Updated: Jul 20, 2022
The aim of this piece is to shed light on some systemic failures of our food systems and outline a model know as the Planetary Diet in a simple manner, empowering readers to make personal changes by better understanding the issues and possible solutions without getting duped by green washing.
Feel free to comment below. This is a rich, nuanced and polarising subject that needs open conversation in order to progress in a healthy way.
Our food systems are in a state of crises, which is having devastating impacts on the natural environment, from rainforest destruction, soil loss and mass species extinction to climate change driven by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, many of which are produced during the growing, transporting and storing of foods.
This crisis also impacts our own health, with 63% of the English population now overweight or obese, whilst many people lack vital nutrition and live in food poverty. Food security threatens us too. Surprising? It feels so, given the mass of food on supermarket shelves. Yet our nation’s decision to export food problems to other places (ie where labour is cheap) is an arrogant stance that assumes that these places will forever guarantee us access to these products. This issue, known as food justice, is an imperialist hangover we would do well to move beyond. Not least because when oil supply issues occur or food cannot be moved, our food insecurities will become evident very quickly.
One of the greatest travesties we see in our food systems is the institutionalised waste. If we diminished global food waste to the minimum possible (through movements such as consumer behaviour change, shorter supply chains and not wasting still edible goods), we would not only be well on the way to some international GHG targets but would also be using less land, releasing vast expanses of presently wasted agricultural land for….well, take your pick. Reforestation? Rewilding? Food Forests? Nature Reserves?
All these issues can be overwhelming and the so-called wisdom often touted unfortunately contains many lies and misdirections. The Planetary Diet, outlined by the incredible EAT Lancet report (2019) can act as a guide for our pantries, plates and shopping trollies, but it too requires a little unpacking. I aim here to give a simple set of guidelines for transformation of our food systems, which in turn means the health of our lands, bodies and communities.
The products I recommend are (often) more expensive for us as individuals, but massively cheaper when we consider what are known (somewhat terribly) as ‘externalised costs’. These are the real financial costs incurred by taxpayers (or by other countries) that exist behind unhealthy food systems. Examples are:
the NHS; poor nutrition costs the NHS billions every year (obesity alone cost the NHS £27bn in 2017!) and is avoidable. Many cancers, heart disease, obesity are all prevalent in modern western society and are overwhelming healthcare systems. Quality animal products, and less of them could totally transform this issue.
Climate Change; set to be one of the greatest financial costs we will globally face, yet largely ignored as a true cost of capitalist society, including its food systems.
‘Ecosystem Services’ (another term I hate!); a massive array of benefits gifted to us by a healthy ecosystem (such as flood mitigation, oxygen, carbon sequestration, clean water and pollination) that degrade as we destroy ecosystem health.
I will be writing in the coming weeks on how to source and buy high-quality organic produce at more affordable prices, but as a general rule, I advise you pay for the best quality food you possibly can and save money on unnecessary foods that degrade planetary health.
Now, lets unpack the plate.
Move your meat:
You can see from the Planetary Plate that meat and dairy play a relatively small role in a sustainable diet. Eating any is of course a choice, but if you do chose to continue consuming animal products, then considering their source is priority number 1.
Perhaps the most simple way forward is to stop buying animal products from supermarkets and source them from regenerative farms, close to home if this is possible. Regenerative farming considers animal welfare and care of the land. It produces high-quality food that is proven to be way better for our health than the animal products we are used to.
Eating nose-to-tail is another necessary element of sustainable diets. Organ meats have been largely forgotten in the past few decades, but contain the most nutrient dense cuts that can contribute to full human health. Plus, they are often cheaper. Just make sure the animal products you buy are from organic, grass-fed animals. At the end of this article I will provide some links of regenerative farms that offer delivery.
Eat your greens:
Vegetables take up 50% of the plate in the planetary diet. Forget 5-a-day, this is plant abundance! Basing the bulk of our diets on vegetables is the key to human health and land regeneration.
Where we source vegetables matters. Let these simple pointers guide you.
Buy organic. Herbicides, pesticides and fungicides play a huge role in the destruction of ecosystem health and I personally feel it makes no sense to consume products that have been in contact with chemicals designed to kill organic life.
Eat seasonally. This helps support local agriculture and in turn connects the consumer with the land in which they live. I also intuit that the right foods grow for our bodies at the right time of year. Eating out of season can also massively increase GHG emissions. For example, British strawberries may feel local but if they are grown in heated greenhouses, their ecological footprint is not worth the cost! Enjoy them at their best, when they want to grow naturally.
Buy a veg box. This is perhaps the best single move in the ‘greens’ category. Find a local grower doing things right. This can contribute to the regeneration of your health, local land and your community. Plus, knowing the person who grows your food builds reciprocity and mutual accountability, aka healthy relationships.
Grow something. Anything. If you have a garden, you can design it for food abundance, however big or small your space. There is no better way to connect to what you eat, to get outdoors and have the most fresh produce. Nothing tastes better! Here is my 2.5m2 lot, which provides delicious, diverse produce throughout the year, in North Wales:
Whole grains are a far-cry from the breads we find in supermarkets. Here are some tips for world saving grains:
Make sure they are whole grain. The process of grain division removes so much of the quality nutrient that we end up with empty calories, as-well as adding an unnecessary process (and therefore energy, meaning GHG emissions).
Source a local baker.
Eat sough-dough. This is way better for our health. Many people who believe they are gluten intolerant find that soughdough does not negatively impact them! But beware. Supermarkets can claim ‘soughdough’ without it being real. So chat to your baker, or…
Learn to bake! But amazing British flour and start your own soughdough.
Buy a diversity of grains. There are so many more than we tend to hear of. Heritage grains taste great and add nutrient diversity to our bodies, and biodiversity to the land.
A word on oils:
Conventional wisdom tells us that saturated fats are bad for us. We reacted with products such as margarine and low-fat yoghurt. My (and Michael Pollens) advice is to ignore any product that makes healthy claims. It’s probably not true. I personally follow the advice of many books on nutrition that ask that we:
Avoid processed vegetable oils
Buy high quality organic olive oil
Eat quality dairy butter from organic, grass-fed cows
There is a small section on the plate for added sugars. this is not a necessary part of a healthy diet- not for you or the planet. However, sweet stuff can be delicious….
By dismissing the sweets we eat (honestly, just stop drinking soda drinks and eating doughnuts etc as much as possible) we develop a more nuanced pallet and begin to taste the natural sweetness of many delicious foods. If you want to make a dessert or sweeten a tea, stick to these three products;
Dark brown, organic sugars
In a move away from animal products, we can source protein from more environmentally benign places, such as nuts, oats, pea and soy. General avoidance of ultra-processed foods (those with massive ingredient list containing words you have never seen and cannot pronounce) is a great idea. This goes for ultra-processed burgers, sausages etc also.
Nuts can be grown all over the world and will provide a real staple in sustainable healthy diets of the future. As a tree crop, they avoid many of the pitfalls of annual agriculture. They also store well, so can be purchased in bulk (saving money, transportation and packaging). Again, but organic where possible. Try making a nut roast next Sunday, or source a chicken/turkey from your nearest regenerative farm.
I hope this has been helpful. As always, thoughts, ideas, questions and feedback are very welcome.
If you want help transforming your space into an edible landscape, want to start a community garden or want some guidance on the creation of a regenerative life/business, please find my services here. I would love to help.
Where to source quality produce
Vegetables and Fruit:
Local veg box schemes are a great way to go. Do a search in your area. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a brilliant thing to get involved with. Here are some UK examples I know of and vouch for!
Tyddn Teg (North Wales) https://tyddynteg.com/
Henbant (North Wales) https://www.henbant.org/
Soul Farm (Cornwall) https://www.soulfarm.co.uk/
Bigger organisations also exist, but are somewhat market dominant so support a local farm if you can. However, these places do offer reliable and accessible shopping closer to what we might be comfortable with:
Riverford (Devon but deliver all over. Offer loads of products) https://www.riverford.co.uk/
Abel and Cole https://www.abelandcole.co.uk/?altmenu=cucumber
Hill Farm Real Foods (Near Crewe, but also deliver nationally. Awesome diary products too) https://hillfarmrealfood.co.uk/
Henbant (North Wales) https://www.henbant.org/
Primal Meats (National delivery, sourced from a few farms practicing regenerative grazing) https://www.primalmeats.co.uk/
The Ethical Butcher (similar to above, but also offer other products) https://ethicalbutcher.co.uk/
Shipton Mill (for home baking supplies, including bulk flour) https://www.shipton-mill.com/
Hodmedods (Selection of pulses, grains and seeds grown in the UK) https://hodmedods.co.uk/