Sunday, 16 January 2011

Low Carbon Food

I blogged yesterday about getting a slow cooker for my Christmas and how this was a more sustainable cooking choice. Of course, when I went back to check it out online, I found that it's not necessarily that straightforward. It seems that if I want the most sustainable modern cooking choice I should probably have gone for a pressure cooker instead. But since I'm a bit wary of things that might explode, and also since I'm looking for convenience I'm happy to compromise a little bit and settle for a slow cooker.

Of course, as the articles I reviewed made clear, the really sustainable cooking choice would be either a hay box or a wood burning stove. But since neither of those are particularly manageable in my rented first floor Victorian flat, a slow cooker it is. Particularly since my oven and hob are both gas and at least some of my electric will be coming from renewable energy sources.

(If you're interested, there is some evidence that microwaving is a relatively sustainable option, given its low power consumption. But having tried a year of living with only a microwave and no hob or oven, I wouldn't recommend it.)

But actually most of the research will tell you that it's far less how you cook than what you cook that makes the difference in sustainability terms. And also how much you use and how much you waste.

For example, meat and dairy are fairly high carbon, so cutting down on both of those is advisable if you want to reduce your carbon footprint. Eating seasonal food is also a big win, as is not eating imported food, particularly if it's been air-freighted in. It can get quite complicated if you're not careful however - if you really do want to eat tomatoes out of season, sometimes buying them from abroad will be lower carbon than buying them from the UK where they've probably been grown under glass with additional power and water (and artificial fertlisers) going into the mix. Organic is generally better too - most artificial fertilisers use fossil fuel derivatives. Buying local is a definite plus point.

But then it gets complicated again - with a growing global population and decreasing food producing land, it's likely that food will start to become a scarce commodity in future. Staple food prices are already under pressure, and food riots have happened elsewhere in the world in the last few years even if we've been isolated from them here in the UK. So, successful ways of optimising food production are something we need to crack, and limiting the use of fertilisers isn't going to help.

Then when you start to look at international trade and the degree to which some developing nations depend on their food exports, it gets even more complicated. Of course, against that you have to balance whether the food exports are actually 'cash crops' that are in fact limiting the ability of a country to produce the food it needs to sustain itself. And then there are Fair Trade considerations too.

As I said, it all can get very complicated and can leave you wondering what to do, and indeed whether anything you do will actually make a difference. For what it's worth, here are my suggestions for the little things we can all do to lower our food carbon impact:

  • Eat less meat and less dairy each week - try at least one day without meat per week
  • Only buy what you need to eat and don't get tempted by the Buy one, get one free offers we're now bombarded with. My sister recommends making up a weekly or monthly recipe schedule and buying to that. I'm not that organised unfortunately!
  • Get better at cooking with leftovers - it's amazing what exciting dishes you can make from what's left in the fridge sometimes!
  • Try to think about how you're cooking your food - don't turn on the oven for small items on their own. If it's going to be on, think about what else you could make as well while you're at it.
  • Think about cooking double quantities and freezing the rest for another day - this is particularly good if you are cooking for one or two. But if you do have and use a freezer, make sure it's well maintained and filled but not to bursting. The same goes for your fridge by the way.
  • Try to buy seasonal food and think about where it's coming from. Local is best, but if it's out of season, imported might be better if it's seasonal where it comes from (ie grown without additional heat) and hasn't been air-freighted in. 
  • Try to buy organic too but don't get too hung up on it. 
  • It's also worth checking out the sustainability of the supplies of food you buy - for example, shark fin soup is a big no-no, as are certain types of fish. Jamie Oliver has a top 10 sustainable fish recipes that are definitely worth a look.
For more information on sustainable and lower carbon food (and other) choices, I'd recommend getting a copy of Mike Berners-Lee's How Bad are Bananas? out of the library. It gives you the carbon footprint of a number of everyday lifestyle choices and activities, together with an explanation about why. Definitely worth a read if you want to know more.

But the most important thing to remember is that no matter how small, all our actions are worth something and even if we don't or can't do it all, the smallest things can add up. As far as I'm concerned, it's better to do something than nothing after all.

1 comment:

Rachel Nunn said...

blimey Becks - this has to be one of the best low-downs on good n'green food i have seen yet. How sensible you are - pressure cookers are utterly terrifying and best avoided. And hay ovens...well I ought to - nothing stopping me there...except pure laziness.

Um. can you sort out the 'how to do it' on urban community renewables next? that'll save me a HUGE job!