WWF UK Blog  

(Kung) Food Panda

 

As we launch our new recipe competition for primary schools, I explore the issues between food and our health and that of the planet plus, what we can do as parent, child or teacher. 

Food, it means so much to us. A smell invokes memories. All the important events in our lives, birthdays, Christmas or weddings are celebrated by a feast. We are passionate about our favourite foods. They could be black jacks, avocados, haggis, chocolate or chard. A good plate of food is colourful, has wonderful aromas. It is a real feast for all our senses.

Our Green Ambassador Champion School, Wicor Primary, Hampshire, are a great example of a school growing and cooking with fruit and veg grown in their school grounds © Tristan Fewings /WWF-UKOur Green Ambassador Champion School, Wicor Primary, Hampshire, are a great example of a school growing and cooking with fruit and veg grown in their school grounds © Tristan Fewings /WWF-UK

So how come we have become disconnected from where our food comes from? We don’t tend to question how our food is produced and what we are eating. We think we are in an age of plentiful choice when in fact we are eating from a smaller pool of species than ever before.

We have abdicated responsibly for what we eat to food companies, diet gurus and celebrities. We cook less than ever before, claiming to be time poor. However we spend four to five hours a night on line or watching TV – often watching programs about food and cooking like Bake Off. It seems we no longer value food. As a nation we are getting fatter, eating more ultra-processed food and spending more money on cook books and diets.

Food is confusing

Recently food was identified as the number one cause of death. More people die from bad diet than smoking or alcohol or air pollution. If this was any other sector it would be a national disgrace, yet the government does nothing.

It is not all our fault; it can be hard to navigate our way round the food system. Looking at ingredients a parent can be confused. There are 50 different types of sugar. It is possible to buy a ‘low – fat’ food which has 4 or 5 different added sugars in and the word sugar is not used on the ingredient list. Breakfast cereals have added vitamins, iron and now protein. We can be forgiven for thinking this is the healthy option. However often they are loaded with sugar, marketed by a cartoon animal.

Protein is the new fad. However no one in the UK is protein deficient. We already eat protein more than the body can absorb. Yet to create added value it is now being added to cereal, bread and more. It is confusing.

So why is this important to WWF?

The food system has a huge environmental footprint. Climate change is one of the biggest issues of our age and it will be our children and grandchildren who are most affected. The production and consumption of food contributes to climate change in a variety of ways:

30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from food production

30% of energy use is for agriculture and food production

Moreover, 60% of the world’s available land surface (not including deserts, mountains etc) is used for agricultural production. This has impacts including the use of nitrogen and phosphate as fertilisers, water pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity. We have turned over an area the equivalent of South America and Africa to food production.

In the case of the UK, the food chain is directly responsible for about 17% of the UK economy’s GHG emissions. About half of these emissions come from production (farming and fishing) dominated by nitrous oxide from soil and methane from cattle, sheep and manure. There are also significant indirect effects particularly through land use change primarily associated with deforestation for grazing and growing feed crops. If we allocate emissions relating to global land use change to the size of the UK food economy, the total emissions burden attributable to food increases to 30%

We are losing the nation’s soils at an unsustainable rate. UK topsoil losses amount to 2.2 million tonnes per annum, costing the farmer around £9 million in lost production. In parts of the UK we have lost several feet of soil in the past decade.

The sector with the biggest environmental impact is the industrial livestock sector. We are eating more meat per person than ever before. Chicken used to be a treat. My grandfather was a chicken farmer. We only ate chicken once a month. This was more than the majority of the population. I grew up in the 70’s, so for some of us not that long ago. Now most people eat chicken every day without thinking of what goes into this animal, be it soy for feed or antibiotics.

Orang-utans to anteaters

The food system is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss on land and sea. The Orang-utan is being driven to extinction for palm oil. It is in everything from soap to bread to noodles. The anteater in the Brazilian Cerrado is endangered so people can grow sow to feed to industrial livestock, primarily dairy cows, pigs and chickens. All so we can have cheap milk, eggs and meat.

Only 12 crops provide 80% of the plant food consumed globally. Yet over 30,000 species of plants are known to be edible and 7000 are semi-domesticated. For some crazy reason people think plants are boring.

Our Green Ambassador Champion School, Wicor Primary, Hampshire, are a great example of a school growing and cooking with fruit and veg grown in their school grounds © Tristan Fewings /WWF-UKOur Green Ambassador Champion School, Wicor Primary, Hampshire, are a great example of a school growing and cooking with fruit and veg grown in their school grounds © Tristan Fewings /WWF-UK

The current situation is unsustainable. It will change, either through our actions or through circumstances out of our control. We are already seeing some crops threatened that we love due to the changing environment. There is a real risk that chocolate, coffee and tea and will all disappear or become so expensive that only the rich can enjoy them.

What can we do?

The easiest thing is connect to food, value it and cook more. Growing up both my parents worked. However they insisted that we had a home cooked meal every night and that I learnt to cook. Every weekend I spent time in the kitchen helping and getting in the way. It started with simple things like cheese on toast. Pretty soon I was making Swiss rolls and biscuits, eventually cooking the family roast. I still had time to build dens, play sports. This was before we had social media, 24 TV and shopping became a hobby. Our priorities have shifted, however look at the consequences.

We have 6 simple steps that will enable people to make this switch to healthy and sustainable food choices.

  1. Eat more plants – enjoy vegetables, fruits and whole grains
  2. Eat a variety of foods – have a colourful plate!
  3. Waste less food – one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted
  4. Moderate your meat consumption, both red and white – enjoy other sources of proteins such as peas, beans and nuts.
  5. Buy food that meet a credible certified standard – consider MSC, free-range and fair trade
  6. Eat fewer foods high in fat, salt and sugar – keep foods such as cakes, sweets and chocolate as well as cured meat, fries and crisps to an occasional treat. Choose water, avoid sugary drinks and remember that juices only count as one of your 5-a-day however much you drink.

Starting at school

At school there are many things that can be done. You can grow cress and micro greens in the class room. If you have room create a garden. I worked in on the Galapagos for a year and one of my proudest achievements was creating a vegetable garden with the students that they ended up visiting everyday. An allotment can be big or small. It doesn’t have to cost much, seeds are cheap.

It is possible to grow food in many things, be it old tires, railway sleepers or pots and pans. Greenhouse can be built from old plastic bottles. You can grow potatoes and tomatoes in old sacks. As things ripen the children can make things or just eat straight from the plant. The school kitchen can utilise some of the produce in their own meals. If you have fruit trees or bushes make jam and sell it at the school.

I have seen schools keep chickens. They don’t need much room, supply eggs and give kids and adults a chance to see where eggs come from. Chickens also eat waste food.

Food can be brought into other lessons. History can be brought to life through food. If Columbus had not found America we would not have peppers, tomatoes, potatoes; so no chips and ketchup. It can enliven geography, tracing where foods come from. Recipes can be used for maths. They are so many ways to engage through food.

For a great example of what you can do look to Wicor Primary School. This is truly inspiration. They have a fruit and veg garden. The children I met are really passionate about food, growing and eating. Last time I went there was for a Saturday open day. Even though it was drizzly there was good attendance. The parents, teachers and children alike were so knowledgeable. Members of the local community participated, and there were stalls selling local produce. The local BBC radio station joined and hosted program from there. They have even produced their own recipe book, with dishes that work and their own chutney. There is even a veg box scheme!

Fruits of our labour Credit © Tristan Fewings / WWF-UKFruits of our labour Credit © Tristan Fewings / WWF-UK

The situation can feel daunting. One thing I have learnt is if we all do something we can make a difference. There are many easy things we can do which will benefit our minds, our health, the planet and our pockets. Why not start by joining our plant2plate campaign and create your own recipe.

It is not about going without or eating dull food. It is about exploring flavours, enjoying food, growing and cooking. It is fun, educational and simply delicious.

Visit wwf.org.uk/plant2plate to find out more about our new recipe competition and the resources available exclusively to our Green Ambassadors schools on food issues.

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