As I went to work this morning at 6.45am I thought about the options of where people can buy food at that time in the morning. For the people who go to work at this time not many places other than the fast food chains are open. In Brixton it’s McDonalds and KFC. Not even Starbucks, which I don’t like much more, is open. The same is true very late at night.
It made me wonder about the temporal dimension of food access. When you go to work at ungodly hours, which few of us truly ever adapt to, most of the food available is unhealthy. To what extent does this shape the health of the workers whose bodies are already under the strain of poor sleep hygiene? And who are these workers?
Often the individuals working very unsociable hours are low paid workers: cleaners, public transport workers, hotel staff, grocery shop workers but also medical staff ( who aren’t always so badly paid).
Of course these people could eat at home, and they probably do sometimes. But perhaps like me they live in small flats and would wake their housemates or family by using the kettle and the toaster at 5am.
I’m pretty sure that sleep deprivation makes us less discerning about what we put in our bodies, which is why I had an egg McMuffin and hash brown at 6.30 this morning when I haven’t eaten at a McDonalds for years!
Tender. Plenty. Veg Everyday: vegetables are centre place on the cook book scene currently. Nigel Slater, Yotam Ottellengi and Hugh Fernley Whittingstall, to name a few, have all been singing the praises of heavy on the plants eating. So, has British cuisine lost the imperative of meat? Is it culturally plausible that we could move away from consuming large amounts of animal products? The sustainability and health benefits would be significant.
The situation is growing out of control, literally. There are more obese people in the world than starving people (1) In the UK 60% of adults are obese or overweight, costing the NHS £5 billion a year (2). The WWF Livewell report cited the following finding, that: ‘a 30% reduction in adult consumption of livestock products could reduce the number of premature deaths from ischemic heart disease by up to 17% in the UK (Friels et al, 2009)’ (3). If that wasn’t a call to action, food also accounts for 30% of the UK’s CO2 emissions and meat and dairy are the highest contributing food group to the UK’s green house gas emissions (GHGEs) (3). A dietary shift then could kill two birds with one stone. Or should I say (in vegan parlance): feed two birds with one seed.
Developing countries are following the trajectory of richer countries by consuming increasing amounts of meat and dairy. In England as society got wealthier from the 13th C to the 15th C the meat content in the peasant diet increased from roughly an oz or two of meat for every 2lb of bread, to 1lb of meat to every 2lb of bread (4). China’s meat consumption by 2002 was twice what it was in 1990 and the trend continues (5). Whilst there are many people in the world who need to increase their calorific intake and protein, they need not follow the West in their over-consumption and the accompanying health problems. The Harvard healthy eating pyramid below shows animal products as a small part of the overall diet.
Getting to the root of the problem with excessive animal products requires looking at deforestation. Deforestation and forest degradation contribute 20% of GHGEs. Whilst this is not solely due to agriculture it’s the leader (6). This is due to the need for ever larger agricultural space, both for grazing animals but also for growing food for livestock. Only around 30% of all agricultural land is used to grow food directly for human consumption. The rest is used to grow crops for livestock (3). Livestock fed on grain grow significantly quicker than grazed animals and time is money (7). Aside from the deforestation, ruminant livestock fart a lot and methane is about 72 times as powerful as CO2 as a GHG over a 20 year period (8). Nitrogen Oxides released in particular from fertilised grazing pasture also contribute to global warming. There is the small matter of the water needed to raise animals as well.
But damn it tastes good. Brie, Greek yoghurt, glazed ham sandwiches and Sunday roast. In 2001 only 5% of the UK population described themselves as vegan or vegetarian in a nationwide survey (3). However, if diets were merely in line with national government dietary recommendations this would already reduce emissions substantially and improve health (3). In these years of financial woe, there is a pretty penny to be saved by reducing the amount of animal products we buy. The WWF Livewell Report shows through its calculations and example menus that a 25% reduction in GHGEs could be achieved by 2020 through smaller portions, and reducing the frequency at which animal products are consumed. Their example weekly menu still included a roast, fish and chips, chicken stir fry, beef tortillas, ham bagels and a few other meals containing animal products (3). They do also assume some reductions in emissions from the farm through improved methods (3). (The Centre for Alternative Technology Zero Carbon Britain report is worth a read for its vision of carbon neutral agriculture – a topic for a future post perhaps.)
Interestingly, supermarket ready meals seem not to contain that much meat according to the WWF Livewell Report:
‘The amount of meat in the meals in the sample menu is not dissimilar to that found in a range of ready meals. The meat content of the three composite dishes in the 2020 diet was 30% (chicken curry), 32% (beef tortillas) and 18% (chicken stir fry). In comparison, the average meat content of the same type of dishes, taken from an average of 27 ready meals from three main supermarkets in the UK, was 35%, 32% and 20% respectively (Kyle 2010, unpublished)’.
It may be possible to keep eating a similar diet but take the approach of bulking dishes out with vegetables, grains and meat alternatives. Many kebabs already contain soya unbeknown to many drunks.
Culture rules large. Clearly there is a need for a joyful and delicious response to eating more plants. This is where the celeb chefs come in – let’s salivate over veg. Our love of curry as a nation has got to be another resource – India, home of excellent vegetarian and vegan cooking. Food is a perfect example of how sustainability is about culture and societal capacity to change. We need to grapple with how to evolve our eating. There will be a place for the snout to tail movement and also Brixton’s Ms Vegan Cupcake shop.
2 The World at One, Radio 4,October 2011
3 WWF Livewell Report 2011
4 An 1000 year history of English Food
5 Felicity Brown, The Guardian, Meat consumption per capita, Wed 2 Sep 2009
7 Diet for a small planet