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6 Nov 2021

COP26: Five ways to a more eco-friendly diet

Find out which sustainable changes you can make to your diet and buying habits to lower your impact

Food and drink consumption creates 35% of the total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that the UK is responsible for, according to a report published by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in October this year.

Significant reductions to those emissions are possible, but only if we take the right actions. Some of the changes we need are only achievable at the farm, production and supply level. But there are still individual steps that you can take to lighten your environmental tread. We look at the dietary choices you can make that make a difference.

Live more sustainably -get our free Sustainability Newsletter to make changes for you and the planet or head to our latest eco-friendly living and shopping advice

1. Cut down on meat and dairy

Meat and dairy reduction is conspicuously absent from the government's Net Zero Strategy, but previous studies have found that cutting out animal products is likely to be the single biggest way to reduce your personal impact on the planet.

Cows have particularly high carbon emissions - more so beef cattle than dairy - a significant proportion of which come from the release of methane. At COP26, more than 100 countries have pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Not all cattle farming is the same though, and the amount of carbon emissions generated will depend on where the animals are and how they are raised.

But for many people, fully cutting meat and dairy out is a step too far. And it is not the only alternative - reducing your consumption can still make a big difference.

The recently published National Food Strategy has called for our total meat consumption to be cut by 30% by 2030, while the Climate Change Committee recommends a meat and dairy reduction of 20% by 2030 and 35% by 2050,

It doesn't have to be all or nothing. You could try cutting out dairy one day a week and meat and fish on two days a week. Buying produce from animals raised using more sustainable methods can also help reduce your impact, so it's worth doing some research into where your food is coming from. If you're cutting down your intake, you might feel able to spend a little more on the animal products you do eat to make sure they've been responsibly sourced.

You could also try what Jonathan Safran Foer calls for in his latest book - no animal products before your evening meal. He argues that this leads to having a smaller CO2e footprint than being a full-time vegetarian.

For more details, head to our guide to plant-based meat alternatives, where we've got a detailed run down of all the options available, from tofu and tempeh to jack-fruit, Quorn and everything in between, assessing their nutritional credentials as well as how versatile they are to cook with.

We've also asked our panel of taste testers to try a range of the most widely available vegetarian and vegan burgers.

And if you'd like to try a plant-based milk alternative, read our guide to which ones are best for the planet and your health, as some aren't quite as environmentally friendly or nutritious as you'd expect.

2. Eat seasonally

When it comes to fruit and vegetables, eating seasonally is often the more relevant consideration than eating locally.

Food miles only account for a small amount of total emissions caused by our food system - around 10%. The majority are created by the farming stage of the food production process (particularly when it comes to livestock).

Most food is either transported by boat or road. That means there can sometimes be fewer carbon emissions involved in buying fruit and veg from abroad than growing them in artificial environments in the UK.

Lettuce and tomatoes from southern Europe, for example, can be grown outdoors for a far longer season than in the UK, where interventions such as heated greenhouses can significantly push up carbon costs when you buy them out of season.

Where you can, eating produce that's been grown at the right time of year and hasn't travelled too far is the best option. The UK actually has plenty of seasonal winter produce to enjoy, such as vegetables from the brassica family, apples and pears and carrots. So you can support British agriculture and know that your food has a low environmental cost.

Read more about how to eat an eco-friendly winter diet.

3. Reduce your food waste

WRAP's report into the greenhouse gas emissions of our food system states that UK food waste adds up to 23% of total UK food system emissions. This isn't all caused by households throwing away food - a significant amount happens before food makes it into people's homes or onto their plates - but UK households are responsible for 6.5 million tonnes of food waste every year, of which it's estimated that 4.5 million tonnes could have been eaten.

Tips from WRAP's Love Food Hate Waste campaign include being creative with leftovers, making sure your fridge is set cold enough, using portion planners, freezing more and remembering the difference between best before and use by dates. Food with a best before date should still be safe to eat after that date, it just might not be at its prime.

In January 2021, a new 'sniff test' labelling campaign was launched to encourage people to trust their own judgement when it comes to how long to keep food before throwing it away.

For more information on storing your food safely find out how to store food safety in the freezer, or head to WRAP's A to Z of food storage.

4. Buy sustainable fish

Although fish can be a lower carbon food than many other animal products, it certainly isn't free from environmental impacts.

Overfishing has huge implications for global food security, biodiversity and carbon storage - bottom trawling fishing methods release carbon stored on the sea bed.

Farmed fish aren't a simple answer either. Many popular farmed fish species require wild fish in their diet and aquaculture can cause water pollution and spread disease to wild animal populations.

But more sustainable fish choices are available and there are plenty of good UK options too.

Look for the MSC blue tick logo on packaging for wild-caught fish. For farmed, look for ASC or organic, such as Soil Association, ideally.

Or you can try some sustainable fish swaps. Farmed mussels are an extremely sustainable food even in the absence of certification labels.

And fish and crustaceans caught in lower-impact ways, such as using handlines or pots, can be sustainable but uncertified choices, depending on where they are caught.

Use the Good Fish Guide's website or app, which uses a traffic light system for all fish likely to end up in your shopping basket or on your plate, to help you identify what to eat and what to avoid.

To find out more on why making the right fish choice is so important, read our guide on how to buy sustainable fish.

5. Cut your plastic

Plastic food packaging creates some of the carbon emissions associated with our food systems, although these are much lower than the emissions created during food production. But there are other serious environmental impacts to using excess plastic, such as marine pollution.

As much as you can, try to buy your fruit and veg unpackaged and take your own bags when you shop for food.

Most major supermarkets are trialling refillable options for groceries and other products in some of their stores and hopefully the availability of these services will only increase. Encourage these schemes by using them where available, and requesting them at stores where they don't exist.

Find out more about which supermarkets have packaging-free products and how to buy refillable items.

We've also taken an in-depth look into what supermarkets are doing about plastic.