What Shall We Eat?

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Terry Sloan offers his reflections about a recent event on “Sustainablr Diets”:

Pamela Mason, co-author with Tim Lang of the book Sustainable Diets: how ecological nutrition can transform consumption and the food system (Routledge 2017), visited Keswick on 4 July 2017 to lead a mini conference on ‘Eating that’s good news for the earth’.
During the afternoon workshop, participants broke into small groups to try to define what is ‘sustainable’. The conclusion was that a sustainable diet is one which does minimum environmental damage in the production and consumption of the necessary foods. At the same time it should lead to healthy eating to reduce diet-related diseases and consequent drains on the NHS. The distances over which the food is transported should be minimised to cut down carbon emissions. In addition, the use of water and other resources should be minimised.
We went on to consider what we, in Keswick, could do to make the food we eat more sustainable. Many ideas were forthcoming such as copying the example of Incredible Edible Todmorden, where unused green spaces in the town are used for growing food to be shared by everyone. Other suggestions included encouraging more people to have allotments, or setting up a ‘garden share’ scheme, linking people with underused gardens with others who want space to grow food. People could also be encouraged to have tubs and hanging baskets in which food and herbs could be grown. A community orchard was also suggested with the fruit available to all.
Following the workshop there was a break for a meal provided by volunteers. The food was mainly vegetarian/vegan and locally sourced as far as possible, including fruit from the gardens of participants. The food was truly delicious and included locally produced Cumberland sausage. The Cumberland sausage portion was a relatively small 70 grams per person, which is the NHS recommended daily portion of processed meat.
In the evening Pamela went on to deliver a lecture which presented in greater detail and depth the research and findings that lay behind her book. The lecture was full of facts and figures describing healthy as well as sustainable (environmentally friendly) eating. One of the problems is the current emphasis on cheap and convenient food, leading to a high level of processed foods containing large amounts of fats, sugar and salt. This is what is causing the present epidemic of obesity and other diet-related disease which is so expensive for the NHS.
Several vital facts emerged from Pamela’s lecture. One is the problem of food waste. It is predicted that the world population will grow from its current 7 billion to 10-11 billion by 2050. Do we have sufficient resources to feed such a population? Yes we do, but only if we change what we eat and the way we produce and distribute food – and if we drastically reduce the amount of food that is wasted. In the developing world, this means improving infrastructure and governance to reduce the amount of food wasted between field and market. In the developed world it primarily means reducing the amount of food wasted by householders as a result of over-buying.
We also learned that in the UK farmers are paid very little for the food they produce and grow. Currently farmers receive 8% of the total value of our food – as compared to 60% in 1950. The remaining 92% goes into processing, packaging, promotion, marketing and profits for food processors, supermarkets and all the other ‘middle men’ between ‘field and fork’. Farming is becoming so unprofitable that very few young people are entering the industry – which is clearly ‘unsustainable’.
Another interesting point about farming is that small farms are more sustainable than large ones. This follows from the fact that small farms use up all the waste products, for example manure for fertiliser, whereas large farms need to dump the large amounts of waste which they produce.
Meat is a food which is least sustainable to produce since it provides fewest calories for the resources used. The most sustainable in calories produced per resource used are vegetables and pulses. Pamela showed that the foods which are least environmentally damaging in their production also tend to be the healthiest according to the opinions of nutritionists.
Pamela closed by showing that to produce a society with a flourishing biosphere and a more equable distribution of wealth various changes are needed. These include a more enlightened approach to agriculture with a greater concentration on local produce. Such economic democracy will require just laws guided by the science and moral thinking.

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