Is it better for the planet to eat organic or not? Peanut butter with or without palm oil? Consumers have spent more and more money on sustainable food in recent years, Wageningen University calculated. But it is not so easy to say exactly what the term ‘sustainable’ entails.
The definition of the Dutch government sounds simple: food that is produced and consumed with respect for people, animals and the environment. But it can be about anything: animal welfare, nature, biodiversity, climate, fair trade, even health.
And you’re not there yet. Because what exactly are you paying attention to? CO2emissions are important when looking at climate change. But water scarcity or land use is a bigger problem for some products. And what weighs more heavily if there are conflicting interests: preserving biodiversity or a good income for farmers? Nature or animal welfare? And do you look at the footprint per product or per hectare? How do you even find all that information if the manufacturers are not transparent about it? All of this can lead to the paralyzing feeling that it all doesn’t make sense.
But it makes sense, says Corné van Dooren, sustainability expert at the World Wildlife Fund and formerly at the Nutrition Center.
Van Dooren has reached the point where he is trying to drink less coffee and he is looking for the Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance quality label. Because coffee cultivation is associated with deforestation, loss of biodiversity and poverty among farmers. But he knows that not everyone makes the same choices. And he doesn’t think everyone should stop drinking coffee either.
If he has to give advice anyway: “Start eating less meat for a day. Once you get used to it, take a look at your groceries and see if you can waste less. If you succeed, you will drink a little less coffee.” Or you buy Dutch apples instead of tangerines. Or less dairy products. Preferably locally produced and not overly processed food. “Every step is good.”
When 5 percent of people do something, companies move
The strategy of small steps helps against the feeling that you never do enough or keep making the wrong choices.
But the simplest way to eat more sustainably without going crazy consists of three basic rules: “Eat less meat, don’t eat too much of it and waste less.” Rule one is the biggest hit: In the Dutch diet, meat causes more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Without waste, the environmental impact of Dutch food consumption would be 14 percent lower.
With the three rules, says Van Dooren, you have the low-hanging fruit. Then you don’t need to know that it is better to eat European walnuts than Californian almonds, or that aged cheese has more emissions than mozzarella. “If you follow the basic rules, you can often cut your footprint in half.”
Less meat, not too much of anything and less waste. If you keep that in mind, you don’t have to worry so much about constant new insights. “We don’t know the impact of many products yet, and what we know today may be different tomorrow. But there has long been a worldwide consensus on the basics.” The general rules do not change if one type of cheese seems to have a slightly greater effect than the other.
As a consumer, you will inevitably run into dilemmas. For example, floppy chicken has a smaller footprint than Beter Leven chicken, but the chicken is worse off. “Then you will have to make a trade-off between animal welfare and climate.” But, says Van Dooren, you don’t have to feel guilty as a consumer about choices made by the government or the supermarkets. “Cage eggs are no longer for sale. Then you as a consumer are no longer faced with that dilemma.”
A consumer’s behavior seems like a drop in the ocean, but Van Dooren disputes that. “You vote with your fork. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if 5 percent of consumers do something, supermarkets, suppliers and caterers start moving. And one day all restaurants will offer fair trade coffee and plant-based dishes will be on the menu everywhere. It’s called transition.”
dutch steak or chicken from Poland
Transport makes a relatively small contribution to the food footprint. Most greenhouse gas emissions come from land use and what happens on the farm. Beef has by far the largest footprint of all food and drink, although Dutch beef from dairy cows has a much smaller impact than South American beef.
Dutch meat burger or veggie burgers from imported soy
We consume most of the soy in our diet without realizing it. We eat 94 percent indirectly through meat, dairy products and eggs: It was feed for cows, pigs and chickens. The soy in soy burgers and soy milk usually comes from Canada and Europe, and no forest is cut down for it. On the list of raw materials imported by the EU that cause the most deforestation, soy is number 1: This is mainly due to animal feed from South America.
Free-ranging or free range eggs
For animal welfare: free range. For the environment: free range. Harmful substances can be caught from free-range chickens kept indoors. And a large part of the chickens’ environmental burden comes from feed – the less space, the less feed they need. Free-range chickens also become free-range chickens under a coop obligation.
palm oil or rapeseed oil
You can look at vegetable oil in many ways: deforestation, loss of biodiversity, CO2emissions, land use, farmers’ living conditions, etc. This makes it impossible to identify the best type of oil. Less land is needed for one liter of palm oil than for all other types of oil. But because so much is produced, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil is responsible for more deforestation than, say, canola.
kitchen garden salad or supermarket salad
Growing your own food is great, but not necessarily more sustainable than supermarket lettuce. Large growers work more efficiently than the kitchen gardener, who has to buy seeds and garden tools, has a lower yield, sees part of the harvest fail and may also drive to the kitchen garden.
Fresh spinach or from the freezer
If the spinach in Holland comes from the open country and you eat everything, nothing beats fresh. Out of season, stew and frozen vegetables are a good alternative. Prepared food from the freezer also prevents waste. Nutritionally, it doesn’t matter. Freezer spinach can also be seen as local and out of season.
soy milk or oat milk
There are studies that prove that oat milk has slightly less CO2emissions, but ultimately the environmental impact depends on where and how it is grown. It varies by brand. But no matter which vegetable ‘drink’ you choose, the footprint of cow’s milk is always many times larger.
Organic or regular tomato
In general, it is impossible to say whether organic is more sustainable than normal. Organic farmers do not use artificial fertilizers and chemical sprays. Organic is better for the soil, but on average more soil is needed for one kilo of food. Whether organic is better than conventional depends, among other things, on the farmer, the location and the product. In terms of health, organic foods do not contain chemical pesticides, while they contain more antioxidants – to name two benefits – but too little research has been done to conclude that organic food is healthier.
meadow milk or Better Life milk
Meadow Milk promises that cows graze outside for at least 120 days a year; it is less than the 180 days of three-star Beter Leven milk. Meadow milk has no environmental requirements. That is what the Beter Leven quality label does. Better Life three stars also make higher demands than Albert Heijn’s ‘Better for cow, nature and farmer’. The latter is a company logo, not a quality mark. Milieu Centraal lists six top quality dairy brands; Meadow milk and better for cows, nature and farmers are not among them.
Fresh orange juice or coke
Coke has a lower CO2-emission than fresh juice from oranges. It also requires less water and soil. Orange juice contains about as much sugar as cola. Fruit juice is therefore no longer in the Femhjulet. It only contains water, coffee and tea.
Fairtrade coffee or coffee without quality label
Fairtrade was founded to offer farmers a better life. The environment does not come first. There are also coffee brands without a quality label, which still give farmers a better income or focus on less CO2emissions. This is often more expensive single origin coffee: coffee from an area whose origin is known. More expensive coffee without a quality label can therefore be at least as good for farmers as Fairtrade, but a quality label is the best guarantee in the supermarket.
Eggplant with or without plastic
Packaging is a relatively small part of food’s environmental impact. Waste is a bigger problem. Plastic extends the shelf life of many fruits and vegetables. It seems odd that the organic aubergine is in plastic, but you have to be able to tell them apart. And if the usual aubergines are in plastic, much more packaging is needed because more of these aubergines are sold.
Avocado or chicken fillet as a topping
Water consumption varies considerably from country to country, but on average less water is needed for a kilo of avocado than for a kilo of chicken fillet. However, given the lack of water in the areas where they come from, avocados usually score worse. In terms of emissions of greenhouse gases and land use, avocado is significantly better than chicken. From a climate change point of view (CO2emissions), all animal products are worse than avocados.
Green beans from Spain or from Kenya
The question is what is important to you. The UN’s sustainability goals also include health goals and fair work. So what do you do when bean pickers from Kenya have a better life than those in Spain? Sustainability is more than CO2emissions.
Strawberries from the Netherlands or pineapple from South America
Strawberries have a higher CO on average2emissions than pineapple. A relatively large amount of pineapple is thrown out. Bananas do it in terms of CO2emissions better than is often thought. Banana also scores better than kiwi, tangerine and orange. But the Dutch apple has the smallest footprint of any fruit.
farmed salmon or wild salmon
Wild catches are associated with overfishing and unwanted bycatch. With farmed salmon, water pollution, spread of diseases and parasites, and crosses between wild and escaped farmed salmon are some of the problems. Either way, it’s like comparing apples to oranges, but Viswijzer, a site that rates fish for sustainability, can help you choose.
walnuts or banana
Per kilo banana scores much better on greenhouse gas emissions, land and water consumption. But converted to In terms of calories, bananas produce more than twice as many emissions as walnuts. A small banana (100 grams) provides 92 kcal, a handful of nuts (25 grams) is good for 177 kcal. What this example says: how much of something you eat also counts.
microwave meal or Cook yourself
The general advice is: eat as little processed food as possible. But a ready meal can also consist of not so processed healthy ingredients. You may waste less food because you buy a measured portion and the microwave uses less energy than a gas stove or oven.