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Yes, 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But that doesn’t change the fact that individuals are desperate to make a difference in the climate emergency. Nearly 70% of respondents to this year’s Waitrose Food and Drink report, a solid snapshot of comfortable Britain’s consumption and concerns, said their food’s carbon footprint was important to them. But how do we do the right thing for the planet when it’s so hard to work out what that is – and the options often seem time-consuming or expensive? Despite the self-evident urgency – and our desire to do better – it can seem desperately confusing.
Pure “climatarianism” is feasible: in 2012, Jennie Macdiarmid, professor of sustainable nutrition at the University of Aberdeen, helped devise a theoretical nutritionally balanced diet that would reduce your carbon footprint by 90%: pasta, peas, fried onions, brassicas, sesame seeds, dry wholegrain breakfast cereal and sweets. That would still apply now, Macdiarmid says, but she emphasises this kind of computer-generated solution is not remotely attainable. “We’re never going to change if it’s so unappealing,” she says. So is there a way to eat that is personally, as well as planetarily, sustainable? I spent a week trying to find out.
Day 1: plant v meat
If we could harness the seemingly limitless energy expended on this particular debate we could surely hit Paris agreement goals: a much-shared, disputed, graphic from Cop26 claiming a vegan croissant is worse than a bacon roll is the latest iteration. Should you go vegan? You may be unsurprised to hear I’m still unsure.
What is clear is that we certainly need to eat less meat and dairy. Imperial College’s climate change centre, the Grantham Institute, includes this as one of its “nine things you can do about climate change”, which is good enough for me. On Giki Zero, a personal impact calculator, moving from “eat everything” to a “mainly plant based” diet saves 949kg of carbon annually. Co-founder James Hand, who was responsible for the data crunching behind the tool (the methodology is on the site), confirms: “A mainly plant-based or a mainly vegetarian diet does the bulk of the savings. It’s absolutely crystal clear.”
Patrick Holden, director of the Sustainable Food Trust, organic pioneer and a regenerative farmer since the 1970s, views things differently. “This mantra of moving to a plant-based diet is just plain wrong. We should ask which plants we should eat, and which animals and animal products.” Industrial chicken, pork and dairy production, Holden argues, are only possible because of environmentally unsustainable grain monocultures; stop these and cheap, polluting meat production would end.
I’m mainly “plant-based” already, but cheat for pizza (vegan mozzarella makes me miserable) and eat my own hens’ eggs, because they have nicer lives than me. Nevertheless, I have questions: is the Tetra Pak litre of pea “milk” I use in tea and never finish better than sharing my son’s organic, glass-bottled semi-skimmed? Are vegan convenience foods actually climate-friendly (or indeed healthy)? It’s something Macdiarmid has been assessing in recent research. “Plant-based foods have a sort of halo image,” she says “But look at some of the ultra-processed foods: they are high in fat, salt and sugar. From an environmental perspective, there’s extra processing, and if we’re using lots of monocrops, a lot more palm oil, we’re losing diversity.”
I need to lose the processed vegan ready-meals and do more cooking. I start with hasselback potatoes, fried cabbage and onions, plus a marble-sized egg from Faustina, my only laying hen. It’s not perfect: my carnivorous family insist on adding bacon to their meals. Meanwhile, the dog carefully picks out and discards the sprinkling of Bug Bakes insect-based dog food I try to hide in his usual dinner.
Day 2: seasonal
Eating what is growing naturally limits or eliminates the need for artificial heat, light, fertiliser and pesticide. November, however, is not the easiest time to do that in the UK. A “what’s in season?” chart confirms what I already know: potatoes and brassicas dominate (there are already rumblings from my cohabitants about “a lot of sprouts”). A few pears and apples are still around – I gather windfalls from a neighbour.
Would foraging help? “The winter is always challenging,” says Chris Bax of food foraging enthusiasts Taste the Wild. “But you’ll still find nuts.” I want to make acorn coffee on the strength of his description (“slightly nutty and malty, like the nougat out of a Mars bar”), but find none within walking distance. Chris’s other tip is seaweed. I’m too far from the sea to hunt for delicious-sounding pepper dulse (“like garlic butter, truffley”), but I rummage around a volunteer-planted flowerbed while waiting for the bus. It’s still packed with herbs, and I take a handful for my lentil bolognese.
Day 3: local
Eliminating driving to food shop is an obvious climate win. “Most of the food miles in the UK come from people driving to and from the supermarket,” says Macdiarmid. That limits my quick shopping to Marks & Spencer; the nearby branch has plenty of British produce but acres of plastic packaging. Perhaps I’m too hung up on that? I choose unwrapped broccoli, then instantly read a tweet from botanist James Wong that says this “potentially doubles food waste”, since it shortens the shelf-life.
Luckily, York’s twice-weekly Food Circle market is within walking distance. Food Circle grows its own fruit and veg, and hosts other sustainable regenerative local producers of bread, meat and dairy and more. Shopping there feels blissfully simple and, with the exception of meat, it’s not much more expensive than supermarket organics.
The most local food is what you produce yourself, of course. We grew a few vegetables for the first time this year, but all I can find now are five wormy carrots and some tiny peppers, which become part of another fridge-emptying lunch (I’m trying to limit shopping trips). Four out of my five hens are still on egg strike, but I fall, Gollum-like, on every one Faustina produces, eating them before anyone else can.
Day 4: food waste
In the UK, Andrew Parry of the waste charity Wrap tells me, 36m tonnes of greenhouse gas emission is associated with food that gets thrown away; 70% of that waste happens at home. We have improved (food waste per person dropped by 31% between 2007 and 2018), but must do much more. Wrap provides plentiful resources on its Love Food Hate Waste website , but, as Parry says: “It boils down to people buying what they need, and using what they buy. It’s not very sexy, checking your cupboards, checking your fridge, thinking about what you’re going to eat during the week, thinking about what you can freeze.” He also recommends keeping most fruit in the fridge (“it lasts two weeks longer”) and taking a crash course in date labels. “Far too many people don’t understand the difference between a best-before and a use-by”.
I spend an afternoon using up apples in a cake, freezing sad spinach, making a slightly esoteric stir-fry, and a hash of potatoes, onion and the grim kale that came in my vegetable box (“This is animal food,” my French husband declares flatly, but I like it). I enjoy this purposeful bustling, like a Beatrix Potter character preparing for winter, and I know I’ll feel the benefit over the rest of the week, but I have to admit it takes hours.
My friend Ann, a lapsed food waste blogger, knows that feeling. She says: “Now I’m a self-employed single parent, I just do not have the time to de-stalk, blanch, chop and stir some bitter kale into a recipe when baby spinach will do the job.” She also says she felt uncomfortable asking individuals to change when industry changes are needed. “Systemic over-purchasing of food by supermarkets will not change in the near future, for example.”
I see this myself on the excellent Olio app, which provides a platform for people to offer unwanted food – their own or local businesses’ – to others, for free. Most listings are supermarket overstock, collected and redistributed by Olio’s “food waste heroes”. I collect three bags of clementines from Phoebe, who is spending a chunk of Sunday giving away past-sell-by-date Tesco fruit and vegetables. What doesn’t go on the app, she donates to food banks and refugee aid. I feel so moved by her altruism I tell her she’s “doing the Lord’s work”, which is distinctly weird, but heartfelt.
Day 5: eating out
We’re having a night away in a remote cottage, but neither my husband nor I is willing to forgo our Friday night pizza. Short of time, I cycle to M&S before we leave, hoping to find relatively unprocessed frozen dough, but have to resort to vegan pizza (with the not-zzarella of sadness).
The next morning, we head out for breakfast. Evidence on the footprint of restaurants versus home cooking is limited – too many variables – but a 2019 Spanish study comparing a single meal concluded eating out is worse. A vegetarian full English is probably OK, emissions wise, but I don’t fancy it, so end up eating dry toast and Marmite. However, I hit carnivorous climatarian gold on the way out: the farm shop sausages are made from their own pigs, and slaughtered in a neighbouring village (the disappearance of local abattoirs is a serious welfare and climate issue). I buy a pack, but then my husband decides he doesn’t fancy sausages. I try and fail not to be furious, then consign them to the freezer.
Day 6: supermarkets
Most of my shopping is still supermarket-based but, as Holden says: “We haven’t got time to allow the disruptive food producers to get to scale. We have to work with the big food companies and retailers.”
Wandering the aisles, puzzling over the “best” choices, is bewildering. Thankfully, there are new tools emerging. I download the Giki Badges app (developed by Giki Zero, but now run by another company), which allows you to scan a product barcode (the app has 250,000 references), and check whether it qualifies as “low carbon footprint”, “UK made”, “sustainable palm oil” or “better packaging”. It’s very satisfying – an easy answer on what’s “good” or “bad” is exactly what a lot of us want – and it works on most things (excluding M&S, Lidl and Aldi products). Sadly, it also reveals that the only vegan biscuits I like, fig rolls, contain non-sustainable palm oil. Farewell, sweet stodge.
Another app, Evocco, takes a picture of till receipts, analyses food items and generates a carbon score, based on a personal target of 65kg of CO2 a month. There’s even an option to plant trees to offset the footprint of your shop. “We want the new language around sustainable food to be not so much whether you’re vegan or vegetarian or any of these really strong identifiers, but more to be: are you within planetary boundaries?” says the app’s co-founder Hugh Weldon. Based in Ireland, Evocco works best there – it doesn’t pick up all the food on my receipts – but the UK product list should be expanding imminently.
Yet apps only get me so far: I can’t audit the sustainability claims of everything in my trolley. “We need to move to sustainability scores like we have on fridges,” says Holden. His other plea is that we ask questions of big retailers, so I send Waitrose a couple of his suggested queries. They tell me they are working on a carbon-labelling pilot for some own-label products; that they record travel times for livestock to slaughter, and are “looking into” publishing this; and that they “include a broad variety of information on pack including country of origin, nutritional and sourcing information”. Normalising asking this stuff – and, as Parry reminds me, requesting smaller portion and package sizes – is the best way to demonstrate consumers do care.
Day 7: treats
You can grind, grimly, virtuously, through a week of climatarian eating; you could even live off cabbage, branflakes and Skittles. But it’s better to make changes you can live with, long term. For me, that means treats.
I’m relieved to find my preferred morning carburant is carbon-neutral, or so Taylors, which produces Yorkshire Gold tea, claim. I’m suspicious of corporate carbon offset so I quiz Taylors’ head of sustainable development, Simon Hotchkin. The UK operation is carbon-neutral, but 80% of emissions are produced in country of origin, where, he says, producers feel the impact of the climate crisis first-hand. “The first thing farmers talk about every time we meet is increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and the impact climate change is having on tea and coffee production.” Taylors have planted 2m trees on tea plantations they use in Kenya and their carbon-neutral status is independently certified. Hopefully, my cup of tea is relatively harmless.
I swap individual for family-size bags of crisps, a carbon improvement, but a terrible development for me personally. Chocolate proves tricky: Fortnum and Mason’s 99% emission-free Sailboat Chocolate is sadly sold out. I buy Original Beans bars instead, described as “delivered CO2 negative to our wholesale customers”. They also plant a tree for every bar sold (you can “track your tree” with a code). The chocolate is delicious but when I post a picture of it on Instagram, someone angrily queries the almonds in the vegan “milk” bar (almonds require large amounts of water to grow). It’s a fair question, but being carbon-shamed feels discouraging; best is very much the enemy of good in encouraging people to limit their food footprint.
I’m excited to discover Nàdar, a “climate positive” gin, which uses British peas from regenerative farming and claims “a carbon footprint of -1.54kg CO2e per 700ml bottle”. There is probably some complex offset to parse, but I am tired and I just want a drink. I eat a tasty farro-and-mushroom “risotto” from the Food Circle market, but weakened by booze, also demand fries when my family order takeaway burgers.
I’m light years from perfect and will never get there by 2030. It’s clear much of the responsibility does not lie with consumers. And yet, making manageable changes such as limiting waste and trashy “plant-based” convenience foods does help me feel less helpless, less scared and less lost. That’s worth sacrificing even fig rolls for.