Ethical Food Choices | Opinion
Despite being free from any food intolerances or allergies, there are a number of dietary restrictions I have self-imposed incrementally over the years, much to the dismay of family and friends.
Having been vegan for just under two years and vegetarian since the age of 12, I – and those around me – have suffered through the lack of options, often forced to build a meal from a compilation of sides when eating out. So, for me to then choose to further restrict my options with my ethical food choices seems at best stupid and, at worst, masochistic. The truth however, is that these seemingly drastic dietary choices have each come about through an extensive process of education and consideration, empowering me to align my actions with the values by which I choose – or at least try – to live my life by.
The reality is that whilst most people choose their food with either hedonism or health in mind, each of these dietary decisions been made in light of factors entirely separate to myself. Whether it be carbon footprint, resource consumption, animal welfare or workers’ rights, the impact that our diets have on the wider world is both powerful and varied. Our diet is also one of the few aspects of our lives that we really have the capacity and autonomy to change and, in doing so, make change.
Eating For A Healthy, Happy Planet: A Gut Decision
Every adaption to my diet has come in light of new understanding regarding these impacts, and reflect a desperate attempt to inhabit this earth as kindly and respectfully as possible. The problem is, no food is either wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the planet, or the people who inhabit it. Numerous points along the production chain have the capacity to negatively impact the world and thus, there are numerous factors to take into consideration when trying to make the least-harmful food choice. From chemicals that might have been used to grow the food, where it has come from and by what means of transportation, to how much packaging it comes contained within, I try to consider each and every step from farm to plate before deciding whether I can justify the purchase.
This is my one and only non-negotiable; I will not buy or eat anything that contains animal products. I know many environmentalists who are happy to dabble in the odd piece of cheese here and a poached egg there, leaving many people to question why I made the switch from a predominantly vegan, occasionally vegetarian diet, to strictly plant-based. Whilst of course the fact that the latter utilises less land, water and carbon than that of an omnivorous or even vegetarian diet is a major influence, the final tipping point for me shift in dietary choices came down to the impacts that the dairy and egg industry have on the individual animal.1
Realistically, the environmental impact of an isolated non-vegan indulgence, whether it be a piece of milk-chocolate or an egg-sandwich, within the context of an otherwise vegan diet, would be negligible. To those animals which suffered in order to produce those indulgences, however, the cost is profound. There is no taste sensation which I would value over and above the welfare and life of another living, breathing, feeling animal, and for that reason my diet is 100%, unwaveringly vegan.
I do, however, believe that it is important not to stop there. A plant-based diet without further restrictions or considerations can be problematic in itself. The current demand for certain ‘health foods’ such as avocados, quinoa and cashews has led to a whole host of environmental and social issues of their own. Many meat and dairy alternatives are bountifully wrapped in plastic, which might ultimately kill or harm marine and other animal life, or may have been flow half way across the world and have a greater food carbon footprint than a locally farmed dairy-based cheese. Thus, whilst veganism is the dietary ‘label’ I carry, there are a number of other considerations I make before choosing what food to buy on a daily basis.
Lowering my Food Miles
95% of fruit and nearly half of vegetables found in UK supermarkets are imported, and whilst I have long known that buying local is best, for many years I failed to consider that perhaps this was more important for certain foods than others. Due to their need for smoother, swifter transport (by plane rather than ship), the more fragile and perishable imported foods are significantly more damaging to the environment; Air freight has an environmental cost 177 times higher than shipping food the same distance. As a result, although just 1.5% of our imported produce travels by plane, those 1.5% account for around 50% of our fruit and vegetable associated emissions.3 It is for this reason that I have decided to say the very painful goodbye to any berries, beans and asparagus grown outside of the UK. The only exception is when produce is frozen at the point of picking. By reducing the extent to which the food is easily damaged, the requirement for air travel is removed and food carbon footprint reduced.
Despite often clocking in as more expensive than their wrapped counterparts, I will, if the choice is there, always opt for loose fruit and veg. Even for non-plastic packaging, which is supposedly biodegradable or compostable, natural resources have been used – and wasted – in the its production, whilst paper bags need to be used at least three times before they become more environmentally friendly than their single-use-plastic counterpart.2 It is, however, nigh-on impossible to be entirely waste-free, and thus I aim instead to follow the rule of the three R’s; Reduce (saying ‘no’ wherever possible), Reuse (keep that packaging and reuse it as a container or plastic wrap as many time as possible), Recycle (finally, when you no longer have a use for it, pop it in the relevant recycling bin) for all aspects of packing, not just plastic.
Shamefully, this is a relatively recent adaptation to my diet (thanks to the research I did for this article). Whilst many omnivores opt for organic meats in the hope that it will result in better welfare standards for the animals, I naïvely believed organic was somewhat of a moot point for those of us who do not consume animal products, since welfare isn’t so much of a concern when it comes to carrots and cabbages. Having more recently come to learn, however, of the devastating impact that fertilisers have on soil health as well as local waterways and thus subsequently the people, marine life and animals which live near and rely on that water for life, I make every effort to spend that little extra to ultimately reduce the true cost of my food.
Avoiding Palm Oil
One of the more complex and controversial considerations. Many people have over recent years attempted to boycott palm-oil containing foods because of the devastating impact that palm oil production is having on the so-called lungs of the planet, the Amazon rainforest, and to the orangutans and other creatures which inhabit it. The problem with palm is that it is anywhere between 3 and 10 times more productive than other oil-bearing plants. Thus, up to ten times less land is needed to produce the same amount of oil. And for most foods, if palm oil is removed, an alternative is simply required.
So, what is the best decision? For me right now, I try to ensure that if I am buying food with palm oil, that it is RSPO certified. RSPO certification acts as an assurance to the customer that the oil utilised in the product meets stringent legal, economic, environmental and social criteria. Whilst there is controversy surrounding the level of regulation implemented in this certification process, it is a step in the right direction, and a step which will hopefully, with time, evolve into more of a leap as better regulation is implemented.
Buying Fair Trade
Not only is there a major environmental consideration to be made when making food choices, but there is also a social one. It is easy to forget, when presented with rows and rows of pristinely packaged perfect looking food, that someone, somewhere in the world has worked to grow and harvest that produce. There are millions of farm workers in developing countries whom we rely on to produce our food, and yet they themselves are not paid enough to even feed their own families. Fairtrade certifications, with Fairtrade International being the most widely recognised, ensure that farms meet their standards for welfare and pay, with zero tolerance for child labour.4 The certification is not widespread across all foods making it difficult to ensure that you are making the right choice, but I always ensure that at the very least my bananas, coffee and chocolate have the fair-trade seal of approval.
But, it’s a Balancing Act
Whilst these factors, when considered in isolation, seem to be ‘no-brainers’, there are very few foods which would appease each and every one of these factors. More often than not, a food purchase which aligns with one value comes at the cost of another; A meat-free burger, for example, will be significantly better in terms of animal welfare than the beef equivalent, but will likely only be available wrapped in plastic. Complicating the conundrum further is the fact that we, as consumers, rarely know the whole truth behind the production of our foods making it nigh-on impossible to even know which food choice is the least detrimental.
My intention is thus, rather than aiming for perfection, or giving up hope because perfection is not achievable, to simply try my best to ensure that each and every food choice I make is as closely aligned with my values as possible within the context of the options available to me.
I am by no means suggesting that everyone is in the privileged position that I am in, and able to even consider these factors, let alone have the time and money to actually act upon such considerations. Nor am I suggesting that my decisions are necessarily right. These are the factors I choose to consider, based on my values and my current state of understanding about the world around me. I am sure for many these would not be the same factors that you would consider, and I am sure that my own choices will continue to evolve and change over time.
Whilst each of our values and circumstances will differ, and what might be the right choice for me might not be the same for you, what I would encourage is for each and everyone one of us to remember that with each purchase - every time we put our money somewhere - that is our opportunity to vote for the future we want. Take the time to consider what world you want to live in, take the time to learn and consider whether your daily actions - including food choices – serve that future, and then make your choice from there.