Today's hyper global, industrialised food system is responsible for a huge part of our carbon emissions. In the UK this is compounded by the fact that we import nearly 50% of all our food .... and then we waste one-third of it.
Hungry for Change is presented by a forager who takes us on a fascinating and inspiring journey to meet people in Cornwall working on ways for us to 'do food better' as the climate changes – from the gleaners picking ‘waste’ crops in our fields to projects growing food in unusual places, and a microbiologist keen to get us all eating low-carbon insects.
There’s no two ways about it …. our food system is in a mess.
What we eat today is produced in ways that are hugely dependent on fossil fuels, mechanisation, fertilisers and poisons – and is a major contributor to both the climate and biodiversity crises.
Unsurprisingly, global food production is responsible for about 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of biodiversity loss, through deforestation, habitat destruction, soil degradation, water pollution and destruction of marine wildlife.
In producing food for ourselves, we humans are literally destroying the climate stability and natural systems that our food production depends on.
It’s clear that things cannot continue for long like this – so what can be done to ensure we can eat into the future, in a way that is healthy both for us and the planet?
We are lucky to have great people in Cornwall, such as Sustainable Food Cornwall, working hard to find ways of making our food supply system more locally resilient and environmentally beneficial.
This movement brings together everyone who works in food in Cornwall – from health professionals to farmers – researching what works best about food in Cornwall while overcoming the deeply-entrenched structural problems that stop local food from being produced and consumed here more fairly and sustainably.
THERE ARE A HUGE NUMBER OF BRILLIANT AND CREATIVE FOOD AND GROWING INITIATIVES IN CORNWALL. WE’VE INCLUDED SOME OF THEM IN THESE PAGES – BUT IF YOU KNOW OF A GREAT OPERATION THAT WE’VE MISSED, PLEASE LET US KNOW!
This might seem like a nonsensical question given the current cost of living crisis and rocketing inflation.
However, in the UK we actually spend significantly less of our household income on food compared with other Western European countries – just 4.5% compared with an average of 17% for Europe. Meanwhile our housing is among some of the most expensive.
Our food may be relatively cheap, but most of it tends to be highly processed and nutrient-poor, made using commodity ingredients from all over the world, which have very likely been produced in environmentally destructive ways.
Eating healthily should not be more expensive – but it is. In fact, it is estimated that the poorest 10% of households in Cornwall would have to spend 75% of their disposable income on food if they were going to eat according to healthy diet guidelines - UK vegetable consumption fell by 7.5% in 2022.
Over 60% of the UK population is overweight or obese (yet often malnourished) and the NHS spends over £6 billion each year on diet-related illness and obesity.
Most food in the UK is bought from supermarkets, which keep costs artificially low – but this has a knock-on effect on farmers, and therefore our future food security.
For a supermarket chicken that costs £4, for example, the farmer will receive just one penny, so it’s hardly surprising that many smaller, less intensive farmers are going out of business.
Farms that are better able to survive are generally large, heavily fossil fuel dependent operations that use large amounts of chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers, antibiotics and bought-in feeds to maximise yields.
Industrial farming often has huge impacts on the environment, human nutrition and animal health and welfare. It is also more likely to create the breeding grounds for devastating diseases and potentially future pandemics, having already led to the emergence and spread of mad cow disease (BSE), swine flu, bird flu, foot and mouth disease, etc.
Soaring energy costs due to the Ukraine war have also impacted farms, due to the increased costs of growing in heated glasshouses, as well as imported feeds and chemicals. Artificial fertiliser prices have been particularly affected (the fertiliser production process is hugely energy intensive).
While this has been beneficial in some ways, by encouraging farmers to grow with fewer artificial, environmentally-damaging inputs, many of them are also leaving the industry, or considering doing so.
Farm subsidies are changing in the wake of Brexit. The old EU Basic Payments System, which rewards farmers simply for owning land, is being changed to the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). In theory, this should encourage more environmentally-friendly farming techniques and will pay farmers not just to grow food but also to plant trees, restore wetlands and support biodiversity.
However – given that at least the half the income of most farms in Cornwall comes from public subsidies – this is causing much uncertainty and worry. Many farms, already struggling, could receive far less once the basic payments system disappears in 2027 – and this will be more likely to impact smaller, arguably less intensive farms, as the bigger industrial ones are less reliant on subsidies.
Healthy, sustainably-produced food should be available, accessible and affordable for everyone, both now and in the future.
It’s going to be a huge challenge, but there are things we can do to help!
The good news is that – by changing the way we eat – we could have a huge impact on both climate change and support for nature.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows that moving to healthy, sustainable diets could deliver ‘gigatonne-scale’ emissions reductions – and free up several million square kilometres of land worldwide, while also preventing up to 24% of unnecessary deaths globally.
The bad news is that – as a famous person once said – “it’s easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet”.
The report ‘Eating for Net Zero’ from WWF models a way to change diets to help the UK reach its net-zero targets while reducing emissions, land use, water use, soil acidification, freshwater eutrophication, marine eutrophication and biodiversity loss.
According to the report, the carbon footprint of the current UK diet is 4.84kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2 e) per person per day. This far exceeds where we need to be in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C and reach net zero by 2050.
The WWF finds that, if we’re going to hit our targets, a large part of this will have to come from a reduction in meat and dairy consumption.
According to the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget analysis, diet shift could free up three million hectares of land from agriculture by 2035, providing opportunities to restore nature and sequester carbon. Currently, for example, half of the UK’s annual wheat harvest goes into livestock feed.
The Livewell diet proposes a 50% increase in consumption of pulses such as beans and lentils. Producing peas has on average 36 times less climate impact than producing beef, while still providing plenty of protein. And legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans also fix nitrogen in the soil, improving soil health, helping to store carbon and reducing the need for artificial fertilisers.
Please see our meat and dairy section for more detailed climate information about the production of meat and dairy – particularly the industrially-farmed kinds of animal products that are commonly found in UK supermarkets.
When you add up all the energy needed to grow, harvest, process, refrigerate, pasteurise, package and transport our food it is doubly tragic that we throw away £19 billion worth of it uneaten – and the largest proportion of food being wasted is actually in our own homes.
Some 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from UK agriculture stem from food waste, with an estimated 6.9 billion meals’ worth of edible food wasted on UK farms each year.
There are many reasons for food being left in the fields unpicked – among them climate change itself.
Large growers are locked into exacting supermarket contracts, which require them to provide specific amounts of produce based on orders placed weeks or months in advance. This can lead to over-planting to minimise the risk of losses due to pests, disease or bad weather.
Crops may be rejected by supermarkets on cosmetic grounds, or simply not needed if the weather changes and shoppers want to buy salads instead of brassicas, for example.
With Brexit making it harder to find workers to pick the crops, it is possible that even more could be left to rot in the fields.
Big growers such as Riviera in Cornwall have struggled to find local workers. It is hard work, but well paid – if you’re interested sign up here.
The Cornwall Gleaning Network works with local farmers in order to rescue unwanted and surplus veg that would otherwise be ploughed back into their fields. Volunteers harvest these vegetables and distribute them to food banks and community kitchens, which are crying out for fresh produce to help feed people in need.
If you can volunteer to help – or if you are a farmer who could welcome the gleaners to make sure your unused crops don’t go to waste - please get in touch with the Gleaning Network here.
‘Best before’?? A ‘use-by’ date really is about food safety. These dates are used on food that goes off quickly, such as meat or ready-to-eat salads.
However, ‘sell by’ or ‘display until’ labels are simply a means for retailers to manage their stock, while ‘best before’ dates just show when foods are at their absolute premium quality. After this date, if your fruit or veg is still looking good and smells ok (which it almost certainly will be, within reason), it should be fine. We need to recover our ability to rely on our senses and stop throwing away perfectly good food!
Price wars between supermarkets and ‘buy one get one free’ offers etc. are all part of their market share domination model… and inevitably end up with consumers buying more than they need and wasting it in the home.
Many supermarkets are doing more these days to reduce waste, however, such as cutting back on best before dates, partnering with charities and sending remaining food for use in animal feed or anaerobic digestion.
Several brilliant Cornish organisations intercept supermarket waste food for people in need, such as Café Abundance, Penzance’s Growing Links and Disc in Newquay. This food is often also available through community kitchens and larders.
Devon and Cornwall Food Action also offer a food box scheme for people in need, distributing surplus or ‘waste’ food from supermarkets, fast food outlets and Fareshare.
You can also access cheap, short-dated food and other products at Best Before It’s Gone.
As shown in the film, some of the waste food in South East Cornwall is going to support the monkeys at the brilliant Wild Futures Monkey Sanctuary near Seaton. The sanctuary is desperate for funds, so please do visit and/ or donate. More information here.
(Some information above adapted from the Association of UK Dieticians’ ‘One Blue Dot’)
These days in the UK we expect a huge range of foods year-round, instead of eating seasonally, as well as foods we just can’t grow in this country. As a result, we import nearly half of all the food we eat.
The average banana will have travelled over 4,000 ‘food miles’ (by ship, rather than plane) before it reaches your fruit bowl!
In purely emissions terms, however, transporting what we eat in Europe has less of an impact than we may imagine. Food miles are responsible for only 6% of food-related emissions, while meat, dairy and egg consumption accounts for 83%.
Animal products – the majority of which come from industrial, fossil fuel dependent farming systems – have a much greater climate impact than plant-based foods – even highly processed and packaged ones (although those are not advisable either, for health reasons!)
So what you eat is actually more important than where your food travelled from.
Intensively-farmed meat and dairy has a large but invisible ecological footprint because much of the feed for these animals is sourced from places like South America. Over 70% of all soya, for example, is grown for animal feed, and this has led to huge devastation of the Amazon and other sensitive habitats.
You don’t need to switch to a 100% plant-based diet, but just reducing your consumption of animal products will make a big difference – especially if you can choose local, regeneratively farmed produce.
Find lots more information on our ‘what you can do’ page about meat and dairy here.
Find out lots more, often surprising information about the climate impact of various foods at Our World in Data.
The climate impact of transporting food around the world may be less than we think – but our dependency on imports does leave us very vulnerable.
Climate impacts here may not be as devastating as in other parts of the world, but we are going to feel them nonetheless as the places we import our food from become less able to supply us and have to focus on feeding their own people.
Climate change is also forecast to significantly reduce yields of corn, wheat and rice, the three crops that account for most of the calories humans eat today. It will also enable the spread of more crop pests.
We’ve already had a small taste of what the future could hold if things don’t change. When bad weather on the continent reduced harvests of fresh fruit, veg and salads in early 2023, European supermarkets put up their prices to take account of the market conditions. Because UK supermarket prices are kept artificially low, foreign suppliers chose to sell their limited stocks to European customers instead – and our shelves were left bare.
Not so long ago, Cornwall was full of small mixed farms, market gardens and orchards, which supplied their local communities with a huge amount of their food.
Modern efficiencies and economies of scale have seen most of these vanish, with specific, scaled up types of food production concentrated in different parts of the country. Most food produced locally now is sold to supermarkets or exported.
Today, £10 million is spent in Cornish supermarkets every week, with supermarket purchases accounting for 96.5% of all our grocery purchases.
Rebuilding a certain level of local food sovereignty is going to be crucial for the future.
A key way of helping to do this and ensure more certainty for smaller growers would be for big buyers like schools, hospitals, universities etc. to start sourcing their food locally.
Cornwall Council has recently passed a motion to procure the food served at its meetings from local suppliers.
Read more in the report ‘Towards a Sustainable Food Cornwall’.
Sustainable Food Cornwall is also looking at the lack of local processing and storage capacity. This will become even more of an issue if a warming climate enables us to grow more unusual crops. Sunflowers, hemp etc. could already grow here well, but farmers will not be able to branch out into these without the equipment, skills or infrastructure to harvest and process them.
In general it is better to buy food where you can see how it is grown, and where any impacts are happening locally, not conveniently out of sight on the other side of the world.
Buying local produce from smaller independent shops may not have the convenience of shopping at a supermarket – but their reputation for being more expensive isn’t always true.
Producers get a bigger return from food sold this way or directly from the farm. Shorter supply chains mean fewer middlemen to take a cut – and you’ll be helping to support a local economy and food produced without huge food miles.
If possible, buy organic or regeneratively farmed food. This will likely be more expensive, because yields are naturally lower if you’re growing food without artificial fertilisers and pesticides – but what you are eating will be better for your own health, as well as providing a crucial protection to soils and biodiversity.
Eat local food in season when possible – for example delicious local strawberries or asparagus in the summer. Let them be a treat at the right time of year, instead of eating tasteless, high carbon imported ones all year round.
Check out our list of options for finding ecologically-sound, locally produced food, farm shops and box schemes below. These are just a few – let us know if there’s anything else you think we should include.
Sustainable Food Cornwall is also developing a Good Food Map so you can find local suppliers, growers and community food projects near you. If you know of others that should be added to the map, contact SFC to request them to be included.
And of course if you can, grow your own! Not everyone has the access to space, time, skills or an allotment, but if not why not volunteer at your local community garden?
Permaculture is a wonderful way of designing gardens and growing produce in a way that builds the soil, replicating natural ecosystems and processes.
Most of human food today comes from just a few species of plants – but permaculture focuses heavily on a wide variety of perennials, which carry on producing for many years. This means you don’t need to disturb or damage the soil – and there’s so much less work to do than if you’re re-planting each year!
You can use permaculture principles to grow on a huge site, such as Addy’s in our film, or just in a small window box.
Many local community gardens use organic and permaculture principles, and most of them are very keen to welcome volunteers, where you can learn more. There are also some wonderful permaculture teachers in Cornwall, design courses available and forest garden sites that you can visit for inspiration:
While people are often concerned about productive farmland being given over to things like large solar farms and rewilding projects, there are other non-food uses of land that we seem to accept much more readily.
An incredible 25 million square miles of land on this planet are taken up by golf courses. There are just under 2,800 golf courses in the UK, with about 30 in Cornwall. Between them, the UK’s (usually highly chemically treated) golf courses cover more land than the area taken up by all of the country’s houses!
Could we be making better combined use of space? Increasingly around the world solar farms are being combined with farming activities, such as growing berries (which like some shade) beneath the panels, and this is even happening in Cornwall, for example at Pensipple Farm in SE Cornwall, where solar panels have been combined successfully with sheep grazing.
Incredible Edible is an international movement that aims to empower local communities – like the project in Helston project featured in the film – to come together to transform their landscapes and turn disused plots into abundant sources of healthy food.
Is this something you’d like to get started in your neighbourhood too?
Foraging is a brilliant way of connecting with your local environment, learning about wild foods – and also adding highly nutritious, untreated and free food to your diet.
Obviously you must know what you are doing though. As our film presenter Josh says: ‘Never munch on a hunch!’
There are masses of books and online resources to help you on your foraging journey, but it’s a good idea to gain confidence and learn how to harvest respectfully by taking a course or going on a foraging walk with reputable and experienced local foragers, some of whom will also show you some great recipes for using the wild plants you’ve harvested.
You don’t need to live in the countryside to forage either – even if you live in a town you’re likely to find many edible plants near where you live. Many parks and gardens even welcome foraging or even run foraging courses.
Just a couple of suggestions for reputable foragers in Cornwall include (of course) our film presenter Joshua Quick.
The Family Foraging Kitchen in South East Cornwall offers everything from foraging walks to fungi ID and cookery demonstrations – plus a huge range of courses in traditional skills and crafts from dry stone walling to wildflower meadow creation and basket weaving.
Matt at Cornish Wild Food teaches throughout the mid Cornwall area.
Josh also highly recommends the following online teachers:
Also check out the Association of Foragers providing links to foraging teachers all over the country.
Wild Cornwall sell a range of products made with foraged ingredients gathered from the Roseland Peninsula.
The Cornish Seaweed Company sell some of the hundreds of types of wild Cornish seaweeds, collected from around the Lizard Peninsula.
Two-thirds of adults in Cornwall are overweight or obese – as are a massive 35% of children by the last year of primary school.
Schools have an incredibly important role to play in educating young people about how to eat both sustainably and healthily, as well as in supporting local food security.
Check out great organisations such as Chefs in Schools and ProVeg which provide support, recipes and ideas to do everything from setting up school allotments to creating better DT lessons and helping school caterers to develop healthy, plant-based meals that will reduce the environmental impact of school dinners while also saving money.
You might be cutting down on meat to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions…. but you equally might not be prepared to switch to insects instead.
However, with over 20 million dogs and cats in the country, it’s worth thinking about the impact of our pets’ food too.
Aside from the meat, lots of pet food also contains ingredients transported from across the world, like rice, sweet potatoes and soya.
Dogs can actually live perfectly healthily with much less meat, or even none at all. And increasingly, low carbon pet foods are being developed too.
One option is Yora, which is made from the larvae of the black soldier fly, combined with UK grown vegetables such as potato, beetroot and carrots. Insects need much less space, energy and water than farming animals for meat – but their protein contains just the same minerals and nutrients.
But if you are interested in taking the plunge and giving insects a try yourself, check out Yumbug. You can buy insect ingredients in various formats and they also provide masses of recipes to inspire you on their website.
You can also read more about the work of Olivia Champion, of Entec Nutrition, featured in our film here.
With wild deer populations at their highest numbers for 1,000 years and with no natural predators in existence, these animals are having a huge impact on efforts to regenerate woodlands and plant new trees to combat the climate crisis.
If you’re a meat eater and are looking for the most cruelty-free and ethical option possible, wild culled (as opposed to farmed) venison is probably it.
Venison has a bit of an image problem though. On one hand it’s perceived as being an ‘elite’ meat that is likely to be too expensive or complicated to cook…. but on the other this means a lot of it actually ends up just going to make pet food!
You can buy culled venison (and other ecologically-farmed meat) from Farm Wilder.
You can also buy culled venison burgers at some supermarkets.
This is a key ingredient of so much of today’s ultra-processed food. Sadly, it has a major climate and environmental footprint as it is very often grown unsustainably, with huge swathes of rainforests burned and carbon-rich peatlands drained to create plantations.
This doesn’t just impact on crucial habitat for orang utans and hundreds of other species, but also releases enormous amounts of carbon.
Palm oil is found in our soap, shampoos, breads, margarines, cakes, even toothpaste. It’s also used in industrial animal feed – e.g. in concentrated feed for dairy cows to increase milk fat content.
Sadly, it’s not always easy to identify it in ingredients as it has so many names, such as sodium laureth sulfate, or stearic acid.
Try to use products that are ‘palm oil free’ or use sustainable palm oil (although it’s debatable whether any palm oil is really sustainable). You can also download the Palm Oil Scan app.
Use the app to check products’ barcodes to see how major manufacturers are sourcing their palm oil. Thousands of products have been scanned and scored, with companies worldwide ranked as excellent, good, poor or having made no commitment to sourcing palm oil sustainably.
As a project to document the facts around climate change in Cornwall, we take our own carbon footprint very seriously and aim to tread as lightly as possible.
We operate in accordance with an environmental policy that covers everything from our transport (which accounts for the bulk of our emissions) and banking to data storage and battery charging.