The art of eating well
The food we eat has a large impact on the climate. But how should you, as a consumer, navigate among all the labels and products, and their origin? The City of Stockholm´s environmental experts help you clear up some of the most common questions in the food-jungle.
It´s Sunday and time for food shopping for the upcoming week. Cereal, fish sticks, pasta, fruit, and eggs are already on the shopping list. And tomatoes. In the food store, you look out over the sea of vegetables. To your right are the organic tomatoes, but they are from Spain, and wrapped in plastic. To the left are Swedish tomatoes, unpackaged and with no information about their origin. But they are cheaper than the organic tomatoes. How should you, as a consumer, make the best choice for the environment?
Örjan Lönngren is advisor in energy- and climate issues at Miljöförvaltningen, the City of Stockholm Environment & Health Administration. He thinks that this question might have the wrong focus.
– How was the Spanish tomato transported here? By plane or truck? There is a big difference concerning the effects on the climate, Örjan says.
Transport from production to the store represents a relatively small part of the product´s negative environmental impact. How the product was grown and produced has a larger impact.”
– It is not in the choice of which tomatoes to buy that we can gain the big environmental benefits, but I can understand that one still wants to make the best choice when shopping. Let us make a generalization: Transport from production to the store represents a relatively small part of the product´s environmental impact. How the product was grown and produced has a larger impact. Are the tomatoes grown in a greenhouse fueled by oil, or in a greenhouse heated by biofuels? Are pesticides used in the growing process, and in that case, which ones? How was the water supplied?
My advice is to choose foods in the following order of priority: 1. Organic and Swedish. 2. Organic. The rest is about the same.
Because the circumstances of production are almost impossible for you as consumer to know, there are several independent environmental labels for guidance. There is the KRAV label (a label for organic food), the EU-Flower (the EU´s environmental quality mark), and the EU-leaf (the EU organic logo). Naturskyddsföreningen (the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation) and Konsumentverket (the Swedish Consumer Agency) have good lists of labels that can help to guide you.
– An environmentally labeled product guarantees good conditions of production, Örjan says. In Swedish agriculture, the conditions are generally good because we have laws and regulations, especially when it comes to livestock farming. My advice is to choose foods in the following order: 1. Organic and Swedish. 2. Organic. The rest is about the same.
Strawberries grow all year round in the store
Arne Jamtrot is the head of Kemikaliecentrum, the department responsible for chemicals at the City of Stockholm´s Environment & Health Administration. He agrees with Örjan:
– The way you get to the store to buy the tomato affects the climate more than what kind of tomato you choose to buy. But of course there are things to think about - above all, foods transported by plane. Dare be annoying and ask the store how the goods were transported. It is most likely that an exotic fruit, that ripens fast, has not been transported by a cargo ship for one month, but is transported by plane. Think again if it´s really worth buying that fruit.
To think through what – and how much – we shop is advice that permeates all areas of environmental impact from the single individual.
We have gotten used to getting what we want when we want it, but the time has come to change that.”
– It´s always best to grow things in the most natural way, with the shortest possible route of transport. Buy Swedish carrots, potatoes, and apples during their growth seasons. We have gotten used to getting what we want when we want it, but the time has come to change that, says Örjan.
Maria Svanholm, head of the department of environmental analysis at the City of Stockholm´s Environment & Health Administration, points out that in conventional farming pesticides are often used. By choosing organically grown food you can protect yourself and others from the harmful chemicals that pesticides often contain.
– That people who work in food production can get ill from poisonous pesticides has been shown many times. But many of the harmful substances can also affect your health as a consumer, depending on how much of the substance you eat. Att människorna som arbetar i produktionen kan fara illa av giftiga bekämpningsmedel har visats gång på gång. Men flera av de skadliga ämnena i bekämpningsmedlen kan också påverka hälsan hos dig som konsument, även om det mest beror på hur stor mängd du äter.
Choose organically grown potatoes! Not only for your own health, but also because of the conditions where the potatoes are grown and to prevent a discharge of pesticides in the ground and the groundwater.
Pesticides are used also for Swedish crops, such as potatoes.
– Potatoes are attacked by many vermin and are difficult to grow without any pesticides, says Maria. Choose organically grown potatoes! Not only for your own health, but also for the conditions where the potatoes are grown and for preventing a discharge of pesticides in the ground and the groundwater.
To package or not to package
To see fresh vegetables packaged in plastic raises questions for many consumers. Is packaging really necessary, or does it do more harm than good?
– If the plastic makes the cucumber last longer it might help reduce food waste. The important question is: how is the plastic produced? In this respect the food industry has to change. Excellent plastic can be made from cellulose or corn.
Vegetarian food is – food!
In the 1950´s we ate meat more or less every day, but far from the large amounts we eat today. However, the past two years meat consumption has decreased for the first time in decades.
The vegetarian meal is now presented as one of three main dishes, and not as a vegetarian exception.”
– We can see the change clearly in a luncheon restaurant for instance, says Arne. The vegetarian meal is now presented as one of three main dishes, and not as a vegetarian exception. It doesn´t even need to be called “vegetarian” anymore. Vegetarian food is – food!
– Eating habits don´t change easily but the transition to more vegetarian eating has happened quite rapidly, says Örjan. The young adults of today have been exposed to a different food culture than people born in the 40´s and 50´s. But the restaurant sector, above all in the evenings, hasn´t really changed its ways. They still serve far too much meat in relation to the rest served on the plate. And when it is supposed to be really exclusive, meat is always served. I think that is sending the wrong signal.
Meat and open landscapes
The discussion of open land and landscapes is always present when meat consumption is mentioned. What is the situation regarding this issue?
– If we don´t have free grazing animals, many fine meadow lands and pastures will become overgrown, Maria says. That would be devastating, because these lands are rich in biodiversity.
Arne sees that the discussion can be taken to a philosophical level. Should focus be on the individual or on us collectively, as a society? Which is most important: that everyone eats a little less meat, or that some don´t eat meat at all?
– As a society we eat more meat than what is needed to maintain biodiversity, says Arne. I think it goes without saying that we all need to cooperate for a transition to a sustainable society for ourselves and for future generations.
– Those who want to eat meat can choose better meat and eat less of it, Maria said. Another important aspect in meat production is the growing incidence of diseases which are resistant to antibiotics, due to that antibiotics are overused. In organic meat production the ambition is to lessen the usage of antibiotics.
Those who want to eat meat can choose better meat and eat less of it.
Organic eco-labeled production is important also in the dairy industry. To reach the climate goals which have been set up, we need to ensure that animals are allowed to be outside, which is guaranteed in organic production. We also need to protect biodiversity on a global scale.
– Globally there is a vast amount of land, in mountainous regions for instance, where it´s impossible to grow crops, says Örjan. These lands must be allowed to remain as pastures. Everything is a balancing act, and we need to see what nature needs in each particular place. We humans have to learn to adjust to nature.