When deciding what to buy and eat, it’s important to be aware of how your food is produced. There is an abundance of foods we can eat. In fact, over 30,000 edible plants. But, thanks to our current food systems and a lack of diversity in our diets, 60% of our global calorie intake comes from rice, white flour and maize. Add sugar and soy, and that total is 75%.
There are fruits and vegetables which thrive and grow easily and cheaply in UK soil, but we just don’t eat enough of them. For instance, squashes are an enormously diverse and delicious crop, but most of us are only familiar with the butternut.
Woven into the fabric of what we eat there are many things that, day-to-day, we might not consider – from slave labour to cartels, deforestation and loss of wildlife to an impact on biodiversity and GM foods. When you look into the environmental impact of some of the food we eat, the picture is really complicated and a little overwhelming.
We are living in the age of convenience, both in terms of buying pre-prepared foods that we fancy at any time we like, but also homogeneity, that is, breeding only the strongest crops, and losing the biodiversity that is so crucial to the health of the planet. We are making our everyday lives easier but steadily destroying the planet.
Our reliance on a limited number of ‘staples’ came into sharp focus during the coronavirus pandemic when pasta, flour, eggs and other basics were in short supply. My hope is that this crisis allowed us all to be a little more
open and flexible in how we eat – if we ever needed an example of the urgent need for us to diversify the food we eat this was it. According to Bee Wilson, in the western world particularly, we have access to more foodstuffs than ever before ‘of a freshness and variety our grandparents could not have imagined’ (The Way We Eat Now,
page 19). Especially in our cities, many foods once considered exotic are now easily available and often affordable too: from asparagus tips in winter to ready-cut mango and strawberries in December. Though many of us might want to eat a peach in January, it is not going to taste as good or be affordable. Buying ingredients at their peak moment in season means their environmental impact is lowest too.
We have also become very trend-led when it comes to how we eat. When a food becomes a trend, supply pressure increases, and production processes become focused on money, speed and quantity rather than sustainability or ethics. Avocados are an obvious example. According to US website Eater, the price of a wholesale box of Mexican avocados was $84.25 in the summer of 2019, compared to $37 around the same time in the previous year. Avocados have helped to pull people out of poverty in Mexico, but have also been linked to cartels.
The ‘superfood’ quinoa is a less clear but much-publicised example of a food fad. When sourced in Peru or Bolivia, our love for this little seed – which is gluten-free, protein-rich, low in carbohydrate and contains all nine essential amino acids – was widely reported to have stripped local people of their everyday nutritious staple, but it also helped farmers grow their businesses and support their families. So, as with most things in the world of sustainability, nothing is simple.
So what foods should we fill our plate with? If we know that following trends and mass mono-cropping is, for the most part, damaging to the planet, then we need to be doing the opposite – thinking about simple, locally-grown wholefoods that are good for our bodies and treating anything imported as a treat. If you eat dairy, then buying organic and using it in small quantities as creamy, tangy or rich accents to balance or accentuate other ingredients is a good way of working. The same goes for anything imported that we use in small quantities but can make a huge difference to taste – soy sauce, harissa, preserved lemons, etc.
Variety and creativity are key to this mindset. I recommend investigating veg box schemes, as they easily tick some of these boxes and aren’t necessarily unaffordable (if veg boxes are out of the question try your supermarket and look for local or wonky veg). There are many great veg box schemes that support farmers and sustainable agriculture. It might seem daunting to be presented with unusual fruits or vegetables, especially if they appear week after week, but hopefully some of the recipes in this book will help to give you the inspiration and confidence to embrace unfamiliar ingredients.
The UK is also proving to be the ideal climate to explore growing ingredients such as quinoa more sustainably and ethically. UK growers and suppliers are doing brilliant things to make non-native foods available to us in more sustainable ways.
These are crops which for a variety of reasons have a negative impact on the planet or on the people who produce them. Some are things most of us might use very little of and consider a ‘treat’. When buying from this list of foods, consider the sustainability of the producer (if that is information you can find) and, where possible, buy Fairtrade; this is about making judgements based on your value system and what is important to you.
- Cashews (buy Fairtrade)
- Imported quinoa
- Cane sugar (buy Fairtrade)
- Bananas (buy Fairtrade)
- Chocolate (buy Fairtrade)
- Coffee (buy Fairtrade)
- Tea (buy Fairtrade)
- Rice (buy Fairtrade)
- Palm oil
Fill your plate
Try to fill your plate with seasonal fruit and veg and legumes and pulses grown in the UK. Fill up on UK native grains such as oats, wheat and spelt, and accent them with nuts, seeds, herbs and flowers for extra nutrients, flavour and colour. Of course, we can also look to Europe; we are such a small country and the furthest parts of Europe still qualify as ‘home grown’ if we compare ourselves with countries like the US.
Foods to fill your plate with Seasonal fruit and veg, cereals, grains and flours
Swapping your normal wheat flour for spelt or a more unusual grain will help support biodiversity. I switch up the flours I use as much as the veg I eat. Buying the whole grain cuts down on waste too; bleached refined flour only uses a small part of the grain and throws away the most nutritious part, so veer towards wholegrain and more unusual varieties if you can.
- Emmer wheat
- Khorasan wheat or kamut
- UK-grown quinoa
Beans and pulses
Beans and pulses make up a huge part of my diet and if I was to back a food that will help us combat climate change it would be humble pulses. They are super-economical nutritional powerhouses, need less water to produce than other proteins, and are nitrogen-restoring which means they help fix the soil (see page 214). They are also easy to cook from scratch and freeze, or to buy in jars (which are, in my opinion always superior) or tins.
- Beans: broad beans, organic soy beans — Lentils: red, green, yellow, Puy
- Peas: Carlin, marrowfat, large blue peas, yellow split peas, chickpeas
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are nutritionally rich and full of essential fats. Soaking nuts in cold water before eating them makes them easier to digest. Some of the nuts in the UK are imported so be sure to buy Fairtrade.
- Cashews (buy Fairtrade)
- Hemp seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Brazil nuts (buy Fairtrade)
Sugar and sweet things
The rule with sweet things is the same as for most other foods: the simpler and less processed the better. Look for unprocessed sugars like rapadura or jaggery, and use natural syrups and dried fruit to sweeten.
- Unrefined sugar
- Blackstrap molasses
- Dates and date syrup
- Maple syrup
Good oil can transform a dish. I use a cheaper olive oil for cooking and a good extra virgin for dressing and finishing food.
I also use a rapeseed oil (it’s important to buy organic here) for cooking as well as a Fairtrade coconut oil for frying at high temperatures (olive oil is not good for very high temperatures as heat damages it and produces free radicals). Hemp oil is also great for dressings.— Coconut oil
- Extra virgin hemp oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Extra virgin rapeseed oil (organic)