April 22, 2022

Debunking Food Sustainability Myths

Charlotte Franzellin

There is a lot of information out there, but with wealth of information comes misinformation.

It’s no secret that our planet is undergoing a serious crisis. The “going green” trend has only been accelerating over the past decade or so. A good thing you might say? Totally! As long as it is based on science and data, and not on false pretences or popular beliefs.

The only way to combat misinformation?

With more information that you can trust. This is why today we will address some of the most common myths about food sustainability, give you the facts about what matters most, and try to point you in the right direction.

5 most common sustainable food myths - and where you should focus instead!

Myth #1 - Sustainability is all about Climate Change

Everyone talks about sustainability. All the time.

But few of us know what sustainability really means. A common misconception is that sustainability is all about climate change but that is far from true. While it’s true that climate change and global warming are a result of global unsustainable practices, sustainability is much more than just climate change.

Sustainability was defined in its modern sense back in 1987 by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Do you see any mention of the environment in there? No, because true sustainability covers more than just the environment. Something is only truly sustainable if it involves sustainable economic practices, contributes to a sustainable society and safeguards the environment in a sustainable way. You can read more about sustainability and sustainable food in this blog post.

While we currently only estimate the environmental impact of food at Sustained, because of how hard it is to find information to assess products at scale when it comes to societal and economic practices, we hope to soon be able to expand to sustainability as a whole. Stay tuned!

Myth #2 - Switching your diet is the best way to reduce your environmental impact!

Now, let’s dive into the environmental portion of sustainability for a minute. We’ve all heard that we need to change the way we eat to ‘save the planet’, but this is only half true.

Changing what you eat, shifting to eating more plant-based foods, and limiting your meat and dairy intake will absolutely reduce your environmental impact, and quite significantly that is.

However, reducing our food waste is the most substantial thing we can do as a society. According to the UN, one-third of all the food we produce in the world today - approximately 1.3 billion tonnes - is wasted every year.

Let’s contextualise this: If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the United States. Mind boggling isn’t it?

Of course this is not just from our own fridges. It’s waste from shops, farms, cafes and restaurants. In the UK however, households are the biggest contributor to food waste, making up 70% of the total. This amounts to a total waste of 4.5m tonnes of food that could have been eaten, an average £700 for a family with children each year.

How can you help fight this?

Be the better man in the shop and choose the wonky vegetables, buy the “reduced” items, those that are only good to be sold for another day or so, and most importantly, reduce what you throw in the bin! You could be a planner like myself, and plan your meals ahead of time to make sure nothing goes to waste (make sure you under-plan so you can improvise that pizza outing with your friends and not feel guilty about it!), or if you’re more of an improviser, then create a “must eat now” shelf in your fridge to easily see what you need to have for dinner!

Myth #3 - Going vegan is the only way to make a true difference

As previously mentioned, changing your diet is a great way to reduce your environmental footprint (albeit not the only one!). However, one common myth is that in order to make a real difference, you have to be vegan and that is simply untrue.

We already covered this topic on the blog, but we have to celebrate the amber choices. Not everyone can, nor may wish to, adopt a fully vegan lifestyle and that is okay. If that is you, don’t worry, you can still make a difference.

Start by reducing your consumption.

Meat and dairy are two of the worst offenders when it comes to environmental impact which is why veganism is a very strong candidate for being more sustainable. However, if we all simply reduced our beef, pork and poultry consumption by a quarter, we could save up to millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

And if that still sounds like too big a change, then consider swapping for lower impact alternatives instead. Replacing beef with chicken for example can decrease an individual’s carbon and water footprints by 48% and 30% respectively, that’s a lot!

And be careful, don’t assume all plant-based products are created equal. Some are not as sustainable as they pretend to be. One example: almond milk. Almonds are extremely water intensive and as such can’t be a synonym for sustainability. Equally, if these plant-based alternatives travel thousands of miles to get to you and are sold in non-recyclable plastic packaging, they might not be better than getting some locally grown turkey from the butcher!

Myth #4 - Local is always best  

My personal favourite. We’ve all heard this rule of thumb: choose products that are made in your home country!

We think that transporting food from miles away will make the product’s environmental impact so much worse, but you might be shocked to hear that transportation only accounts for about 5% of all food emissions (teeny-tiny isn’t it?). We’re not saying those emissions are not important - they are - but if you want to reduce your environmental footprint, you might consider walking to the store and buying that pineapple that is eyeing you instead of driving there to then avoid buying the pineapple!

Transportation being such a small portion of your overall food footprint, your focus should be on production, which is our core focus at Sustained. Something that is produced in a more sustainable manner miles away from you may have a lower environmental impact than something produced locally!

Take lamb for example. A study found that eating lamb from New Zealand is a more environmentally friendly option for most of us in the UK than eating more locally produced Welsh lamb. This is because it comes in great quantities (optimised transportation) and the lambs are grown in eco-efficient farms that use hydroelectricity. To top it off, the better New Zealand climate means that grass grows for longer, so less additional feed is needed!

Tomatoes are another great example. Tomatoes from Spain’s sunny climate are more sustainable than those produced in heated greenhouses in the UK.

This is why your new rule of thumb should be: Local if native to the country is best!

Myth #5 - Eating sustainably is always more expensive

This is probably the one myth you hear the most. Why? Because it is partly true but the key is in the “always”. Eating more sustainably isn’t necessarily always more expensive.

If you decided to change your diet to lower your environmental impact, it won’t necessarily cost you more. A recent study compared the cost of current diets to the cost of low impact diet types (everything from flexitarian, the less restrictive, all the way to vegan) in 150 countries. This study revealed a very interesting finding: the low impact diets were up to 22–34% cheaper in upper-middle to high income countries on average, but at least 18–29% more expensive in lower-middle to low-income countries.

What does this mean for the average UK consumer? Adopting more sustainable eating patterns will not necessarily cost you more!

To conclude, there is a lot of work still needed to make sustainability easy to understand.

But we are working hard to make that happen. And don’t forget those wise words Winston Churchill once pronounced: “It is better to do something than to do nothing while waiting to do everything”

Written by
Charlotte Franzellin
First published on
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
Last edited on
Apr 27, 2022 11:55 AM

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