Suzie Brown cares about sustainable food! The food we eat – and the food we don’t eat – makes up the largest chunk of most people’s environmental footprint.
Suzie – a sustainability consultant and activist – tells the story of how she learnt about the environmental impact of her food choices and uses her expert knowledge to give you seven tips on how to source sustainable food, avoid waste and deal with food choice dilemmas.
Tell us how you started to think about sustainable food
When I first looked into the best way to reduce my personal impact on the planet–how to cut my eco-footprint–it was glaringly obvious that food was the place to start. Add to this the whole health dimension of our food choices, plus human rights issues relating to how it’s produced and sold, and you’ve got a lot to think about!
I used to work on the GreenHome program at the Australian Conservation Foundation. Back in 2005 we produced an online calculator that could show the components of an Australian’s environmental eco-footprint. It worked out the impacts in terms of water, greenhouse emissions, land area and materials of anything a person buys in Australia. This tool, the ACF Consumption Atlas, can calculate the impacts of anything from a bag of rice to a steak to a mobile phone.
The consumption of food is far and away the biggest component of my footprint – or anyone else’s
The consumption of food is far and away the biggest component of my footprint – or anyone else’s. The Consumption Atlas shows that for the average person in my inner Melbourne postcode, food makes up 41% of our impact. The biggest component of this impact comes from the consumption of meat, followed by dairy products. In a nutshell this is because a lot of water, fertiliser and land is used to feed the cows that produce the milk and meat.
What can we, as individuals, do to minimise the impact of our food consumption?
Most of us consume a lot of food, and huge amounts of it get wasted, so our impacts are way in excess of what they need to be. And way bigger than those of people in less developed nations, as is depicted beautifully in this photo series by Peter Menzel called “Hungry Planet”
This is what I ask myself:
- How can I consume less meat and dairy?
- How can I consume more sustainable meat and dairy if I am going to eat these products?
- Can I buy and/or waste less food?
- Can I buy more organic food?
- Can I buy more locally produced and in-season food?
- Can I grow my own food?
- Can I avoid packaging from the products I buy?
One of the tricky issues is that often a food product is strong on one aspect (for example organically produced) and not so good on another (for example it isn’t local). So what can we do in these situations? I asked Manfred Lenzen from the Sydney University Physics Department. He says his data shows that it is more important to buy organic than local, if you have to choose between the two. This is because the impacts of shipping by boat are actually quite small per product, compared with the large gains made towards sustainability from organic farming. But, food imported by airplane is an exception- it should be avoided!
There are always going to be trade-offs. I’ve found that it’s important to accept that we cannot be perfect eco-citizens and to just do our best to think through the options and minimize our impacts!
What are the actions that work for you in minimizing the impact of your food consumption?
For me, the best solutions I have come up with are to grow my own vegetables and fruit organically at home, and to buy local organic produce for those foods I can’t produce. If there is no organic Australian product, I will buy an imported one (unless it is prohibitively expensive). I will also only buy produce that is in season so as to avoid imported or cold-stored fruit and vegetables – as well as being less sustainable these are often inferior quality.
composting cuts greenhouse emissions from our food waste by 1kg for every 1kg we compost
I try to eat the minimum amount of meat and dairy that I can. I need to eat some red meat to keep my iron levels up so I have a bit of kangaroo or Australian free range organic beef. At home we try to waste very little food and we put our food scraps in a compost bin in the garden (composting cuts greenhouse emissions from our food waste by 1kg for every 1kg we compost) [i]. And we also take our own packaging to the shops and try to buy in bulk or without packaging.
I have found that all of these actions are easier if you avoid the large supermarket chains, although they do have a good range of organic packaged foods these days (often imported though!). But we find that our local organic shops, food markets, and bulk dry goods stores have fresher, local organic foods with less packaging.
Where do you do most of your food shopping?
My favourite place to shop is Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market in the organic aisle!
Suzie Brown is a sustainability consultant and activist. She’s also kept busy by an 8 month old baby girl and is hopeful for a sustainable future for her child. For many years Suzie worked for environmental NGOs with a focus on sustainable consumption. She now consults to business and all levels of government on sustainability strategies and community engagement.
[i] Commonwealth Govt 2007, Global Warming Cool It – referenced in http://www.shellharbour.nsw.gov.au/FileData/pdf/EverydayEnergySavingTips.pdf