Eating to save the planet
Remember Brown Rice Week, those seven days of ritual deprivation at university to clear Third World debt? Well, good news – it’s back. Once again we are being invited to change the
world through our plates, only this time it lasts 52 weeks a year and it’s not just Africa that we’re going to save, it’s the entire planet.
Ecotarianism is the new buzzword, a kind of greatest hits of all our favourite food movements from the past decade. It’s about sourcing locally, organically, sustainably, in season and
leaving the Earth’s resources untouched. It’s goodbye to £3 chickens imported from Thailand and hello to bean casseroles; no to winter asparagus and a resounding yes to celeriac
Of course, there’s nothing new in any of these ideas. We know that battery chickens lead a miserable existence, that airfreighting out-of-season vegetables wastes non-renewable fossil
fuels and adds to global warming, but this is the first time the elements have been brought together and defined under one collective banner. Or sort of defined, as I discover when my
editor sets me the challenge of living the ecotarian life for a week.
The word was apparently coined two years ago by a small group of Oxford undergraduates with an interest in food politics, but they failed to outline exactly what they meant, preferring
the rather slippery goal of “minimising our ecological footprint”. I’ll need more than that before I draw up my first shopping list.
The movement, though, is not without its heavyweight supporters. Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, thinks that ecotarianism is a power for good. “I’m all in favour
of their approach, but I hope we don’t turn it into a small sect. We don’t want just a few green and woolly, slightly fungal, usual suspects doing these things. We want everyone doing
them. It’s an international issue – about the security of our food supplies. Our food systems are as precarious as the financial markets have proved to be, but we just don’t realise it
You need the wisdom of Solomon and a degree in global economics to navigate your way along the food chain these days. Never has such a simple principle – of ferrying food from the
ground to your mouth – been more convoluted. Local, organic, Fairtrade – they all fight for supremacy in the ecologically aware consumer’s mind. Better a tomato grown in a heated
greenhouse here or one grown in the open air but imported from Spain? Do you buy a non-organic rib of beef from a local farmer, or an organic one from farther afield? Or, as I fear will
be the answer among my new ecotarian friends, do you buy none of the above and settle for a nice mung bean and nettle salad? Just what am I trying to achieve here?
The answer comes in part from Cristy and Paul, two vegan bloggers from Australia who I found on one of the few websites on ecotarianism (nopod.blogspot.com) and who go under the handle
of Two Peas, No Pod. “For us, being ecotarians means that whenever we make a decision about our consumption (be that of food or any other product) we try to consider a whole
myriad of ethical issues that relate to the impact of our choice on the Earth,” Cristy writes. She goes on to list some of them: whether a product has been produced locally or
transported halfway across the world; whether it was created using slave labour; how much packaging is used and whether that packaging is recycled and recyclable; is it organic and, if
not, what kind of chemicals have been used; is it cruelty free; how much energy and water was required to create the product; and was the product brought to us by a corporation that is
unethical in its business practices?
Right, that all seems quite straightforward. With the list of do’s and don’ts fresh in my mind, I head off to the supermarket, but after 20 minutes of dithering, I’ve got only two
things in my basket – an apple and an organic cabbage. It’s not looking a very promising lunch. The trouble is, once you start scrutinising everything you realise just how little
information you have to go on. The sandwiches give no clue as to their provenance, everything at the salad bar has that gloopy sheen that comes only from dressings rich with artificial
preservatives, and I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be touching the sushi. I even have to reject my banker dish, the Innocent Veg Pot: nothing wrong with the contents – that all looks
healthily ecotarian – but the pot itself turns out not to be recyclable.
I admit defeat and take my basket to the checkout. “Excuse me, do you know if this Worcester Pearmain is really from Worcester?” I ask. You can never be too careful. I went
to Jerusalem once and never saw a single artichoke.
“I’m not sure, dear, but it’s from England somewhere,” the checkout assistant says, pointing to the Union Jack sticker. I hadn’t spotted that unnecessary packaging, but I
decide to take my chances. I shouldn’t have bothered, though – looking at my receipt afterwards, I see that she put it through as a French Gala.
The following week I was due to be taking part in a food writers’ recipe challenge at FishWorks, the seafood restaurant chain, with the winning recipe making its way on to its menu. I
was hoping to get in some practice and, since FishWorks was paying for all the ingredients, I had been planning to do something such as lobster with a caviar crust, or at least a whole
wild salmon. But clearly fish is a tricky area. Trawling nets as wide as a football pitch are ravaging the seabeds, escapees from fish farms are neutering our wild fish stocks, even the
humble anchovy has joined cod and halibut on the Marine Conservation Society’s list of species to avoid because of overfishing. Poached gurnard here we come, I fear.
“Mussels,” says Mitch Tonks, the founder of FishWorks, without hesitation when I phone for advice. “The most sustainable seafood on the planet. They have millions of
spats a year, attach themselves to everything from ropes to piers and feed on the natural plankton in the water. We could dine on them every day of the year and it wouldn’t make any
So that evening it’s moules marinières, only without the parsley, because the only stuff I can find comes in small plastic packets from Israel – a double no-no. The wine has also
caused a lot of indecision. Again it’s that moral debate – better a Fairtrade wine from South Africa (profits ploughed back into education and accommodation for the workers’ families)
or a bottle of Chapel Down Flint Dry from Kent (minimal food miles)? The English wins but, at nearly double the price of the South African, I’m beginning to feel the cost of my newfound
The next day, fearing a rerun of the lunchtime fiasco, I go back to Two Peas for more advice. “This isn’t about being perfect, it is just about trying to make the best choices
that we can,” Cristy writes. “At the supermarket we start off in the organic/health food aisle. There we buy cans of organic beans and tomatoes (and prioritise the ones that
were grown locally). We also pick up some Green & Black’s Maya gold chocolate when we are feeling a little naughty. It is vegan, organic and Fairtrade. However, it is also
transported quite a long way to get to us and we don’t really need it.”
Closer to home, Andy Hamilton is a Bristol-based forager and environmentalist and author of The Selfsufficient-ish Bible, an urban guide to “almost self-sufficiency”. Far
from being a politically motivated firebrand, he is charmingly affable and at ease with this concept of compromise. “You have to question everything and look down the
chain,” he says, “but it’s about being realistic.” He grows his own vegetables and will cycle half an hour to buy a “decent” pint of milk. “But
equally I will buy Fairtrade orange juice now and again and I’m not just thinking ‘Right, I’ve done my bit for Africa there’, but I do actively choose not always to buy local for that
reason alone. I like to buy local honey, but occasionally will buy Fairtrade because it is helping the rainforest, in that if they are making money from it perhaps they’ll stop chopping
This is more like it – nothing like a bit of moral relativism to ease the burden. What’s more, I had assumed that meat would be strictly off limits, not because of any concerns about
animal welfare – that’s an area where organics has had a hugely beneficial impact – but because it’s not the most efficient use of land. It takes 5kg of grain to produce 1kg of meat
and, according to the British group Vegfam, a ten-acre farm can support 60 people growing soya beans, 24 people growing wheat, ten people growing corn and only two producing cattle. And
then there’s all that belching and farting – livestock are responsible for 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, with each cow producing 220lb of methane a year, the equivalent
of driving 7,800 miles. But then I read a report from Cornell University, New York, which found that the most efficient eco-diet still includes a much-reduced amount of meat as
livestock can graze on areas unsuited to growing crops – the Welsh hillsides, for example. Suddenly I can look forward to some lamb chops to go with the organic veg box I hurriedly
ordered from Abel & Cole.
In the new spirit of compromise, I hit the shops once more, and the weight is lifted. Once you get the measure of how strictly you want to set your own moral compass, it all becomes so
much easier, so much less earnest. Food shopping isn’t worth starving over, after all, and soon I start to develop a distinctly ecotarian swagger. I am a righter of wrongs, settling
scores in the supermarket aisles, rewarding the good, punishing the bad. The Veg Pots are in, on the understanding that I’ll use the empties for some as yet undecided purpose; any fruit
in unnecessary packaging is rejected. Organic chicken is in, but bought only as a whole bird; coffee is out unless there’s a picture of a smiling farmer on the back.
Let me tell you, it feels good. Until, that is, I return to my desk to find an e-mail from Tony Bourdain, New York’s visceral commentator on all matters food related. He once described
vegetarians to me as “frightened, angry, bitter people who dropped too much acid”.
What would he make of ecotarianism, I wondered. “A fad for the wealthy and delusional,” came the unequivocal reply.
Do’s and don’ts: Where to draw the ecotarian line
On the whole, eating meat is forbidden: the rearing of livestock is an inefficient use of land, and cows produce high levels of greenhouse gases. Meat is allowed only if the livestock
have grazed on an area not suited to growing crops.
Out-of-season vegetables have either been flown around the world, or are produced in heated greenhouses. Neither is doing much for the environment. If in doubt, stick to turnips. No one
would be fool enough to transport them far. A true ecotarian knows not to be sniffy about frozen veg, however. It’s the most natural preservative known to man and means you can make the
most of nature’s bounty throughout the year.
Same rules as for veg, but without the turnips. Pineapples and mangoes, bad; English apples good (although only at this time of year).
Eat as much mackerel, herring, mussel and crab as you like, otherwise exercise extreme caution. The Marine Conservation Society publishes a book on what is OK to eat (www.mcsuk.org).
You’ll find it in one in ten supermarket products, from soap and lipstick to bread and peanut butter, and it is the biggest cause of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, destroying
the habitats of tigers, orang-utans and indigenous populations. This all makes it very bad.
Not as straightforward as you’d think. Generally buy loose where possible, but peaches, for example, can be transported more efficiently and with less spoilage in those little punnets.
But then, why are you buying peaches anyway?
The very definition of unnecessary packaging and transport. We ecotarians would rather eat foie gras than touch bottled water.
The ecotarian’s Get Out Of Jail Free Card. Chocolate? Coffee? Bananas? If there’s anything you don’t fancy doing without, make sure it comes fair trade. Socio-economic aid outweighs all
other considerations in the ecotarian’s mind.
Food for thought: From idealism to realism
Day 1: The strict ecotarian
I didn’t trust the Rice Krispies – nothing against Kellogg’s, but it just sounds too corporate and multinational – and processed bread is full of fungicides and chemical improvers.
Luckily, I had a Poilâne loaf in the freezer. It’s got spelt in it – and that had to be a good thing. And Rachel’s Organic butter. To drink, mint tea; the leaves picked from the
garden. Oh yes!
One Worcester Pearmain apple (from Kent, Waitrose customer services later told me). One packet of Burts crisps (a small producer who has taken on the might of Walkers). Such bravery
appeals to the anti-capitalist instincts I suspect I should now be harbouring.
Am I allowed to eat meat? Best not to risk it. Chickpeas with red onions, a feta substitute (from Denmark, which I calculate is a bit nearer than Greece) and chilli. It desperately
needs a squeeze of lemon juice, but I’m not sure where they grow. Go to bed very hungry.
Day 2: the pragmatic ecotarian
Rude Health porridge, made from home-grown organic oats. Served with organic milk and a sliced Fairtrade banana. Union Hand-Roasted Organic Natural Spirit coffee, fairly traded from
Central and South America. Mmmm, caffeine.
Innocent Veg Pot. The contents are all spot-on – pulses, home-grown vegetables, etc. Shame the container isn’t recyclable. But if I use it to keep my pencils in…
An organic chicken, bought whole to minimise packaging and ensure that every part is used. I poached a couple of legs with an organic cabbage from Herefordshire and some butter beans
from a tin. Tomorrow, the children can have the breasts grilled and I’ll make stock from the bones. All washed down with a Fairtrade Pinotage from South Africa.