Environmental change is no longer a buzz word to be thrown about lightly, the need for environmental change is a matter of sustained survival for more than merely humans.
In recent years the finger of blame has been pointed sternly at the production of meat, largely driven by our eating habits over the past few decades if not longer. It is undeniable that the meat industry for human consumption is out of control and in desperate need of immediate reform. This has culturally led to an increase in popularity of many plant based diets and vegan choices. The popularity and focus these choices have gained is swelling at a rate almost unprecedented in the food industry, largely driven by the hope for a positive impact on our climate and environment, both locally and globally, and a belief that these lifestyle choices hold the key to a swift impactful change in situation. Reducing the impact from the meat industry is undoubtedly a necessary change that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency, but is a plant based or vegan way of thinking a sustainable choice? Perhaps…
Consider for a minute the popular approach to plant based and vegan food rather than those who take a more holistic considered approach to those choices. The majority making choices are doing so through the same channels previously occupied by the omnivorous or carnivorous offers. The supermarkets, High Street chains, fast food outlets, so called ‘ready meals’ and essentially industrial food production ‘convenience’ channels. While the end result is plant based or vegan, does necessarily mean that the process is sustainable or environmentally friendly? Will this result a better nutritional choice?
Yes and no… yes there is obviously a reduction in the negative impacts the meat industry has had over the decades and yes there are clearly nutritional advantages with these plant based choices (although I would argue the merits of heavily processed foods of any kind). However the processes, outlets and most fundamentally the attitude towards food has not changed significantly for the vast majority, there is merely a swapping of ‘content’. ‘Big business’, manufacturing and the industrial side of food production is continuing. Yes within different parameters but fundamentally the extremes created by consumers that have had such a detrimental effect are continuing and will continue to do so until there is a fundamental shift in attitude towards feeding ourselves. One extreme will be replaced by another and, regardless of content, extremes result in a detrimental impact somewhere along the line.
Will this growth in popularity be sustainable? As supply struggles to catch up with demand what are the implications of this across the supply chain? Is it possible that the industrial machine will have to supersize yet again in order to keep up, and will this result in similar extremes of production having a negative impact on both the natural and social environment? Yes I believe so and in some cases this is already being seen. Although these effects are currently dwarfed by the potentially catastrophic effects currently being witnessed as a result of the meat industry, there is certainly momentum gathering that could lead to similar extremes in production having a similar detrimental impact and ultimately a situation that is not sustainable!
What is clear is there must be a change and quickly and this change must be both sustained and sustainable. In order for this to be achieved I believe the term environment be taken more holistically. After all sustainability is simply a balanced approach requiring the bigger picture to be viewed and considered dispassionately! Currently the focus largely on the natural world, our planet. However, we humans have a social environment on this planet, a symbiotic relationship requiring respect to maintain this delicate balance and achieving harmony. Social habits drive industry through supply and demand that in turn looks to economies of scale to fulfil this need, ultimately influencing and controlling the very systems that have impacted our natural world in such a devastating manner. To neglect the social environment is to neglect the driver that influences environmental change, and to neglect part of the system is not sustainable!
What is often overlooked while chasing the ‘green issues’ surrounding food production, is the social impact of our choices both globally and on a local scale. Our choices have a direct impact on both in a profound way with a speed that easily overtakes any natural world environmental impacts. Shifts in consumer spending towards plant based alternatives such as avocados soya and many other whole foods, has had a hugely detrimental effect on local economies and both their natural and social environments (foreign and domestic). While it is hard to feel this half way across the world, to ignore the impact of our choices will ultimately lead to an imbalance once again impacting negatively on our environment. A familiar pattern developing, not driven by meat this time, but with similar impacts.
So what is the common denominator here, what drives this pendulum swing one way then the other, creating imbalance and destruction along the way? That’s simple, us! Our relationship with food and cooking has changed in a profound manner in just a few generations! Couple this with the imbalance in global population density requiring the import of food to satisfy shortfall, and it takes very little to create an imbalance. Cultural pressures surrounding food in our wonderfully diverse little island gathered so much momentum and with the influence of global foods growing in such a very short period of time the result was like a child in a sweet shop, grabbing for whatever the eyes and stomach desired without thought for consequence or reason! The UK is not alone in this and as such the global movement of food has spiralled out of control. The resulting medley has been increasing pressure everywhere, with cracks being ignored until the situation is no longer tolerable.
So where amongst all this could there be a way to ease the pressure and bring just a little balance to the system. As with so much in life it is the simplest of answers staring us right in the face. A road map laid out for all to see should we simply take the time to look. Humans are part of the natural world and as such the natural world a part of us, a symbiotic relationship that has largely been forgotten or increasingly ignored in recent generations. There is a natural rhythm governing life of all varieties that gives space to breathe and recover as well as times of bountiful plenty within which to gorge. A natural balance allowing this rhythm to continue with minimal input. Seasonality! A sustainable rhythm governed by the spinning of our planet around its self and the sun, giving both times of harvest and of renewal allowing a sustainable system to perpetually provide what’s necessary. When this is not respected problems develop.
Seasonality within the food production industry and more fundamentally our own culture surrounding food, had been lost for much of the modern world. Respecting when and then where our food comes from has been replaced by an eager wide eyed scramble for exploration and experimentation, speeded up by the ever decreasing size of our world. A desire for the exotic as well as a demand for our favourites all year round regardless of location, has driven the large scale production and movement of food around our planet with increasing speed and volume without consideration for consequence.
Considering location and respecting seasonality within our choices surrounding food carries with it inherent sustainability, supporting the ecological and social environments closer to home. When seasonality is considered a choice is made to respect the environment, a positive move in the right direction for both the planet and our social placing within our world.
Seasonality has the potential to be incredibly impactful. However, this alone is not enough. After all everything is in season somewhere in the world all year round, giving rise to food miles and all the implications of transporting fresh produce around the planet while attempting to maintain a resemblance of quality by the time it reaches the destination! Combining seasonality with location is a very powerful and impactful way of thinking! Reducing food miles and our carbon footprint, supporting local economies and promoting ecological health and balance, all vital to the bigger picture of change. However there is a disjointed nature to these benefits, making them a difficult driver for change especially when thinking about a weekly shop or what are we going to have for dinner tonight, issues a bit closer to home! So what can seasonality offer to the every day to have a greater impact on consumer choice? This is the inherent beauty of seasonality, nature has laid it all out for us to discover! Eating and shopping seasonally maximises the flavour and nutrition of our food, whether it fruit and vegetables, meats, seafoods, dairy or whole foods choosing a product that is in season and from a local environment reduces the time taken to arrive at your home. Socially the benefits are far reaching too. Supporting local economies in a sustainable manner close to home rather than exerting financial pressure on communities, in far less affluent parts of the world, to meet unsustainable levels of supply to feed our demand.
Alongside this, the seasons have a huge impact on how we live our lives and in turn what foods we crave and seek out. The summer months are bountiful in fresh vibrant and light foods that perfectly match a more active outdoor lifestyle with long hours of daylight. Winter months with, less daylight hours, have a more sedentary feel with a greater need for fuel to keep warm, again mirrored in the types of produce naturally abundant throughout the colder months. The transitional seasons equally provide what’s needed again mirroring our mood and demeanor within those times. Allowing the seasons to impact food choices has a domino effect cascading through the food production pyramid to every level having a beneficial impact to both the social and natural environment, both foreign and domestic. An ecological balance that inherently benefits our world at every level.
With this in mind choices between meat or plant based options are perhaps not at the core of the issue, but how we think about food can have a greater impact. It is the fundamental attitude rather than the face value choice that will have a sustained sustainable effect. Of course the issue of environmental change and food production is incredibly nuanced in its complexity, but simple impactful changes in attitudes will drive change with considerable effect. Diet can have a pivotal part to play in this balancing act, but I would certainly argue that this is not the driving factor. As previously mentioned, when diet is linked to the industrial processes driven by supply and demand etc, the specific food or produce has less of an impact. Its more about the process of decision making that is at the core. As anyone who respects their body will know it is a balanced diet that offers our body systems the greatest advantage, or as my Granny used to say, “everything in moderation dear”.
The influence of location and the seasons is often solely thought of when considering plants, linking into the natural cycle of planting and harvesting. However meats and seafoods have seasons also linked with their natural lifecycles. Times of year when these animals mate and then breed are to be avoided and consideration taken to age for breeding and hence the continuation of a healthy population have a huge part to play in the seasonal availability and most importantly the sustainability of this food source. Of course eating flesh or killing a living organism to feed ones self becomes an emotional and ethical matter for which all opinions and choices must be respected! Taking this out of the equation for a moment to consider a balanced ecosystem does shine a clearer light at the core issues behind the critical imbalance we are currently living through!
For generations certain meats have been favoured for various reasons, driving the engine of the food industry to meet demand at any cost! This has led to the firm finger of blame pointing directly at a carnivorous diet! Consider for a moment a healthy balanced diet that respects environment (both natural and social). What could this look like? Well for those of us living in the UK there are definite seasons for many varieties of meats and seafood! We the general consumer has simply forgotten or, for those younger generations perhaps, never been taught! The winter months focus on rich game, high in protein, low in fat and high in nutrients. This perfectly matches the abundance of root vegetables and green leafy brassicas for example. Also consider the indigenous nuts and oily fish in season throughout the colder months and there is a magic mix of nutrients suited to mammals surviving through cold winter months with short daylight hours. The same magic concoction exists throughout all the seasons, fatty lamb and poultry begin in spring as we emerge from the colder months with more fruits becoming available alongside an increasing abundance and variety of vegetables to stock us up after the dormant winter months. Summer has a plethora of lighter nutrient rich fruits and vegetables with white fish, shellfish and the more familiar meats in abundance (obviously avoiding breeding season for some).
Respecting these natural environmental rhythms allows us to eat what is naturally provided, a sustainable and holistic approach to environment without any undue pressure forcing an imbalance. This does of course require us to eat a wider variety of foods, many of which we have forgotten how to eat or simply fallen out of love with. Nose to tail eating as it is often called has the infinitely beneficial side effect of minimising waste and respecting the animal in death.
Eating in this manner has an effortless way of supporting the social and economic environment at the same time. Economically it is hard to afford eating rich hearty game for example, on a regular basis! Ploughing through game every night of the week would leave most of us penniless, and possibly nursing digestive discomfort, so indulging once or twice would be more appropriate. The same can be said for any one sided diet which is why the industrial food production machine responded by creating economies of scale and forging production, harnessing the ease of international trade to give us what we really wanted every night of the week, every day of the year, each year for decades. Supplementing this with fish or seafood and days of vegetarian meals would allow for all budgets to be flexed!
Those who ‘work the land’ in a way that may now be considered artisan or craft skills, will be able to testify how their various industries have been crippled in the past few generations. It is no coincidence that this coincided with global shifts in food trends generated directly by our feeding habits, a phenomenon not limited to the UK!
It is very hard to think that one single person ever really makes a difference, especially when we place ourselves in that ‘one single person’ role. There are countless millions of ‘just one single person’ living with us! It doesn’t take much to create a swell, a momentum and ultimately a change. Simple quick choices we can make will have an impact the food industry through driving the machine of supply and demand. Slowing the extreme pendulum swings of imbalance to arrive at a more sustainable future. Taking a brief moment to look at the packet vegetables to see their country of origin for example. This small change will have a cascade effect naturally pointing towards seasonal eating, a locally grown vegetable will be in season locally. Choose fresh produce not pre-packaged in plastic! Consider balancing diet, daily, weekly, monthly, annually and beyond! Make any number of small simple choices that are considered and deliberate rather than mundanely going through the motions of habit. Pushing consumer trends in specific directions is incredibly fast and impactful, a tool wielded by big business with frightening skill and regularity to drive supply and demand allowing economies of scale to thrive, influencing our every day while remaining hidden in plain sight.
While there is a certain romanticism about buying our food from local farmers markets, village shops and farm shops the practical applications of choosing these outlets are difficult for many to commit to. Financial and time implications are perhaps the greatest influence on our food decisions over very recent generations, a fast and violent shift, especially in very recent years! Taking extra time to seek out produce that can be as much as twice the price of convenience shopping is not a sustainable choice for many of us to make. Social sustainability is key to driving environmental sustainability so respecting both sides of the issue is the only way to create a sustainable shift.
This brings back the call for balance. Forcing the large scale convenience outlets to shift towards seasonal, local and there for sustainable foods is simply a question of demand! Create the demand and supply will follow! Economies of scale and the cogs of business will take notice but only if the choices we make every day are consistent and consistency has to be sustainable. So once again use your power of the ‘one single person’ and take some time to support local on occasion while continuing to make impactful choices in day to day life. This balance will drive towards a more sustained and sustainable social and natural environment, respecting the ecology of our fragile existence bringing longevity and harmony to our time.
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