A climatarian diet? Too hard

“It boils down to people buying what they need, and using what they buy." Andrew Parry - Wrap

Does it though? I think it's much more complicated than that. And even just buying what you need and using what you buy is not simple.

This post is inspired by an article by Emma Beddington in The Guardian entitled Sustainable gin and family-sized crisps. My week eating a climatarian diet in which she spent a week considering the ways in which we can eat in a climatarian way. It's also a sort of follow-up on yesterday's survey of labels.

Climatarian - yes it's a new word, from around 2010-12. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as:

"a person who chooses what to eat according to what is least harmful to the environment"

And yes it's an actual diet. I know this rather cute diagram is hard to read, but you can find a slightly larger version here. I say it's an actual diet, but in a way it's not either. Because there are so many variables and things to consider. It's not as simple as vegetarianism - don't eat meat and fish, or even vegan - add dairy products to the bans. I mean 'least harmful to the environment" involves so many, many considerations. And some of that comes down to you, not just the producers, the processors, the sellers. It's what you do too.

Plus the other thing to note is that it's also not necessarily healthy.

"in 2012, Jennie Macdiarmid, professor of sustainable nutrition at the University of Aberdeen, helped devise a theoretical nutritionally balanced diet that would reduce your carbon footprint by 90%: pasta, peas, fried onions, brassicas, sesame seeds, dry wholegrain breakfast cereal and sweets." Emma Beddington

And definitely not very enticing.

The main thing that climatarians and others will say is to eat less meat - and possibly dairy too.

“A mainly plant-based or a mainly vegetarian diet does the bulk of the savings. It’s absolutely crystal clear.” James Hand - Giki Zero

True and I think most people - at least the most educated people - know that already. Even we, who are not into healthy eating in a big, big way, eat far less meat, particularly red meat, than we used to. Australians though, according to one article I saw, are the largest meat eaters on the planet. It is, in fact possible, to eat meat and fish in an environmentally sustainable way, although it takes a bit of work to assess where your meat and fish comes from and whether it has been produced in all of those sustainable ways. And also rather more money than the average working man/woman has to spend on food.

I have been reading Nigel Slater's latest cookbook in which he is constantly banging on about the sustainability and quality of what you buy. Now some of that is bought from local immigrant shops, but some is from exclusive butchers and cheese shops and providores. Slightly annoying. But then I guess it's only the well-off that read such books.

Increasingly there are labels and certificates to look out for - like the MSC certification, but as yet this kind of thing is in its infancy. The other thing about this is that such meat and fish, especially the meat, is often much more difficult to source. Climatarians might bang on about 'my local farmer' and 'my local butcher' but the vast majority of the world - at least in the developed world - shops in the supermarket. Supermarkets, to give them credit, do respond to demand, and if the voices are loud enough they do more to source sustainable products. And so we should make them work harder to this end. Indeed in many ways I think the buck stops there. And with government legislation.

In a mild digression to illustrate this - today I opened a new packet of plain old sugar - Home brand from Coles. Having done all that stuff about certification and labels yesterday I noticed this one on the packet. Plus this extensive piece of marketing blurb:

"We're very proud that this pack contains Bonsucro Certified sugar, harvested by Australian sugarcane farmers.

The Bonsucro Standard is a globally recognised scheme that ensures sugarcane production practices are environmentally sustainable. Working with Bonsucro is part of our efforts to protect Australia's precious habitats such as the Great Barrier Reef."

I also recently bought a packet of CSR caster sugar, because there was no home brand on the shelf. The CSR packet has no such logo. So am I therefore to assume that CSR sugar is not produced and harvested sustainably? Or are they just not as good at marketing? And anyway if you are buying sugar you just grab a pack don't you? You don't look at the small print.

By the way Bonsucro is indeed an officially recognised certification, although there are some questions about its use for biofuel in Colombia.

Back to the animals. So very many things to consider if you are a climatarian. How much methane, how much deforestation, how much land erosion, what chemicals are in the feed, indeed what do they eat, what about the abattoirs, what about the packaging, and on, and on it goes. There are good things and bad things about the manure as one example. Methane, bad. Flies, bad. Runoff into rivers bad. Fertiliser, good. And kangaroo - no bad farming going on there, but you can't be sure how it was slaughtered.

According to WWF agriculture is the largest industry in the world. Agriculture contributes 15% of the world's greenhouse gases. With agriculture you get problems of deforestation, water use, pesticides, fertilisers, harvesting machinery, processing, packaging, transport, etc., etc., etc. Here's what WWF has to say about just one - but massively important crop - soy:

"Without proper safeguards, the soybean industry is causing widespread deforestation and displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples around the globe." WWF

Almonds another agricultural crop much loved by the healthy eating gurus of this world use vast amounts of water. As does rice, which is fine if it is grown where there is lots of water, but not if it's not. Monocultures of the world's most important crops are a recipe for disaster. So vegetarianism and, actually I think even more veganism could be said to be actually contributing to the world's environmental problems, not easing them. All of those imitation meat products are highly processed things.

In fact food systems - which I imagine includes all aspects of food, from the land or sea to the mouth - contributes 34% of greenhouse gases, so there is room for considerable improvement.

And some of that is down to you. Which is more what Emma Beddington was looking at. How she could make a difference. Part of that, of course, is what you buy. Which is why I say 'too hard'. Now you don't have to just consider what evil things are in the packaged food you are buying, and what nutrients it contains - hard enough for the relatively uneducated and time poor already - but you also now have to consider, how many miles this has had to travel to get to you, how sustainably farmed it was, and how much greenhouse gas was emitted in the process - and that's not just the food - it's the growing, the harvesting, the transporting, the processing, the packaging. How do you do that? Are more greenhouse gases emitted from a ship from Asia, an aeroplane from wherever, or a truck from Queensland or WA? I really don't know and I'm relatively well educated and concerned. Most people are not.

In fact Emma Beddington gave an amusing example:

"I choose unwrapped broccoli, then instantly read a tweet from botanist James Wong that says this 'potentially doubles food waste”, since it shortens the shelf-life.'" Emma Beddington

So waste is another problem, both on the supermarket side of things, and also on the personal level. Supermarkets here do contribute waste to Second Bite, Oz Harvest and so on, but I don't know whether that's all of the unsold fresh food. Still it's a start. But what about us. If you buy everyday and just what you need, as many will recommend then you are travelling back and forth to the supermarket - most likely in a car - and therefore adding greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. If you buy just once a week and buy things in bulk, then you may well end up throwing stuff away. You can't win.

Of course you should buy what's in season - it even makes sense to do that because it's cheaper and better if it's in season. And yet there are tomatoes all year round - we can't live without tomatoes. Onions too - indeed lots of other foods. Now some of those, nowadays are indeed grown sustainably in greenhouses - tomatoes and salad greens being the prime example here, but not everything, and sometimes food is imported to fill a seasonal gap. Not good.

And don't even mention eating out and takeaway.

Too hard for me and impossible for the poor, the uneducated, the time poor. And let's face it they are the majority. Yes - too hard.


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