Just how easy is it to eat food that won't ruin the world?
All images courtesy of the author.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
A question: Is it possible to plate up wokeness? Can our food—which fuels our caring bodies, our sensitive souls, our intersectional and privilege-checking hive-mind—reflect our ever-so-millennial ethics?
Food, as we now know, is mostly evil. Documentaries like Cowspiracy and What the Health? insist that every one of America's animals is on more drugs than the average Soundcloud rapper, and intent on farting the world toward apocalypse, while food marketed as "good" or "pure" often comes with a side-helping of breached environmental ethics. Avocados have run Mexico dry, almonds have done the same to California, imported soy comes complete with a hefty carbon footprint and a touch of mass deforestation.
Confused, hungry, and wanting the world's ecosystem to survive so far into the future that we one day get to see all of it covered by sky-high apartment blocks that no one can actually afford to live in, I asked a bunch of experts what the most ethical meal in the UK right now might be, so I could cook it.
To start, Doug McMaster—head chef at zero waste restaurant, Silo Brighton—recommends a course of signal crayfish, which fit the brief because they're both local and in need of a cull. "Introduced in the 1970s to be farmed for food, they somehow escaped into the wild and now destroy biodiversity and eat our native species," he says. "They must be stopped. Fortunately, they're delicious!"
I head off to a fish market in pursuit of these avaricious American scuttlers, but there are none in stock. As a substitute, investigative journalist Joanna Blythman—who has written books on food including Swallow This and What to Eat—tells me an "obvious ethical food" is mussels. "Farmed mussels are environmentally benign, and some research suggests their cultivation may have an overall beneficial effect on the marine ecosystem," she outlined previously in The Guardian.
I relay this to the guy at the fish market, and he raises his arm and kisses his right bicep, grinning, "I've got muscles." I repeat, "No, mussels," and he diligently wraps a cluster of shells into a paper package. The plastic bag I’m given to carry them home in is, thankfully, biodegradable.
Once home, I tap the mussels so they close, rinse them, tug the ropey beards, then steam them with some leftover salsa I made the other day and some cucumber from the kebab my girlfriend bought after she discovered I’d be making "ethical food" for dinner.
It's not quite foraging, but as a spokesperson at the Food Ethics Council explains: "You can have the most ethically sourced ingredients, the highest welfare, lowest environmental impact, best for health, but if half of that is being thrown away, it's a huge waste of impact and resources."
Plucked from the part of the fridge where fresh herbs go to die, the parsley makes my starter look quite pretty. But half-pickled by the lime juice, they’ve been swamped in for days, the onion and tomato have the fragrant acidity of a pre-vomit burp. The mussels, having not been washed—I didn’t want to waste water!—taste more like the sea than anything's ever tasted like the sea. They’re stagnant rock pools, briny little shipwrecks, the deepest recesses of Ursula’s cave. The cucumber is fine, though.
Still hungry, I reach out to Tara Garnett, who runs the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford's Environmental Change Institute. What can I eat and cook that won’t ruin the world? "The usuals, I’m afraid," Tara tells me. "Lentils and other pulses, swedes, cabbages."
The Food Foundation, an independent think-tank tackling the growing challenges facing the UK's food system, corroborates this. "You can’t go wrong with seasonal vegetables. At the moment, that’s carrots, cabbage, and purple sprouting broccoli," a spokesperson explains. But what of the humble potato? Is Sir Walter Raleigh’s biggest gift to the UK not going to make the cut?
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), a levy board funded by farmers and growers, reassures me of my reliance on the staple by showing me a report recommending potatoes over pasta or rice.
"Potatoes have significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and potential water scarcity impact," says the AHDB’s Sector Strategy Director of Potatoes, Dr. Rob Clayton. "Therefore, on a global scale, a portion of potatoes potentially has a lower environmental impact than basmati rice or pasta alternatives." Potatoes are so energy-efficient that even "the Chinese Agricultural Ministry is turning away from rice and looking to the potato to meet China’s future food demands."
If you’re opposed to animals being bred and prematurely killed for human delectation, meat is probably out the window, but if not: Environmentally-speaking, the AHDB explains that the UK is "one of the most sustainable places in the world to produce red meats." While "ruminants emitting gases is a natural process happening for thousands of years, what is less often aired is how this is offset by the grazing animals managing permanent pasture as an effective carbon sink, and the animals aiding biodiversity in the countryside."
In short, life springs from sheep shit eternal. So I head to my local butcher, who sources all his free-range meat fresh from Smithfield market in the morning and ask for some lamb for stewing. After all, Tara Garnett did tell me to "avoid using the oven unless you’re cooking lots of things. Use a pressure cooker or cover pans with lids." The butcher suggests mutton and carves me a slab of leg from an elderly sheep that costs less than £2 [$2.72].
To check we're still on ethical course, I ask the Sustainable Food Trust for their opinion on mutton versus regular lamb. A spokesperson informs me that they tend to favor grass-fed mutton or hogget between one and two years old, "Because spring lamb would have been produced in the UK through the winter, which puts pressure on the ewes being reared indoors, or it would’ve been shipped over from farther away."
The World Wide Foundation recently identified lamb stew as one of the most environmentally unfriendly meals in the UK, but things aren't as clear-cut as that either. "If you’re in Wales in particular, that’s the most local and sustainable way of producing food because you’re close to pasture land where you can’t grow many other crops," says the spokesperson.
With all my ingredients at home and my environmental ethics intact, I start cooking.
First, some onions and garlic that I have lying around, some butter studded with burnt breadcrumbs of toast past, and the chunks of mutton. I coat the mutton in organic wheat flour, which I also have lying around because—in this era of carbohydrate resistance masked as celiac disease—who really finishes a kilo of wheat before its sell-by date?
Once the mutton is really bouncy, in go some beef stock cubes, freezer-foraged thyme, water, and half of the Oyster Bay pinot noir a well-meaning friend once brought around for pre-drinks. After all, I’m going for zero waste here, and I can’t waste time having friends who think that’s a decent wine. I peel and chop the vegetables, and then they go in too.
Faced with the wastage of potato and parsnip peelings, I follow Google's lead and chuck them in a tray, slug on some olive oil, and—on my girlfriend’s kind suggestion—sprinkle them with curry powder. A light fry later and I’ve got this:
The parsnip shavings are caramel-sweet and crispy, and I’m certain Tyrells' marketing team will shortly be in touch. But the potato bits are flabby and send deep acid surges and heaves toward the back of my mouth. I’ve not tasted anything so hot and flavorless since mephedrone was legal.
Two hours of stirring—and sprinkling in faster-cooking items like lentils and broccoli—later (because that’s how long it takes to cook the wizened flesh of an old mutton leg) and dinner is ready!
It looks like the sort of food people eat in Winterfell. But it tastes… fine? The meat is succulent and falls apart in strands. It's earthier and sweeter than lamb, and the broth is deep with booze. The vegetables still have some bite and are bland enough to coexist. So what if I’ve just spent an hour collating and prepping the ingredients and another two-and-a-half hours swirling some gruel around a pan? Food doesn’t have to harm the environment, especially when the energy spent on its creation is just one small ring of gas and my own human toil, rather than that of an unsustainably-fueled machine.
Trying to do the right thing can tie us in knots. Each edible lifestyle choice comes with its own nasty aftertaste. It takes a lot to swim against the tides of the food industry’s many shills, and trying to offset the bad choices with the good creates a pretty dizzying mental seesaw, especially when you’re hungry.
A spokesperson at the Ethical Food Council summarizes: "Eating ethically is a minefield, so we think it’s important for people to ask questions at restaurants and in shops—'Where does this come from?' 'How is this made?'—so we understand more about the journey it’s been on and the impacts it might have. Then people can make a more informed decision about whether that’s something they’re happy with. If restaurants, cafes, or people working in shops don’t know the answer to those questions, that raises important issues."
Will I continue to eat in ways that might stop harming the environment? Well, I’ll try to confront the realities of my appreciation of meat by developing a willingness to eat the parts that’d otherwise go to waste, and I’ll perhaps adopt a more nationalistic approach to vegetables. But I’d also welcome efforts by supermarkets to cut down packaging in order to reduce waste, extend unnecessary sell-by dates and hand their leftovers to the innumerable food banks that need them right now. It would also be good if we lived in a culture where the marketability of excessive consumption is derided rather than the effects of over-eating, or where any government helped its citizens with the time, education, space, and money needed to create food that goes a little less hard on the environment.
Perhaps everyone could then enjoy a muddy mutton stew, just like ethically pure me, and take the leftovers to work the next day, where their vibrant scent will fill the office and give their boss's dog an erection. Which, regrettably, is something that happened.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Sophie Wilkinson on Twitter.