You are what you eat. It’s an ancient idiom but like all those time worn cliches, it endures because it carries with it an immutable grain of truth. What you eat determines a whole lot of things from your health and fitness to the quality of your skin to your ability to keep serious illness at bay. Yet, in an age of industrialized farming practices that are slowly and inexorably depleting our rainforests and other natural resources, the contents of your plate not only determines your physical health but your moral and ethical health too. In the digital age, we no longer have the luxury of ignorance. We can’t turn a blind eye to the rainforests which are scythed down to raise cattle, the damage caused to our oceans by overfishing, unsustainable farming and pollution or the industrialized cruelty that’s an inevitable consequence of high intensity farming that’s concerned only with turning a profit and not for the care of animals or the planet we all inhabit.
The good news is that, despite the numerous environmental and ethical threats that industrialized farming and food production creates, it’s possible to load your plate with delicious and nutritious foods that are ethical and morally sound. Moreover, it needn’t require spending a fortune or completely overhauling your lifestyle to get there. It’s simply a case of making small and sustainable changes and tackling the problem one meal at a time.
Vegans, you’re not out of the woods yet!
This year has seen an exponential growth in those eschewing animal products in favor of a plant based diet. Veganuary 2018 took off with gusto this year with over 150,000 people recorded as taking part. Time will tell whether these numbers hold, but it’s an encouraging figure. There’s no denying that a plant based diet is absolutely a huge step in the right direction in terms of sustainability, to say nothing of the reduced risk of cancer and other serious illnesses and the animal welfare implications. Plants require far less water and resources and are able to feed far more people per square kilometer of arable land than raising animals for meat and dairy products. Nonetheless, a vegan diet is not necessarily blameless when it comes to sustainability.
Many vegans, especially recent converts to veganism, tend to lean heavily on ready made, pre-packaged meat substitutes to ease the transition. While these can absolutely be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet, they should not take the place of more fruits, vegetables, grains and pulses. These prepackaged foods are usually soy based, and although most of the world’s soy is grown to feed farmed animals rather than humans the soy industry is far from blameless when it comes to sustainability and environmental damage. Moreover a great many vegan meat substitutes (along with around 50% of pre-packaged foods on the supermarket shelves) also contain unsustainable palm oil. The farming of palm oil has long been a major player in deforestation, animal habitat loss, and major human rights violation wherever it is farmed.
While those who switch to a vegan diet should be lauded, they should also think twice before relying to heavily on these pre-packaged products, which brings us to…
It’s not just the product but the packaging
Even sustainable products like fruits and vegetables and even water can be rendered less sustainable and ethical by virtue of their packaging. Single use plastics are the bane of the environment with a far reaching impact on our oceans, the creatures who live in them and the communities who are exclusively dependent on them for protein. Plastic packaging can become lodged in the stomachs of sea mammals like whales and dolphins causing them to die a slow and painful death from starvation (see the unflinching documentary A Plastic Ocean for more details). Pieces of plastic packaging can also be consumed by seabirds causing them equally slow and painful deaths while plastic trays and bags from food packaging can seep carcinogenic compounds into the ocean which are absorbed by fish, slowly poisoning them. If things continue at this rate, marine biologists predict that there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050. The only way to move the food industry away from single use plastics is by refusing to purchase them. Buy your fruit and veggies loose and get your grains, pulses and cereals from wholefoods stores, bringing your own paper bags, boxes or glass jars. Avoid bottled water altogether and use a sustainable and reusable bamboo cup for your takeaway coffee in the morning, which brings us to…
Grounds for concern
Your morning coffee is an essential part of your daily routine, but unless you know you’re buying ethically, the environmental damage caused by your caffeine habit can add up little by little, day by day. While buying Fairtrade is certainly a step in the right direction it does not necessarily guarantee that your cup of Joe is ethically sourced. If you’re concerned about the ethics of your caffeine fix be sure to patronize specialty coffee roasters. You can expect to pay a little extra but you’ll be buying a greater guarantee of the ethical treatment of your coffee farmers with your French roast.
The fish you eat is more than just a drop in the ocean
While veganism is infinitely more sustainable than an omnivorous diet, pescatarians will be aware that a diet that incorporates fish can be more sustainable and ethical than a diet that incorporates meat and poultry. At present there are precious few fully sustainable fisheries but ensuring that your fish is ASC certified is a good place to start. The ASC or Aquaculture Stewardship Council is a joint venture between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH). ASC certification is an intensive and rigorous process meaning that ASC certified fish has been farmed by fisheries that are committed to the sustainability of their produce.
By reducing your reliance on packaged products, reducing your consumption of meat and eating more fresh fruit and veggies you can ensure that your diet is not only healthy but ethical and sustainable, too!