Michelle Darmody set herself a challenge to eat sustainably for a week. She shares her food diary, and the lessons she learned from the experiment
Trying to follow a sustainable diet can be difficult. Our food system has become so complicated that is it hard to know exactly where our food is coming from, or how it is grown or produced. The advent of cargo shipping allowed for huge movement of goods across the globe. Quite quickly fruit from New Zealand was on sale in American supermarkets or beans from Kenya were on Irish dinner plates.
During the Second World War research was carried out to solve the dilemma of how to feed troops scattered across the globe. The findings still have consequences today as researchers shared their discoveries with large food corporations and the lucrative lessons learned, about ‘fabricated modules of meat’ or ‘freeze drying’ were applied to civilian food. After the war ammunitions’ factories were repurposed to make nitrogen fertiliser which allowed huge changes in farming.
If we sit back and look at some of the developments we have made in past generations they can seem dystopian. Progress can be great, it staved off disease and hunger for many, but the grip that large processors have on food means many people are very detached from how their food is produced. In a perfect world, food would not be a commodity traded on the stock exchange and produced on a large industrial scale, it would be valued as an essential human necessity, grown for nutrition and enjoyment rather than monetary value. However, that perfect world is not going to materialise.
Dietary advice changes so often it is very difficult to know what food choices are the best ones to make — avocados are great for our health but now the demand for them has led to unrest in Mexico. Quinoa, once a staple diet of rural Peru, has become so desirable that prices have risen and people who rely on it can no longer afford it. Also, these ingredients are eaten for our own personal health and enjoyment rather than with consideration for the environment, they are shipped many kilometres before they reach Irish shops.
Can a sustainable diet align with a healthy one? Is eating local an answer?
In the US the Department of Agriculture defines local as the “distance between food production and consumption that is 400 miles or less”. In Ireland that seems like a very generous circumference. However, with our weather, it is not that simple. Am I willing to give up my morning coffee because I live in a country with a climate too moderate to grow coffee beans? So what can I do to make sustainable, environmentally friendly choices and still enjoy my breakfast?
I called in the expertise of Tom Oldfield, who has a doctorate in sustainability and asked for his advice. Tom suggested if you can buy local. Fruit and vegetables are transported differently so it’s hard to know what the transport impact is but if it is grown locally then there is a good chance you are making a good choice. As far as packaging goes, the wrapping on your food can contribute significantly to its carbon impact and also most likely ends up in a landfill. Buying from a grocer or buying unpackaged in the supermarket sure will help reduce its impact.
If I am buying food without packaging and in the season it is most likely to be whole foods rather than a processed or pre-made. With this advice in mind, I head out to purchase for the week ahead.
Buying local vegetables is easy enough once I really look. The large discount supermarkets buy a portion of their vegetables from Irish farms. I am lucky to live near a busy weekly farmers’ market and can stock up on most of my vegetables and eggs there, at a reasonable price. I need to top up my vegetable shopping though, garlic is a staple for me and I cannot find an Irish-grown option. This week I look out for European garlic and choose that. It is a bit more expensive than the bulbs shipped in from the other side of the globe but I choose to pay the extra and I am very aware, as I do, that having this choice is a privilege based on disposable income. Buying local fruit proves more difficult. I buy some Irish strawberries and they come in a single-use plastic container so my sustainability rating has just dived. I also buy loose apples.
In Ireland, we are a large producer of beef and dairy. We produce extremely good quality versions of both yet reducing quantities in our diet will help reduce our overall environmental footprint and it will most certainly reduce harmful emissions that negatively impact our environment. I buy a carton of organic milk, butter and yoghurt, but forgo the meat.
Small Irish producers are now creating tasty vinegar and oils such as locally produced rapeseed oil which can be used in place of olive oils. I buy a bottle and some Irish balsamic vinegar.
Back to my morning caffeine fix. I have decided to buy coffee that has been roasted in Ireland, it helps the local economy and supports the smaller business.
In the supermarket, I stock up on mackerel paté, Irish chicken legs, tinned tomatoes from Italy, porridge, pesto, honey, crackers and Irish-made peanut butter. I also purchase a spicy sauce made in Ireland called White Masu Rayu. On Sunday I make a loaf of brown bread, sliced half of it and put one half in the freezer, and a batch of oat and butter cookies for snacks.
The stories are stark, the figures are terrifying. With one in five people dying because of food-related illness and food production contributing to more than a third of Ireland’s greenhouse gases — how we eat and produce our food is a pressing issue. We need to focus more on eating wholefood and to know where these whole foods are coming from. Also, we need to know how to turn them into tasty, enjoyable, nutritious meals.
This past week I paid a bit more attention to my diet as I was thinking ahead and did put in some extra effort and cash. It is not extremely difficult but I can see monotony could set in, particularly in winter when there is less seasonal choice. Eating local in California is far easier with year-round sun and a more colourful bounty than in Ireland but we have to do something and eating as locally as possible is a good start. Also, because I love to cook I am aware that it makes it easier, but cooking from scratch, using whole foods, is the best way to stay healthy.