Food is a subject that is very close to my heart. I love good food, and spend a reasonable chunk of my day preparing, eating, or thinking about food. Eating is one of those everyday essential acts that has great potential to bring a lot of pleasure.
I also have to declare right now that I spend a lot of money on food. So how do I square that with being a thrifty, fortune-saving financial blogging guru?
Well, its tricky alright. With the rise of the super cheap supermarket in the UK, it’s probably actually fairly easy to spend relatively little cash on food. However, if you apply some criteria of provenance and quality (see below), the price does go up. What we are looking for really here is the ‘holy grail’ of the grocery world: local, seasonal, high quality food with no weird shit in it, that minimises cruelty to animals and any adverse impacts on our world. And it has to be affordable. There. That’s surely not too much to ask??! Let’s see.
I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t support the idea that the only climate-friendly diet is a vegetarian or vegan one. However, there is little doubt that eating a lot of meat is bad for us, and is also deeply unsustainable. Lamb and beef in particular are especially high in greenhouse gas production, chicken, pork and fish have a lower carbon footprint. Dairy produce such as milk and cheese are also pretty high (but not as high as lamb or beef).
Good meat is also very expensive, and even cheap meat usually costs more than non-meat alternatives. I try to avoid buying meat from animals that have been reared in the horrifying conditions found on intensive and factory farms. I also don’t want meat that has been reared on genetically modified soya grown in Latin America. From a quality perspective, I dislike eating meat that has been pumped with water, or that has no flavour, or has a peculiar texture. So that counts out most of the cheap meat on offer. However, eating less meat that is better quality and meets high welfare standards satisfies my requirements on every level. In many cases this will mean buying organic meat. Not that the organic label is a magic spell that cures all evils and ensures perfect meat. It clearly isn’t. But it does greatly ensure the odds, and also pretty much guarantees that animals have better living conditions and better quality feed, which in turns makes for better meat.
Non-organic farming of fruit and vegetables relies heavily on chemical based fertilisers produced using the Haber Bosch process, which is estimated to use up around 5% of global natural gas production each year (roughly twice the total gas consumption of the UK). At a more local level, the fertilisers leach into our waterways, causing multiple environmental problems that can be tracked all the way into the ocean.
Non-organic farming also relies heavily on pesticides, which are linked to rapidly declining wildlife populations, especially insects, birds and small mammals. The pesticide residues can remain in our food after washing, and are likely have long term consequences for our health. All of which leads me down the organic route as far as possible – but of course organic food comes at a price premium that many struggle (or are unwilling) to pay. In order to keep costs low, it is worth seeking out the cheap organic staples that you eat a lot of. For us that would be bread, pasta, potatoes, and rice. On the scale of things, we eat a lot of these, but the price is not that much more than non-organic.
It may also be worth considering splashing out the extra cost for organic for the worst offenders in terms of pesticide residues. The US Environmental Working Group has listed its ‘Dirty Dozen’ most contaminated fruit and vegetables, for example, which are worth avoiding.
The food miles argument is probably quite well known to you. Why the hell would we buy French beans from Kenya when we can grow them in Kent? (or even in France!) The fuel spent on flying or shipping those green beans on to my plate could surely be better spent doing something else? In truth, there is some fairly good evidence now that the shipping portion of the overall footprint of many food items is pretty small in relation to the other areas of production, such as fertiliser and land use change. I’m prepared to accept this, and I can see how in purely energy terms it is more efficient to fly in tomatoes from Spain than grow them in heated UK greenhouses through the winter.
In spite of the food miles arguments above, I still can’t see the point of buying these things out of season – not least because they usually taste substandard and are more expensive. Better to wait for the season to roll around when they come from closer to home, as well as being cheaper and generally all round tastier. “Eating with the seasons” is a hackneyed old phrase now, but it still makes me very happy, and means that our overall diet is far more varied.
Buying direct from local producers can be a good way of getting good stuff a little bit cheaper. Ask around, have a look out for signs in farms selling stuff – you might just land on an absolute gem! You may be able to find some local producers using the Big Barn website.
Buy in bulk
This won’t work for everyone, but if you have a fairly large household like ours, and have space to store stuff, then you can often get organic for near the price of non- organic by buying in bulk from wholesalers such as Suma. Not everything is cheaper though, it’s always worth doing some price comparisons and shopping around.
I’ll be adding more to this in the coming months, and if you have any top tips for getting low cost top quality food, then drop me a line. I’m also going to develop a new calculator specifically for food costs and carbon footprint, so look out for that. In the meantime, I highly recommend trying my cost and carbon snapshot. It takes 5 minutes, and will give you a great starting point to go from.