This Earth Day, we’re encouraging you to question where your food comes from. We’re not suggesting that anyone is “more” vegan because they don’t eat avocados, and we know that shopping opportunities and options might be limited at this time, but it’s still something that’s worth looking into. Everything we talk about here is, by our definition at least, vegan. But if you’ve got the funds and resources to go the extra mile for the environment, then this is how. TW: FOOD/EATING/DIET.
Here’s a positive reminder to start with: going vegan is the single biggest thing we can do to reduce our individual carbon footprint. So if you’re reading this and you’re not vegan, please take a minute to read one of the countless studies that will tell you that no matter what, the plant-based option is always better. [source]
We’ll work through the following categories, and hopefully we can shed some light on the good, the bad and the ugly – and what really makes a difference. Read on for the real definitions of organic, Fairtrade, non-GMO, local, seasonal products, and to find out whether ethical consumerism is really possible.
ORGANIC (AND OTHER FANCY ACCOLADES)
First of all, let’s talk about organic food. It used to be seen as a trendy accessory for the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world, but now that it’s becoming more mainstream, is it worth splashing out on? When it’s plastered over meat and dairy products it means little in terms of animal welfare, but the way organic-certified crops are grown is strictly policed. Here’s a table from helpguide.org that summarises it pretty well:
This in turn claims to “reduce pollution, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy”. This is because no chemicals are used, which would usually enter the soil and affect surrounding environments and their wildlife as well as water sources. As the soil stays fertile for longer, it means that less deforestation is required to keep producing the same yield. Overall this makes organic produce much more sustainable, but the catch is that natural fertilisers might not be vegan. Whether they contain fish or animal products, farmers argue that their soil wouldn’t be the same without it. Here’s hoping that the new trend to ditch the animal manure will take off! [source] [source]
In most countries organic certification requires the product to be non-GMO, but occasionally you might see a non-GMO product not be organic, and vice versa. In the UK, all organic products are non-GMO, but not every non-GMO product is organic. So for the record: non-GMO, standing for genetically modified organisms, means that they are only ever strains that occur naturally in nature. There has been no laboratory intervention. GMO products are generally considered safe by scientists, but a lack of understanding of the science behind it means that they can be vilified by the general public. GMOs can be beneficial for the environment in that they give higher yields and require less fertiliser, and you could be eating those that have been modified to have their own defence system so that they require no chemical treatment. However, they are often designed to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides thereby increasing the amounts used. There is then the possibility for superweeds and superbugs to develop; with resistance to the chemicals made to fight them. On top of this, the pollen could spread to wild plants and give them the same modifications. If the testing process was more rigorous before they go to farm this risk would be massively reduced, so a lot of the responsibility is in the hands of the scientists. So whilst GMO foods are considered safe for the human population, they can put the environment at risk. It can be a bit of a gamble because it’s impossible to know whether a GMO has sustainability or profit in mind. So to be safe, non-GMO is good, but organic is even better. [source] [source] [source]
What we’re saying is, if it’s accessible for you then go for it, but cheap and cheerful (local) spuds won’t do too much harm.
THE WORST OFFENDERS
Some products have a surprisingly high carbon footprint compared to their food group friends, and it’s always the ‘vegan staples’ that get the most flack for it in the media (side note: this is definitely because they’ve run out of places to hide their guilt). Could they be right though?
For a lot of these culprits, it comes down to their water and energy consumption.
According to @vice, “the carbon footprint of an avocado can depend quite a lot on how it was grown and how far it has been transported” and “the environmental impacts from avocados come from the energy, water, fertiliser and pesticide required to grow them, the resources used for packaging materials and the energy used in processing, transporting and keeping them cool to preserve their freshness” Despite this avocados will tend to have a lower carbon footprint than eggs, so it’s still a better breakfast option!
Almond milk has also taken a hit recently, so let’s look at the stats.
All nuts require a lot of water to grow, but the difference is that almonds are grown in already arid climates, and have to be pollinated by hives of bees* instead of making the best of the wind. If it weren’t for them requiring more water than any other plant milk (130 pints of water for 1 glassful!), the relatively small amount of space that the trees take up would make them a tempting alternative.
Soya might be super sustainable, but farming soya for milk can put even more strain on an already maxed-out industry. Soya is grown to feed livestock for meat and dairy, so huge areas of the Amazon rainforest are burned down to make way for soy farms. Not a problem if American-grown soybeans are used though! Growing rice is thirsty work too, so the clear winner then, is oat milk. Being able to grow oats in colder climates means that there’s no deforestation, and it’s much easier to share the yield as it’s less in demand for livestock.
Conclusion: even almond milk gives out just one third of the greenhouse gases of dairy, but if you’re happy with substance over style then maybe stick to oat or soya! [source]
According to QI, a BBC quiz programme, avocados, almonds, melons, kiwis, or butternut squash cannot be eaten by “strict vegans” as they require unnatural measures to cultivate them. In order to keep up with commercial demand, large-scale farms use ‘migratory beekeeping’ in order to pollinate crops. This involves moving colonies of bees, kept in commercial hives, from one place to another. This could be seen as exploitation of bees, so should it be frowned upon in the same way as honey? Nearly 70% of the commercial bees in the USA are pulled in for almond pollination, and in 2018 over ⅓ of them died by the end of the season!
The bugs and the bees bring up a whole new blog post: does using or exploiting bees to produce crops make them non-vegan? Where can we draw the line when it happens naturally and the bees need to pollinate to survive? That in turn leads to another question: are figs vegan? This is a weird one, and it might put you off figs regardless of whether you think it makes them non-vegan or not… Stay tuned for another blog! [source] [source]
What about the carbon footprint of a banana? Interestingly, as it turns out, not bad at all. A single banana has a carbon footprint of about 80 grams, one of the lowest in the book “How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything” By Mike Berners-Lee. Well Fairtrade bananas are even better. Not only are you supporting small independent farmers in developing countries and making sure they get paid a decent wage, you’re in turn supporting a more sustainable way of farming. According to fairtrade.org.uk, farmers have to improve soil and water quality, manage pests, avoid using harmful chemicals, manage waste, reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and protect biodiversity in order to sell their products under the Fairtrade label. They are trained to mitigate climate change in any way that they can, and are encouraged to invest the Fairtrade Premium profit they earn in reforestation and wildlife rehabilitation projects. The Fairtrade Carbon Credits system means that every step a farmer takes in the right direction, they get rewarded too. Overall, that’s a big thumbs up from us!
Sidenote: always buy organic bananas if you can, as a pesticide might be sprayed on them that uses crustaceans to prevent the bananas from ripening too quickly!
Sourcing locally and/or seasonally can have a massive impact on your carbon footprint. If a produce is in season, it means specifically to the country you’re in. Seasonal produce is therefore grown at least in your country if not even closer, so it only has to travel by land instead of air. Do you really need that Chilean avocado that took 320 litres of water to grow and has been flown 7,000 miles to get to you? [source]
Shopping at a local greener grocers can also mean less plastic. With fruits and veggies available loose, you can take your own bag and walk away with your head held high knowing that the products themselves are more likely to have been sourced locally, too. Not only that, it’s also much more positive and ethical to support small businesses over large supermarket corporations. Double-win.
While we’re on the subject, we’d like to take the opportunity to say thank you to fruit and veg pickers and packers who are working during covid – putting themselves at risk and dealing with hoarders without enough pennies to show for it. But where are their thanks every other day? Although rarer, there have been scary exposees of the conditions of workers growing things like cashew nuts. Veganism can (or possibly should be) be a human rights issue too, so if you’ve got free time in quarantine, why not Google your shopping list?
So, what is ethical consumerism? It’s whatever you can do with the means you have, in a capitalist society that is fighting against it. A lot of it comes down to money, but sometimes it’s a case of simply not knowing what’s for the best. The science is complicated and the media is full of fake news, but it’s worth sifting through it all. If it’s not within your means to make these changes, then please share the information in case it reaches someone who can afford it! P.S: talking about food during lockdown can be tough, so please go easy on yourself if disordered or restricted eating is something you struggle with! These are by no means a reason to restrict yourself further – “within your means” refers to both your mental and physical health too. Look after yourselves, and look after our Mother Earth x