Food security and sustainability would be enhanced if we switched to a vegetarian diet
Jay Rayner was aware that he was opening himself up to criticism (“Why worrying about food miles is missing the point“, Magazine). I welcome his support of the notion that the sustainability debate is often over-simplified and narrowly considered, but he himself misses the point, in dismissing the influence of food miles on sustainability, by framing the argument around New Zealand lamb. The UN is just one of many international bodies that claims the only way to feed the world sustainably is to move to a meat-free diet.
Just as the vast majority of commentators have been guilty of ignoring this point of view, Rayner is arguing over details at the wrong end of the debate. Excluding meat from, or at the very least drastically reducing the amount of meat in, our diets is the one simple thing we can be quite sure would have a dramatic impact on food security and sustainability.
When will this be discussed in the food sections of our newspapers?
Jay Rayner cites nitrogen fertilisers and heated greenhouses as reasons why local food is not always better. Both of these examples are just as reliant on petrochemicals as transportation; however, neither of these is necessarily part of a sustainable, local food system.
Last year, Organiclea, a workers’ co-op based in north-east London, grew more than a tonne of salad leaves outdoors and in an unheated greenhouse. As a perishable crop, there are huge benefits in taste, nutrition and reduced wastage to producing salad within the city limits. For our veg box scheme and market stalls, we support other organic farmers outside London by buying their potatoes.
Rayner raises a good point – that neither local nor organic is automatically the most sustainable option in isolation to each other – but fails to develop it or offer any solutions.
More food can be grown locally in the UK and good farming practices can, through carbon sequestration in the soil, be genuinely carbon neutral without resorting to buying offsetting credits as most “carbon neutral” businesses do.
I wonder how many people live near places where food is produced? Where food production is local, buyers can see where it comes from and how it is grown, maybe get to know farmers personally, and money spent stays and circulates in the locality. The big operators take their profits away to headquarters, maybe a tax haven, and the only money left locally is staff wages.
Support for better food supplies should be the focus for improved food security. Such supplies must be affordable, available, sufficient and sustainable. They must not dig up, chop down, pollute or overheat the planet, nor must they open the way for other human activities to do so; the potential benefits of more food with less impact could sadly still be outweighed elsewhere by the impact of providing western lifestyles for a growing human population.
The good news is that there are many improvements in food supplies including hi-tech approaches and simple ideas, such as less waste. The bad news is that nobody, especially in the wealthy west, wants the bill, the job or to have their consumer choice affected.
Thank you for publishing Jay Rayner’s article “Death in the afternoon”. I’m a daughter and granddaughter of butchers and, as such, a vegetarian. Reading the piece, feeling weary during a tea break, gave me the determination to finish my shift in the busy Quorn packing hall where, thankfully, unlike Jay, I did not have to regulate my breathing to deal with the sensory overload.
Fiona Smeaton Papiez