Why local, packaging-free and organic food is not always more sustainable

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Taking your own container to the butcher’s, avoiding tropical fruit or only buying local vegetables. Certainly well intentioned, but not necessarily always the most sustainable choice. In order to eat as sustainably as possible you have to take into account the type of food you buy, how much is wasted, how it is grown and transported, whether it is organic and how it is wrapped. Really quite a lot! How do you make a well-considered choice?

Animal and vegetable foods

In the article ‘Enhancing effective sustainability with your fork’, we already concluded that eating meat has a huge impact. Also, dairy products have a relatively high impact. This lies in the inefficiency of converting plants into meat or dairy produce.

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Still want to eat meat? Choose chicken and pork whenever you can. Beef and lamb have the largest impact due to high methane emissions. It is best to avoid shrimps too because of polluting nursery ponds abroad or energy-intensive refrigerated transport of Dutch shrimps which are peeled elsewhere on our behalf.

A striking fact is that after animal products the highest impact lies with (alcoholic) drinks. So, your plant-based diet can best be supplemented with a nice glass of tap water or home-made lemonade.

Opting for as much plant-based food as possible is also the single most important choice you can make. If you replace your meat with a meat substitute in plastic or tin of beans, be aware that the impact of this packaging is around a hundred times smaller than a piece of meat and despite the packaging you can make a big difference. Conversely, going to the butcher’s with your reusable container makes sense if meat is what you are after, but it is more important to think about what you are putting in that container.

Food waste

After the choice of type of food, the next thing that matters most is not to waste any food. Approximately one third of all our food gets lost during production, transportation, storing and preparation. If food waste was a country, this would account for the highest emissions of CO2 after China and the USA, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

You can waste less by storing food correctly, buying products with a short shelf life or a 35% discount sticker if you are going to make something quickly, taking leftovers for your lunch or including these in other dishes, not preparing more than you are going to eat, retaining an overview of your fridge contents, preparing products which are at risk of going to waste first and, after the expiry date, using your own eyes and nose before you throw anything away. Food at risk of going to waste in shops or catering establishments can be saved via Too Good To Go.

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Local and seasonal

Locally grown, seasonal vegetables and fruit are almost always a sustainable choice. But this does not mean that local products are always a good option. The impact of vegetables and fruit is largely determined by production and transport to the point of sale. To complicate matters, this impact often differs greatly per season and per country of origin.

Production can, for example, take place in the field or in a greenhouse and will require variable amounts of water, fertiliser and pesticides. Transport by ship is often relatively environmentally friendly thanks to the enormous quantities which can be carried. Lorries, in particular refrigerated lorries, are more polluting and planes are the most polluting.

For example, a lot of tropical fruit may have a fairly low impact throughout the year and Dutch endives, spinach, lettuce and tomatoes in the winter are not a good option because of their production in heated greenhouses. Also, Dutch strawberriesare an excellent choice in summer, but it is best not to get them at all in spring or, if necessary, import them from Spain or Poland.

It is almost impossible to remember which vegetables and fruit are the best options to buy in which season and country. Fortunately, Milieu Centraal has created a brilliant app which you can use to check all this: the Vegetable and Fruit Calendar.

Organic

Netx, you can consider whether to go for the organic variant. Organic is known as having a smaller yield and is, therefore, considered to be less sustainable, but that is an over-simplification. By opting for organic, farmland remains more fertile and there is more scope for biodiversity. The preference is with crops which can be cultivated in the most efficient way as possible and via limited pesticides are not prone to excessive wastage. Unfortunately, this is hard to determine in the store as a consumer.

Packaging

The packaging of products has relatively little impact on the environment. With a but, and it is a big but, since this only applies if the material ends up in the bin. Unfortunately, lots of packaging ends up in nature and causes a lot of harm. Even if we assume that the packaging is disposed of properly, we can still take into account a few points.

No material is ideally or widely suited for this purpose and so it is hard to say if glass, paper, tin or plastic is the best. A lot of packaging is unnecessary and takes up a lot of raw materials and energy. For example, triple wrapped biscuits. Sometimes packaging is useful because it protects the contents against wastage such as with cucumbers and stone fruits. If you want to avoid packaging, go for products which do not need any extra protection such as apples, bananas, cabbages and potatoes. Large packs are more efficient than several small ones provided it does not lead to wastage.

Despite often having poorly recyclable packaging, frozen vegetables and fruit as well as those in tins and glass are often sustainable choices. They are harvested in the most favourable season and there is almost no wastage because of the swift processing. The benefit of seasonal production outweighs the effect of the packaging and refrigeration.

In short, sustainable food is in first place mostly plant-based, subsequently wasted as little as possible and also has the lowest possible environmental score. Finally, you need consider whether organic food is a better choice and if you can avoid packaging. Other things to look out for in terms of purchasing and preparation, I will elaborate on in the next article.

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An ideal future that I wish to contribute to is at least a, sustainable one. In my personal quest for a more sustainable life I am especially looking for the most effective ways to make a difference. In doing so, I am not holding back from diving more deeply into the subject matter. By sharing my discoveries and experiences on a diverse range of topics, I hope to motivate both myself and others to continue making steps towards a more sustainable world.

Linda