Earth Day 2023: Seven ways to reduce your carbon 'foodprint' to save the planet
We currently throw away a third of all the edible food we produce for human consumption every year, one of the many pressing issues highlighted by Earth Day, officially marked on Saturday.
This might include food that spills, spoils or gets lost before it even reaches you, perhaps due to storage, packaging and processing problems. Or, it might be good quality food that doesn't get eaten, whether it gets thrown away in the supermarket or scraped into the bin from your plate at home.
While the onus is on governments, businesses and those at the top to make bigger scale system changes, reducing food waste is one of the easiest ways we can help as individuals. So, to get you started, we've rounded up the best ways you can shrink your carbon 'foodprint', benefiting both the planet and your purse.
1. Calculate your foodprint
First, it's important to understand what you're trying to change. "A foodprint measures the environmental impacts associated with the growing, producing, transporting and sorting of our food – from the natural resources consumed to the pollution produced and the greenhouse gases emitted," explains the official Earth Day website.
There are many different ways you can seek to reduce food waste but calculating your foodprint is a vital starting point for understanding your impact, and what tweaks you might be able to make.
Use Foodprint calculators like the BBC Climate Change Food Calculator, which compares your food intake to emissions of driving, heating a home and consuming water.
Also check out the Eat Lower Carbon, which compares the carbon foodprint of different meals and tests your knowledge, or the Food Carbon Emissions Calculator, which accounts for transport, waste and quantity purchased.
Read more: Resourceful woman who spends just £4 a week on food shares her tips
2. Reduce meat and dairy
Cutting out meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact and can lower your individual carbon footprint by up to 73%, according to researchers at University of Oxford.
"Feeding animals to meet the insatiable appetite for meat is also hugely inefficient," says Rohini Bajekal, nutritionist at Plant-Based Health Professionals UK.
"Animal agriculture, which is thought to cause 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, is responsible for the most losses of all harvested crops. The EAT-Lancet Commission reports that whole grains, fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts not only are fantastic for our health but also have the lowest environmental impact.
"Swap meat for climate-friendly proteins such as beans and lentils or vegan alternatives if you prefer, swap cow’s milk for fortified soya or oat milk and try a tofu scramble rather than eggs for breakfast," Bajekal suggests.
And what effect does a plant-based diet have on us? "It can meet nutritional requirements at all stages of life – from birth to old age," she explains.
"It is one of the healthiest choices you can make, especially as unhealthy diets are now the leading cause of chronic illness around the world. A healthy plant-based diet reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 25%, certain cancers by around 15% and type 2 diabetes by at least 50%, as well as improving our energy levels.
"These foods also honour compassion for animals and the future of our planet. It's a win-win situation on all accounts."
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But, will it cost us more? "Absolutely not," Bajekal affirms. "Research suggests that UK vegans spend on average 40% less on food than omnivores.
"While some meat and dairy alternatives can be more expensive (due to government subsidies of meat and dairy which keeps the price artificially lower), whole plant foods are kinder to the planet, your health and your wallet. For example, some of the most affordable foods in the supermarket are plant-based including oats, beans and potatoes.
"There are so many ways to eat a plant-based diet without breaking the bank, whether it is shopping at world food stores where you can bulk buy dried beans, grains etc or buying more seasonal and local vegetables. The charity madeinhackney.org has lots of wonderful tips on their website."
Just make sure you check any health requirements with a doctor before changing your diet.
3. Upcycle food
Upcycling isn't just a trend for show, it really is a great way to reduce food long-term by reusing produce that might have otherwise gone to waste. Bajekal recommends some of the best ways you can make the most out of your own food...
Use the whole vegetable where you can. Hold onto broccoli stalks – they’re the most fibre-packed part of the vegetable. Chop them up and use in curries, pasta sauce or stews – they have a delicious and mild flavour and aren't as easy to overcook as florets. You can also use them in a vegetable soup or stock if you prefer.
Don’t throw away the tough stems of dark leafy greens either – they’re great in a stir-fry. My go-to combination is any leafy green stems plus sautéed garlic, soya sauce (or tamari if gluten-free) and a squeeze of lime.
Get into fermentation. Pickling and fermenting vegetables and other ingredients is an age-old food preservation technique that's affordable and requires no fancy equipment.
Fermentation can actually improve the nutritional value of food, increasing their vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content, while also providing probiotic bacteria that are beneficial for our gut microbiome. Many everyday foods are fermented such as vinegar, chocolate and sourdough bread. Try making homemade pickles, sauerkraut or kimchi for an umami-rich, gut-friendly addition to meals.
Compost your food. Almost half of the food waste in the average rubbish bin could have been composted rather than breaking down in landfills and producing methane gas, which contributes to the climate crisis.
Composting is the breaking down of organic material to create compost, which supports plant growth and brings nutrients back to the soil. Your local authority might provide free food waste caddies and collections for households, but it’s also easy to learn to compost at home. This has the added benefit of not requiring transport in the process and is beneficial for the soil in your garden."
Donate your food. Apps such as Olio have made it easier than ever to donate unused food items for free. There are often opportunities to donate food via mutual aid groups and local food banks. If you are connected to your neighbours and other members of the community, this is another great way to share food that would have otherwise gone to waste. Just always make sure the food you donate is safe to eat and has been stored correctly.
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4. Eat 'ugly' food
You can also be the one to make the most of food waste from other places, like showing the love to so-called 'ugly' fruit and veg.
Kelly Conway, nutritional therapist and health coach says, "We are recommended to eat 30-40 different plant foods a week, so variety is key. Different plant foods will feed different species of microbes in our gut, and we know that having a healthy gut has so many far-reaching physical but also mental health benefits, aside from the fact that around 70% of our immune system resides in our gut.
"So get eating the rainbow! Finding odd shaped (or 'ugly') fruits and vegetables that don’t meet the aesthetic standard to reach our supermarket shelves is just one way to do this. They’re packed full of nutrients and probably cheaper too as they would otherwise not be sellable.
"It’s also a plus for the sustainability minded since this also means less food wasted. Oddbox is one of the many companies that you can subscribe to, delivering to you direct from the farms, and it encourages you to cook with foods you wouldn’t normally use, increasing your plant diversity, and means we are more likely to be eating foods that are in season, so again, less waste."
Read more: Gut health: Foods to eat and avoid to improve your wellbeing
5. Plan your meals
You can avoid having surplus food in the first place, which will also help you save money. "Often we do a general shop of the foods we think we might fancy and hope that we’ll end up using them, but they can sit in the back of the fridge, go past their use by date and get binned," says Conway.
"So planning ahead, making a weekly menu of what meals you want to cook, and shopping for those ingredients specifically is very helpful in terms of food waste.
"Other ideas include using leftovers for breakfast the next day (a savoury breakfast is a great way to start the day as it helps balance our blood sugar). Also, keep peelings and scraps and use them in soups, freeze any fruit and vegetables that are past their best and cut them into chunks ready to grab and use in smoothies."
6. Batch cook and freeze
"Instead of just cooking enough for one meal, double or triple up instead, and freeze the extra portions for when you are time-poor but still want a home-cooked meal," Conway suggests.
"Label the portions with the contents and date, so you have an organised freezer and don’t end up throwing away meals because you can't remember what they are. Reusable silicone freezer pouches are a great idea for this, and better for the environment than plastic freezer bags."
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7. Grow your own
If you're able to, growing your own food has multiple benefits. "It means you’re not exposing yourself to the toxins from the pesticides that are used in commercially grown food," Conway explains.
"We end up consuming so many chemicals in our food and water and this creates an additional burden on the liver, which is already the hardest working organ in the body (carries out over 500 functions a day).
"And just being part of the planting and growing process of food also benefits our gut health since the soil is full of microbes that we absorb when handling the soil. Plus, the sense of achievement when growing your own food means you’re less likely to throw it away and more likely to share the yield with others, so reducing your carbon footprint and the need for plastic packaging."
As well as being harmful to us, pesticides pose a huge threat to animals and insects, and are causing a dramatic decline in pollinators, with species like bees and the Monarch butterfly facing extinction across the globe. We rely on pollinators for the persistence of crop yields and healthy sustainable ecosystems. You can take the pledge to go pesticide-free here.
So, what are you waiting for – why not get inspired and cook with a wonky carrot or an ugly cauli tonight? Small steps all help...
Watch: How to grow your own fruit and veg from scratch