natural disasters, war, and famine can all disrupt food supply chains, leading some to suggest that increased self-sufficiency and food sustainability are needed to maintain food security. Others question whether this is really economically and agriculturally feasible in the UK, as we rely on food imports so heavily in order to provide an affordable variety of foods.
Processed foods can be even trickier to trace, as even when they are labelled as produced in the UK, there have often been complicated supply chains during production. Global Food Security, a cross-governmental programme on food security research, provides this example: “take a typical biscuit-containing chocolate bar from a British shop, manufactured in a British factory. It contains sugar, cocoa, milk, whey, wheat, yeast, salt, palm oil and calcium sulphate (a nutritional additive) which are sourced from all over the world. For instance, the salt may come from China; calcium sulphate from India; palm oil from Southeast Asia; whey from New Zealand; milk and wheat from the EU; sugar from the Caribbean; and, of course, cocoa for the actual chocolate from South America” (3).
Food that has been grown, produced, manufactured, or packaged outside the UK typically enters the UK in one of two ways: via plane or ship. It has been shown that air-freighted food causes the greatest emission of greenhouse gases per food mile when compared to alternative methods of transportation. In turn, greenhouse gases cause global climate change and a plethora of problems for the planet, including dwindling food supplies in many parts of the world. Yet many food products consumed in the UK are imported this way.
What exactly are food miles? Put simply, food miles capture information about how far a product has travelled, and therefore can give an indication of the amount of greenhouse gases its movement has released. For example, steak imported to the UK from Argentina has travelled 11,132km (6,919 miles) and created 680kg of carbon in the process (4).
Some critique the use of food miles, as they may be considered slightly over-simplistic. It’s true that they don’t fully capture the entire picture of how much energy has been used in the production of a food item. Highly processed food, produce that has been grown using pesticides and fertilizers, or food that has been packaged in plastics or tins may have an added environmental impact not captured by food miles alone. However, food miles do provide a good starting point for those considering the environmental impact and sustainability of their food.
Ways to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Food and Increase its Sustainability
We have become quite used to having access to fresh food throughout the year, regardless of the season and whether that particular item would typically grow in our geographical region. This has been coined by some as a “permanent dietary summertime”. However, there are a few steps that can be taken to help reduce the environmental impact of the food we eat:
- It’s true that local and seasonal food can be more expensive and more limited that imported food. However, buying food that has been grown, processed, and packaged nearby is one of the best ways to reduce the food miles associated with food. Additionally, eating local and seasonal food is often very tasty, as the produce is at its best, and can lead to people trying new and different foods. For example, instead of buying strawberries that have been flown from South America or Europe, try replacing those with a seasonal, local fruit, such as rhubarb or blackberries. The BBC Good Food website have a table of seasonal foods: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/seasonal-calendar/all.
- If eating local and seasonal food proves too limiting or expensive, try checking the origin of food before buying it at the supermarket. If there’s an option between buying the same or similar produce, check whether one has been grown in the UK or a nearby country rather than imported from the other side of the world.
- That said, sometimes food that has been grown in the UK can also be very highly energy intensive. For example, heating a greenhouse in order to grow tomatoes in the UK may expend more energy that growing and shipping them from sunnier climes. Becoming familiar with which foods are typically grown in the UK (with minimal energy consumption) can help when selecting food at the supermarket or shop.
- Another way to reduce the environmental impact of food is to choose organic options, when available. This is because organic food has been grown without the use of fertilisers, pesticides, and other chemicals that can be damaging to nearby wildlife and can lead to greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the fertilizer used to grow food that is non-organic causes the release of greenhouse gases through the emission of nitrous oxide from the soil, and carbon dioxide release during the production and transportation of the fertilizer.
- Meat and dairy products generate large quantities of methane gas. Cutting down the amount of these types of products can help reduce the carbon emissions associated with our food intake. You can try ‘meat-free Mondays’ as one way to reduce the amount of meat in your diet: https://www.meatfreemondays.com/.
- Shopping mindfully is another way to reduce the carbon footprint associated with your food. This concept involves planning your shop to avoid products that are highly processed and packaged, buying non-perishable products in larger quantities to reduce the amount of packaging and reduce the number of shopping trips needed, and planning exact amounts of fresh ingredients required to reduce the amount of food waste. Frozen food has very high carbon footprints, followed by food that is packaged in cans, plastic, glass, and cardboard. Some supermarkets will now allow customers to bring clean, reusable containers to fill up, rather than using disposable plastic bags.
- For more information you can visit http://www.carbonindependent.org to learn more about carbon footprints and ways to reduce them. They offer a tool to calculate your own carbon footprint over a year, with a section dedicated to the impact of food consumption. For more information about ‘planetary health’ and others ways to protect and support the environment, check out my other article for the Food Medic at https://thefoodmedic.co.uk/2018/05/planetary-health/.
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feature image: Danilo Cestonato on Unsplash