In a recent twitter conversation, I was discussing with some vegetarian friends about their thoughts on eating insects, when tweets turned to the inevitable conversation about why we make the choices that we do regarding food consumption. This then lead to the rather fabulous phrase ‘energytarian’ (@RosalieTostevin take a bow) being coined to define somebody that eats meat but tries to do so in a sustainable manner, which got me thinking about what it really means to eat sustainably.
I like to consider myself as being a reasonably eco-conscious eater; I don’t buy eggs from caged hens, I buy fruit in season, I don’t eat whale (well, apart from that one time in Japan, but in my defence I thought I was eating duck). But I could probably be doing a lot better. To see how much better I could be doing let’s have a look at my food diary from last Monday (I feel as though I am preparing for an episode of Secret Eaters):
Breakfast: Protein shake with milk
Lunchtime: Carrot and coriander soup
Dinner: Chicken curry followed by yoghurt for desert
According to this food emissions calculator, the carbon footprint of my food consumption was approximately 2.3 Kg carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e; the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide in terms of global warming potential). I should point out that I have taken into account the fact that lunch and dinner were both shared with my girlfriend, and also that I have not included the carbon footprint of the spices and protein supplement that I used in these meals. It is also worth noting that these calculations do not include packaging and cooking, and were done assuming that I am based in North America (I am not), but as a basic indicator of my carbon footprint it will suffice.
My eating habits seem to sit quite nicely between the ‘Average’ and ‘No Beef’ according to the detailed analysis of carbon foodprints that was carried out by ‘Shrink That Footprint’ (read more about it on this excellent blog post), which seems like a fair assessment. I try to avoid eating red meats more than three times a week if I can help it, but this is not a hard and fast rule.
There is at least one other major factor that we need to consider regarding eating sustainably, and that is the consumption of water. According to a recent report, it is estimated that it takes over 15 thousand litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef; to put that into perspective many Africans have to survive on 20 litres of water per day.
Using tabulated values from a 2013 report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the chicken curry that I made used up almost 2,500 litres of water in ingredients alone, i.e. before taking into account the water that was used in the preparation and washing up. From this report, red meats would again appear to be a big no-no for any self-respecting energytarian; although chocolate lovers beware, 1 kg of the good stuff uses up over 17 thousand litres of water!
It would be tempting to say that all would-be energytarians should stick to a strictly vegan diet, although by ‘simply’ giving up beef you can reduce your carbon foodprint and food-based water consumption by over a third. Food for thought this summer as you boot up the BBQ.
By Sam Illingworth @samillingworth