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By Frankie McGregor on

How to shop for sustainable food

Frankie from Sow the City reports on the thinking behind the organisation’s Carbon Supermarket installation at Manchester Science Festival, and discusses why shopping for sustainable food is so important for addressing the climate emergency.

Sow the City is a Manchester-based Community Interest Company, with a mission to empower communities to grow and live sustainably. Since 2009 they’ve converted over 7,000 m2 of unused and derelict land in Manchester into community gardens, allotments and orchards to provide zero carbon ultra-local food production.

The question of what we should be eating has never been more important. Food accounts for around 1/3 of a typical person or family’s carbon footprint. Our carbon footprint refers to the amount of greenhouse gases released into the earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activity. Greenhouse gases warm the Earth’s surface resulting in climate change which, if left unchallenged could have increasingly catastrophic consequences in the next 20 years.

What is Sow the City’s Carbon Supermarket?

The Carbon Supermarket is an immersive public engagement installation that Sow the City has developed to raise awareness about the carbon footprint of food. It was borne out of the idea that people might be more willing to change their eating habits if they knew the carbon footprint of their food, and the direct impact it has on the planet.

Through the Carbon Supermarket we want to help shine a light on the options we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The installation provides a guide for what a reasonable climate-friendly diet is and what trade-offs are required to achieve it. Every customer gets a receipt—which they can use as an example of a low-carbon shopping list to help them make more informed choices in their real supermarket shop, and which they can share with other people to help them do the same.

The Carbon Supermarket uses the idea of a personal ‘carbon budget’—a limit on the amount of carbon you create in order to help meet national or global targets for greenhouse gas emissions. It is the combined emissions from personal spending on housing, travel, food, products and services. At the moment, the carbon footprint of an average person in the UK is around 12 tonnes CO2 per year (double the world average). If we are to cut our emissions in half by 2030, our carbon budget should only be 6 tonnes per year, which is approximately 5.5 kg per day for an average person’s food ‘budget’.

When visiting the Carbon Supermarket, the shopper’s aim is to do a daily shop from our market stall and stick within this carbon food budget.

Eating meat and dairy

Consumed in moderation, meat and dairy can be highly nutritious. However, they are also associated with a high carbon cost. According to the Booths Report, the carbon footprint of 1 kg of beef is 24 kg CO2e, which is equivalent to driving 125 miles. European cows, pigs and livestock produce more greenhouse gases per year than all of Europe’s cars and vans put together. In general, beef and lamb have the highest footprint, along with cheese.

But why does meat have such a huge impact on the environment? When we farm meat for us to eat, we are not only clearing land to raise the livestock, we are also clearing and using land to grow food to feed the livestock. On average we need 10 times more land for meat production than for growing plant-based foods like beans, fruit and vegetables.

As well as this, ruminants, like cows and sheep, have four stomachs! And what do more stomachs mean? More burping, releasing a gas called methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet and causing climate change.

Just adding some meat-free days into your diet or making an active effort to eat less dairy will make a difference. In fact, scientists have come up with a ‘planet-friendly’ diet that includes meat and fish, is largely plant-based and links human health with the health of the planet.

It’s worth noting that if you’re thinking of swapping some of your meat options for veggie alternatives, make sure they are plant-based, using beans, legumes or tofu rather than cheese. Eating less meat but more cheese won’t really change much about your carbon footprint. In fact, some cheeses like cheddar and mozzarella are just as bad, if not worse for the environment, than chicken or pork!

Eating fruit and vegetables

As we’ve seen, one of the simplest ways to cut down your carbon footprint is to swap out meat and dairy for more plant-based meals. However, fruit and veg can also have a high carbon footprint when we look at the amount of greenhouse gases that are released from their transportation. When you’re in the supermarket, take a look at where your food has travelled from and try to buy produce that has been grown closer to home.

Eating produce that is in season is also a great way of cutting down your emissions. This means only eating produce that is grown seasonally in your geographical area. For example, in the UK during autumn, eating seasonally would mean plenty of potatoes, leeks, carrots, cauliflower, blackberries and apples to name a few.

Additionally, buying and storing fresh produce when in season can help to keep our carbon footprint down. Raspberries and tomatoes can be bought in larger quantities when in season and then frozen, pickled or preserved to use in the colder months.

Growing your own

Growing your own edible goodscan produce food with zero carbon footprint. If you have the space to grow fruit trees, you could even create a negative carbon footprint as these provide food and absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Growing locally reduces food miles, encourages sustainable-thinking and creates habitat for wildlife.

Sow the City has found that the carbon footprint of a medium-sized community garden in Manchester (Moss Side Community Allotment) revealed a CO2 saving of approx. 0.5 tonnes per year. We have over 100 similar projects across Greater Manchester and estimate savings of 50 tonnes of CO2/year across this area.

Visit our website to see if there’s a community garden near you.

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