How to eat like a climatarian

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 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

It may have taken environmentally-unfriendly planes, trains and automobiles to get them there, but the world’s most powerful men and women have made it to Glasgow for COP26 to discuss the planet’s climate crisis.

While one widely-circulated report from the Climate Accountability Institute traces 70 per cent of greenhouse gases back to just 100 companies, each of us contribute too — meaning each of us can help. With 34 per cent of all man-made greenhouse gases attributable to food systems — from production to delivery to consumption — there is a lot to think about when it comes to what we eat, where it comes from and what it’s doing to the world.

One solution is simple: eating in a way that considers the carbon footprint and long-term sustainability of our food. This is your handy guide to becoming a climatarian.

Vegan rules?

Mallow (Handout)
Mallow (Handout)

For some, the choice is simple. “You can cut down your food waste, source locally and seasonally and forage wild asparagus all you want, but as long as you are still serving any kind of meat or fish, these are all token gestures,” says Alexis Gauthier, who runs fully-vegan Gauthier Soho (W1, gauthiersoho.co.uk). “Removing animal produce from a restaurant’s menu reduces its carbon footprint by a factor so large it dwarfs everything else into insignificance.”

“A meat-eater’s carbon footprint is twice that of a vegan,” agrees Sam Anstey, the managing director of London’s original vegan group Mildreds (mildreds.co.uk), and who next week opens Mallow in Borough Market: a plant-based spot dedicated to sustainability (SE1, mallowlondon.com).

Anstey’s figures add up with an Oxford University study published in Climatic Change. But, cautions chef Neil Rankin, the former barbecue-obsessive turned founder of the vegan Symplicity Foods (@symplicity_foods), just because it’s plant-based, doesn’t mean it’s doing good. “To say plant-based means it’s better environmentally is just insane,” Rankin says. “Good agriculture and good food production is what we’re looking for.”

Watch: 5 ways to grocery shop like a Climatarian

Rankin counsels to look beyond the basic “plant-based” or “vegan” labels that, in some cases, amount to little more than canny marketing. “Plants are definitely more environmentally friendly than animals, but sometimes all the processing involved, or the travel and the air-miles used in getting it to us — that’s not so good.” Traceability is key, the chef adds. “Where does the rice come from, where is the starch from?”

A little research before hitting the shops, then, is paramount but Rankin acknowledges it can be hard to know what’s what while standing in an aisle. Instead, a simple trick is just to flip the packet and check out the ingredients: “If it’s just 10 per cent pea protein, what’s the rest? Just how processed is this thing? Processed foods have never been good for the environment.”

Origin is everything at home too. There’s limited environmental benefit to bulk-buying fruit and veg if it all comes with thousands of air miles attached, says Gordon Ker of Blacklock (theblacklock.com). “Supermarkets just have us trained to think we can eat a strawberry in December and that be normal,” he says. “But by working with the seasons, the produce isn’t engineered and the land isn’t being manipulated. Ultimately, it tastes better too.”

Nat Jenkins, who’s behind Zero Restaurants (zerorestaurants.com), which run sustainable supper clubs using leftovers, adds that some home deliveries — they vary — can beat a trip to the shops. “Oddbox (oddbox.co.uk)… do incredible work at farm level by rescuing food which is delicious and fresh but would not pass supermarket standards due to its shape or size”. Other home deliveries with a good name for seasonality and sustainable practices include Natoora (home-delivery.uk.natoora.com) — which is working with farms to help regenerate the land, B corp Pikt (piktfresh.com) and Purton House Organics (purtonhouseorganics.co.uk).

Meat isn’t off the menu

Blacklock (Handout)
Blacklock (Handout)

Asking the world to suddenly give up meat is unrealistic and getting rid of the animals is hardly environmentally friendly, says Pretenders rocker — and vegetarian since the Sixties — Chrissie Hynde, an (unlikely) advocate of slaughter-free dairy. “What are you going to do with the cows and the animals?” she asks. Like many farmers across the country, Hynde points out that grass-fed cattle are essential to the ecological health of the UK; agricultural farming takes a lot from the soil while smartly-done cattle farming can revive it.

As many farmers do across the country, Hynde points out that grass-fed cattle are essential to the ecological health of the UK; agricultural farming takes a lot from the soil while smartly-done cattle farming can revive it.

The team at Cornwall’s award-winning butcher Philip Warren believes in the benefits of grass-fed cattle. Says Ian Warren, plainly: “How it works is: the cow is there, eats the grass, poos on the ground; that fertilises the grass. The worms and bugs feed off that, they then go down into the soil, naturally aerating it, which helps the water drain through — which then encourages fresh grass to grow.”

The cows graze a field for four or five days before moving on, to give the field time to recover. Adds Ker of Blacklock, who is supplied by Warren: “By farming regeneratively we allow animals, plants and the land to work together in their own harmony and regenerate soil ecosystems and microbiology as nature intended. This increases carbon and nutrient deposits back into the soil.”

Watch: COP26 wrap-up: Was progress on climate change really made?

And so, while it’s not certain that grass-fed beef offers a carbon benefit, it does provide another for the environment: continually farming land for crops destroys the soil to the extent it cannot recover and grazing livestock help reverse the harm. This is more pressing than it seems: it’s often said there are more lifeforms in a single teaspoonful of healthy soil than humans on earth.

Eating meat less often is the way forward, happily admits Warren, but it’s about rather than simply cutting it out completely — not just for the sustainability of the planet, but for farmers themselves. “For quality British farming to survive, people need to pay for it to sustain the industry. It’s just going back to how it used to be - a nice fillet steak is not a midweek meal for any working family. If you’re going to eat meat, eat quality, and pay a bit more for it.”

Many restaurants will flag their suppliers and environmental credentials on their websites, so a steak needn’t come with a side of guilt. Adam Handling’s restaurant group (adamhandling.co.uk) only serves meat from retired dairy cows, while yesterday Hawksmoor (thehawksmoor.com) announced plans to go carbon neutral.

Fish, likewise, is not off the menu —and shellfish, in fact, produces fewer carbon emissions than meat farming, for an equivalent amount of protein. Would-be climatarians should put in a little time: the Good Fish Guide (mcsuk.org/goodfishguide) gives a sustainability rating from one to five for every type of fish, letting consumers make a more informed choice.

With more than 34 per cent of the world’s fishing stocks overfished, going for sustainably caught seafood is vital if the health of the oceans is to be preserved — and it would help feed more people too. “Research shows that if all wild capture fisheries operated sustainably, 16 million tonnes more in catch could be generated every year, producing enough protein for an additional 72 million people,” says George Clark, UK and Ireland programme director for the Marine Stewardship Council.

The MSC label — a vivid blue — is the one to look out for when buying fish. Like with meat, restaurants priding themselves on their environmental creds will shout about it. They can be found at both ends of the market: the likes of the Rosa’s Thai Cafe chain (rosasthaicafe.com), Native at Browns (brownsfashion.com) and Brat (bratrestaurant.com) all are well regarded here.

Look beyond your plate

Tim Grant of W5 Collective (Handout)
Tim Grant of W5 Collective (Handout)

Food waste is vital to consider: no surprise, the less, the better. At present, 30 to 40 per cent of food produced globally is wasted — and enormous amounts of carbon produced for nothing.

Climatarians dining out need to be discriminating. Tim Grant, who is behind London’s first climate-positive restaurant, Ealing’s new W5 Collective (canteen-collective.com), says: “The hospitality industry is widely considered to be one of the most wasteful industries on the planet. According to Wrap [Waste and Resources Action Programme], for every meal eaten in a UK restaurant, nearly half a kilo of food is wasted and according to Zero Foodprint, an average eight kilograms of CO2 is emitted for every meal prepared in restaurants.”

There’s more to it than food. Clapham’s new “pro-planet pub”, the Pig’s Head (thepigshead.com), has entirely second-hand furniture, tableware and cutlery — and uses green electricity, composting on site and even buying recycled loo roll. Similarly, Doug McMaster’s Silo (silolondon.com) is fully zero-waste — he famously doesn’t have a bin. Others still are doing their bit in a different way: Spring (springrestaurant.co.uk) has a long-running scratch menu, centred around “waste” products deemed too misshapen for supermarkets, while Ravinder Bhogal’s Jikoni (jikonilondon.com) this year became the UK’s first independent restaurant to go carbon neutral.

And use your common sense. “[With] packaging, none is always better, and be prepared to inconvenience yourself to eat the right stuff at the right time of year. Think about bulk-buying and freezing, or just buy loose things when you need them. And always look at where things are from,” says Rankin. “Food is best left to someone growing it down the road.”

Five apps to track your carbon footprint

Evocco

Scan your supermarket receipt and this app will give it a score for its carbon footprint, with tips on how to reduce it. And for a few pennies extra, you can help to plant native woodland and offset your shop.

Capture

Track the impact of your journeys — whether a bus ride or flight — as well as the food your eat, and learn how to reduce your carbon footprint by at least 7.6 per cent each year (the target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Yayzy

Ever thought about the environmental effect of your spending? Yayzy breaks it all down, showing you how costly that pair of shoes or new phone really was.

Earth

Billed as a personal guide to climate activism, this app measures emissions and provides users with practical ways of lessening their impact, from joining a climate action group to listening to an educational podcast.

JouleBug

One for those with a competitive streak, this rewards users with points each time they do something eco-friendly — recycle some packaging, or refill a reusable water bottle — and places them on a leaderboard. The more you do, the higher you rank.

All free and for both iOS and Android

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