The way we farm and shop is unsustainable. The intensive systems that grow, process and deliver our food are destroying the planet – clearing our forests, exhausting our soils, spilling chemicals into our waterbodies and driving species to the brink of extinction. What if there was another way…?
Food production and food inequality are pressing concerns for the environment and for public health that the pandemic has made even more pressing. If some people used furlough time to learn patisserie skills, the Trussell Trust saw a 61 per cent hike in UK demand for food parcels this winter – distributing six every minute to families in need.
Those inequalities are magnified globally. Of our planet’s eight billion people, three billion are malnourished and 800 million go hungry, yet 11 million die early from diseases and medical conditions that relate to unhealthy eating.
Three years ago, the landmark EAT-Lancet report Food in the Anthropocene asked whether we can feed everyone on Earth sustainably, with the population set to grow to ten billion by 2050.
It concluded that we could feed everyone now – and the 10 billion people of the future – if we rethink our eating habits. That means most of us in affluent countries halving our consumption of red meat and sugar and more than doubling our consumption of nuts, legumes, fruit and vegetables.
“A shift towards the planetary health diet would ensure the global food system,” the EAT-Lancet report found. “The diet can exist within planetary boundaries for food production, such as for climate change, biodiversity loss, land and freshwater use, and nutrient cycles.”
A planetary health diet sounds like something to aspire to – but how easy is it to follow in practice? The Environment rounded up five intrepid volunteers, and asked them to follow a healthy, sustainable eating plan for a week. Here’s how they got on…
Jack: I’m 27, cis-male, vegetarian and ginger. I live south of the river Thames with my flatmate, also ginger, who stinks the flat out with his bloody fish. I love cats, videogames and baking.
Lujane: I am a 28-year-old teacher and I live with my family in London. I’m not a very good cook, but I’ve always wanted to improve my cooking.
Barbara: I’m 30 and live with my partner in London. We are meat eaters, but try to limit the amount of meat we eat, rarely eat processed food and enjoy fresh produce. Vegetables are a must. My partner does most of the cooking.
Rachael: I’m a single professional, 33, living in Lichfield. I’m a foodie so during lockdown I’ve missed trying new restaurants and foods I wouldn’t cook for myself. Living on my own often means eating the same meal two nights on the trot.
Terence: I’m 77 and live with my wife Bernadette near Sutton Coldfield. My wife cooks everything from scratch and we avoid processed food.
Eat to Save the Planet by food writer Annie Bell takes Food in the Anthropocene as its starting point. The book’s 100+ recipes were created to be healthy and sustainable. That means lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins and unsaturated plant oils and modest amounts of meat and dairy.
It includes a 28-day planetary health diet challenge, for those willing to commit to the letter of Food in the Anthropocene’s sustainability guidelines. The book also offers tips on food shopping, storage and ways to avoid waste and how to balance different food groups for optimum health.
Bell’s mission goes beyond nutrition, she says; “treating our health and the environment as a common agenda.”
How easy or difficult has it been to eat sustainably for a week?
Jack: Because I like quick food during weekdays as I work, not really easy, I also found the lack of plant-based options for some dishes disheartening. There are so many alternatives that just taking out the meat or animal product out is a limp way to attract a different audience. I felt the plan left non-meat eaters as an afterthought.
Lujane: My usual diet is salads plus a protein source; mussels, lentils or other legumes. My dietary constraints are red meat and alcohol and the vegan swap section at the end of some recipes made it easier to stick to that. I swapped the wine for white vinegar. The book had a nice layout and was simple to understand. The introduction was informative and gave helpful tips for maintaining a sustainable kitchen.
Barbara: I love a challenge so jumped on this opportunity to learn new ways of eating sustainably while adding creativity to my lazy cooking with some delicious new recipes. I hope to establish more sustainable eating habits long-term, but having read the book cover to cover I was disappointed. Having tried a few recipes, I decided not to follow the plan.
Rachael: I found it really challenging. I didn’t follow the plan, either. It was too much of a lifestyle change and I wasn’t expecting that. But I did try out some recipes.
Terence: I don't cook therefore this has been a challenge (my wife tells me I have done well).
What were the highs and lows?
Jack: Many vegetarians occasionally eat bacon or parmesan. Many vegans don’t really check their wine. My vice is eggs within a plant-based diet. One egg a week is not viable, although there were lots of exciting one-egg recipes.
And it’s not a cheap diet; many ingredients are niche and hard to find, never mind the air miles from importing them. To me it is designed for the bourgeois who lack willpower to eat less meat and animal products, because they can’t give up their caviar and smoked salmon champagne brunches.
However, some recipes were utterly delicious. My mouth waters thinking about the slow-roasted tomato sauce and roast tomatoes, which I will cook again and again. And I now have a plethora of different but gorgeous egg-related recipes to use.
Lujane: The introduction was informative and gave helpful tips for maintaining a sustainable kitchen. Time constraints relating to work meant I couldn’t follow the book for seven consecutive days, so I opted for weekends instead.
However, when I took the time to cook something new, it was very enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the vegan chilli – my family liked it too. Some of the other recipes I tried tasted good, but my presentation needed work.
Barbara: So many recipes included fruit and vegetables that the UK imports. Studies show that for water use, international food trade has mainly beneficial impacts. But that conclusion is less clear for pollution, greenhouse-gas emissions and packaging.
A truly sustainable eating plan might better focus on seasonal foods grown locally. The book also promotes a flexitarian diet, which surely defeats the point.
Shopping for the listed ingredients is time-consuming and expensive. That put me off almost straight away. And the tips on sustainable habits are mostly common sense. No one needs to be told that freezing food lasts longer, or not to throw away the pack if one grape is slightly yucky...
Rachael: It’s a great concept but time consuming. Although there has been little else to do other than eat, sleep, work, walk and Zoom, spending a couple of hours in the kitchen every night felt like a chore. More so, because there was nobody to impress with my new culinary skills.
Some ingredients were hard to source and I wasn’t prepared to traipse around several supermarkets and farm shops for my weekly shop – that seemed contrary to what we were trying to achieve. I was shocked at the number of ingredients in some recipes – that seemed excessive and unnecessary.
The calorie allowance was about 1,000 more than I would typically eat so the quantities were also excessive. I found myself a bit of a slave to the book so gave in quite quickly – trying to figure out how to convert the ingredients into a portion for one from a recipe for six was a challenge, so I gave up, made six and froze five. But my chili was a big success; it was delicious even if it did take hours to cook.
Terence: It has been easy to follow the recipes, however I thought there were too many ingredients and a lot needed cooking separately when they could easily have been cooked together. So it was time consuming, which is OK for us as we're retired and have the time, but how would a young family get on? Young people seem to prefer to cook and go, and don’t spend hours preparing evening meals.
What have you learned from the experience?
Jack: The text is full of tips to help you to utilise the full food item such as pureeing coriander stems – I hate food waste, so that was excellent. Having food-use tips like this is so beneficial.
Lujane: In future, I will challenge myself to work up to the more difficult recipes in the book!
Barbara: It’s something I knew, but the book drove the idea home – sustainable eating is incredibly hard to do properly. Your choices are radically narrowed down, procuring ingredients and preparing foods is time-consuming. It requires planning and research.
Rachael: I need to be more organised with my eating and to prep meals at the weekend for the week ahead. My diet is pretty good but I can introduce alternatives into my diet to rely less on animal fats and protein.
Terence: That we don't give enough thought to environmental issues in terms of food choices.
And what do you conclude?
Jack: I strongly believe eating meat is unnecessary; modern technology and the diversifying market for plant-based foods is the way forward. I admire the author’s message and efforts, but I think flexitarian is a synonym for lacking willpower to cut out your environmentally unfriendly options. I do not believe cutting down is enough; cutting out is certainly better.
Lujane: If you want to eat a sustainable diet but you're a novice cook, this is the cookbook for you. I found the book a good place to start. It had a diverse range of recipes and I would recommend it to a friend. Eat to Save the Planet is now a staple cookbook in my kitchen.
Barbara: I will consult the book to add a fancy twist to my everyday eating habits; the recipes I tried were delicious.
Rachael: The pandemic has shone a light on the need to be healthy from the inside out and if these recipes benefit me and my wellbeing and the planet, it’s a double win.
Terence: And we don't need to eat so much meat, chicken and fish!
Eat to Save the Planet by Annie Bell is published by One Boat, £16.99. ISBN
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