Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Food Footprint

Sometimes, you need to make space. When a little course came up that was a) 5 mins by bike b) short in duration c) about a topic I want to explore and d) free, sometimes, one needs to just make it happen.

Space for putting your thinking and creative hat on and looking a bit deeper than being continuously interrupted by the needs of two children will ever allow on an every day basis.

So, we found ourselves a babysitter who can bridge those times where mummyship and daddyship don't meet to pass responsibilities over.

The course in question is about how to save the planet while saving money. Or something along those lines. Sounds good? Well it is - maybe it's because I've been so single tracked into mothering for the last year that anything other is like the bestest little treat one can ever get. Maybe it's because it comes at just the right time in my life, where my attempt to simplify my life and try and live sustainably has come to a standstill, because, truth be told, other than giving up work (which is not an option) I can't see how I can reduce my impact on our planet any further. My food growing is lovely but slightly, well, how should I put it, lacking space, time and success. The chicken won't make an appearance any time soon because while we just about have the space, it's not ideal. Getting rid of the car? Oh I've so thought it through and the answer is no.

Time to get together with like-minded people and dig deeper.
And last week, we dug into food.
My Baglady pledge was about not buying anything packaged in plastic tubs, and I've been doing reasonably well on that front; with a few exceptions (berries). Even when pledging, I found it difficult to decide whether it was better to have organic produce from South Africa or UK produce that is not organic. Now, with the help of the course, I can put labels on my conundrum.
You see, ever food has different categories to its carbon footprint, and my conundrum was between production, packaging and transport. Those three categories are complemented by the category of processing. 4 variables, 4 opportunities for putting oil into your food, yummy.

As homework, I sat down and looked through my fortnightly shopping and labelled the environmental impact of my food alongside the four categories: production, processing, packaging and transport.
It was a very useful exercise because I learned a lot.

I found out that while I try to buy local produce, that effort has so far been limited to fruit and veg. Most of other foods I buy have no label as to where it's from - so much so that I have no idea where it comes from. Cereal from Tesco's has about 10 ingredients (not good in the processing category) and there's just no way of telling where the ingredients come from or even where it's processed. The Co-op does much better on that front and their own brand Bran Flakes are from British grains, processed in the UK.

Secondly, I found out how to go further with your food in relation to reducing your environmental impact. There are some reasonably good rules of thumb:
- frozen stuff has often travelled further and has to be frozen all the way, so more energy is needed on various levels. Try to rely less on frozen foods
- If something is shipped by air, that's bad. Try to eliminate items that are flown in - fruit and veg from outside Europe will have to fly as a rule of thumb
- Food that has more than 10 ingredients is heavily processed and brings together ingredients from many different countries, thus increasing the transport energy input. Try to cook from scratch where you can or buy foods that have only a few ingredients/are not heavily processed.
- In relation to packaging - aluminium cans have a massive carbon footprint. BUT they can be recycled. So it's ok to buy them occasionally but don't dump them, do put them in the recycling bin. Plastic isn't as bad as tin and glass, and cardboard is quite ok environmentally even if you can't recycle it. Tetra packs are better than tin - which was new to me. So, given the choice: only buy aluminium/tin/glass packaging if you can and will recycle them. Try to buy loose items (though if the loose ones are flown into the country, you may be better off getting packaged items).
-east less meat, fish and dairy

Put positively:
Do buy organic
Do buy local and seasonal
Do try to buy loose or with minimal packaging (or bulk)
Do grow your own
Do cook from scratch

So, in my food diary I've realised that while I'm doing alright on the organic vegetable bag, home-grown stuff and buying local, I'm not so good on the processed food side of thing (my pet fail being ready made vegetarian dishes). I had already tried to use less of them simply because their salt content is shockingly high and that isn't good for kids, so I try to only use them once a week.

But I'm also a realist - while I'd love to cook everything from scratch, it's just not possible if you juggle kids, work and home. I used to batch cook in the evenings after the kids were in bed but now that time is me-time for blogging, reading, knitting. The balance has to be right. The exercise though has shown me how I can maintain the balance and still reduce my carbon footprint a bit further.

And, before I go, I'd like to share this film with you. It's a real gem, and touches on so many issues past, present and future, in a highly viewable way: A Farm for the Future.

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