One of my favourite things about summer in the UK was the abundance of berries that adorn the paths of Cardiff. When I first arrived in Cardiff last year, I saw some people picking blackberries along the Taff Trail. When I asked them whether it was okay to eat the berries, they looked a bit confused and responded 'of course!'. (In Australia blackberry plants are considered a horrendous nuisance and are sprayed with poison to prevent their spread. Apparently this is not the case in the UK.) For the rest of that summer, and this year too, I have been making the most of the fact that delicious berries grow freely throughout the city in Cardiff.
But blackberries aren't the only edible plant growing around Cardiff. I have now been on two foraging walks with Green City Events, and I have learnt so much about the edible plants in Bute Park. (I was on crutches for the first one and missed a lot of the explanations because I was so slow! The second one was much more enjoyable - both because I could hear all the explanations and also because it was berry season!)
Even after these two walks I am still very much a novice at foraging, but I am a big fan for several reasons:
As wonderful as foraging is, I'm not suggesting that it is possible, or even desirable to entirely live on foraged foods. The foraging walks also taught me about the ethics and etiquette to foraging. Our tutor, Michele from Edible Landscaping, also emphasised the essential etiquette of foraging - leaving enough of any plant for nature to regenerate, and for wildlife to eat (as they don't have the option to go to the local shops if a pesky human has picked all their food!).
I'm planning to make the most of the rapidly disappearing light in the evenings to put what I learnt at the recent Autumn foraging walk into practice. So if you see someone wandering around Bute Park randomly picking berries off trees - come say hi!
Related stories and resources:
In my previous post I referenced an analysis of life cycle assessment studies which looked at the impacts of different foods across five different indicators. The first of these - greenhouse gas emissions - was probably pretty familiar. But what are the others and why are they important too?
Greenhouse gas emissions
What is it?
Greenhouse gases are gases that absorb infrared radiation and trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere. These include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), and synthetic gases, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). This indicator is a measure of how much of these gases are emitted to the atmosphere.
Why is it important?
Human activities such as burning fossil fuels and changing the way land is used (deforestation, agriculture) are releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a far greater rate than would otherwise naturally occur. This is leading to what is known as anthropogenic climate change (and I doubt this is the first time you are reading about that one...).
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measured in units of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2eq). It is a measure of the equivalent global warming potential of all greenhouse gases relative to that of carbon dioxide. For example, over 100 years a molecule of methane will have 28 times the global warming impact of a molecule of carbon dioxide.
What is it?
This indicator considers the occupation of land to produce food. For this study it includes the following types of land associated with food production - seed, on- and off-farm arable and permanent crops, fallow land, temporary pasture and permanent pasture.
Why is it important?
For products like food, land use is a very important indicator. 'Ecological footprint' is often used as a measurement to indicate the area that is required to support each human, and it is currently about 1.7 times the area actually available on Earth! Expanding agricultural land threatens other land uses such as ancient rainforests and other fragile ecosystems.
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measured in m2.year, which is a measure of the area occupied (in square metres) with consideration of the time that it is occupied for (for example, if there are two harvests per year, twice as much food can be produced on the same area compared to if there is one harvest per year - all other things being equal).
What is it?
Some gases that are emitted to the atmosphere combine with water to form an acid, which fall back to the ground as 'acid rain' (also called acid deposition). These gases, such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides, are released from fossil fuel burning and resultant acidic compounds can travel pretty far in the atmosphere before falling as acid rain.
Why is it important?
Some areas of the world are more or less susceptible to acidification. In Australia acid rain levels are low compared to the rest of the world because our coal has low levels of sulphur (uh, yay?) and the population is so widely distributed. However in places like Europe acid rain has resulted in devastating effects. It enters waterways and is toxic to aquatic life, and also damages forests and crops.
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measured in units of grams of sulphur dioxide equivalent (g SO2eq). The impacts of other gases such as ammonia and nitrogen oxides can be expressed in terms of sulphur dioxide equivalence.
What is it?
Eutrophication occurs when excessive amounts of nutrients, such as phosphorus or nitrogen, enter a body of water. Usually plant growth is limited by the availability of nutrients, so when extra nutrients are available plants and algae start growing at a crazy rate which has all sorts of impacts on the ecosystem.
Why is it important?
Excessive amounts of nutrients enter water bodies through industrial and agricultural activities. One of the main sources of excessive nutrients is fertilisers on agricultural land that are washed into nearby waterways (fertilisers have high concentrations of nutrients on purpose, to help the plants that we want to eat grow). Eutrophication can lead to algal blooms and decreased water quality. When the algae dies and decomposes, the microbial activity can deplete the oxygen dissolved in the water and create a 'dead zone' where other organisms can't survive.
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measured in units of grams of phosphate equivalent (g PO4eq). The impacts of other nutrients such as ammonia and nitrates can be expressed in terms of phosphate equivalence.
What is it?
This indicator considers the water required to produce food. For this study it includes irrigation withdrawals, irrigation withdrawals embedded in feed, drinking water for livestock, water for aquaculture ponds and processing water.
Why is it important?
Many areas of the world are facing water scarcity - the recent crisis in Cape Town highlighted this issue. Growing up during the Millenium drought in Australia I remember reading many stories about farmers struggling to keep their crops and livestock alive, not to mention controversy about allocation to agricultural, environmental and other uses. And climate change is just going to exacerbate the issue.
What is it measured in?
This indicator is measures in kilolitres of water. A factor was also applied to weight the water consumption depending on water scarcity in the particular region (for example, consuming water in Australia is given a higher weight as there isn't so much of it there, whereas it would have a lower weighting in Wales because it is a very wet place!).
Hopefully that gave a little more insight into the indicators that were discussed in the Science paper and subsequent media reports (such as here and here). These indicators cut across a range of critical environmental issues that the world is facing from climate change to land use to water scarcity.
Want to learn more about life cycle assessments?
Photo credits: Unsplash
Recently it was my ten year vegi-versary. Becoming vegetarian was the first lifestyle decision that I consciously made myself to reduce my environmental impact (as an idealistic teenager still living at home I was less concerned with how it might impact my mother, who very obligingly catered for my decision...thanks mum!).
Especially in the early days I got pretty over-excited about telling people why they should become vegetarian too, but over the years I have become a bit more chill about it. The evidence is now pretty irrefutable that a plant-based diet has the least impact on the planet. With all the publicity that recent studies have had, it seems more and more people around me have been either consciously trying to limit the amount of meat they consume or cutting it out altogether (yay!).
But while all my peers are excitedly becoming vegetarian (some for a second or third time), I have recently been reconsidering whether it is best for me. Here are some thoughts on why a plant-based diet is pretty great, why it might be less great, and where to from here.
Why a plant-based diet is pretty great
The evidence is pretty clear that a plant-based diet has the least impact on the planet. I was planning to link to a bunch of sources that show this, but very conveniently a massive meta-analysis of 570 food-related life cycle assessments was published this month in Science.
(You have to pay to access the actual journal article, but if you have the means it is well worth a look! Articles published in Science are really short and accessible compared to other academic journals. If you want to nerd out over their dataset, you can access it here. It is worth a download just to see the amount of time, effort and rigour that goes into such a study.)
The whole article is full of fascinating insights that the authors have drawn from the data, but my main take-aways were:
Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential, reducing food’s land use by 3.1 billion ha (a 76% reduction); food’s GHG emissions by 6.6 billion tons of CO2eq (a 49% reduction); acidification by 50%; eutrophication by 49%; and scarcity-weighted freshwater withdrawals by 19%
(My next post is a follow up that discusses in a bit more detail what these indicators mean. Check it out here.)
Why just 'being vegetarian' is less great for me
For the last ten years, I have used being vegetarian as a bit of an excuse be lazy and not to look further into what the most sustainable and ethical food choices actually are. My one absolute criterion for deciding whether or not to eat something has been "Did an animal die? No. Ok good!" But as you can see in the charts above, the impacts of different individual foods can vary a lot depending on how they are grown, processed, transported and consumed.
I eat a reasonable amount of dairy, because halloumi (and also greek yogurt, and goats cheese, and blue cheese). But there are still impacts from keeping livestock to produce dairy. If you look at the charts above, while not as high as beef and other meats, the impacts of diary and eggs are still higher than most plant-based sources (and fish, which I don't eat). The arbitrary lines that I have drawn around my diet do not necessarily align with the impacts of the foods.
In recent years I have mentally given myself a free pass to eat meat while travelling because (a) I'm no longer a ratty teenager and don't want to put people out, and (b) there are lots of cultural experiences tied up with food and I don't want to miss out on those because of a self-imposed restriction. But! While there have been a couple of times that I have consumed foods with some meat in them for the first reason, I'm yet to really take myself up on the free pass.
This means that there have been times when it really would have made sense to eat meat and I haven't. For example:
In the back of my mind, I am conscious that I should probably do some more thinking about food, sustainability and whether I am really making the best choices. Meat is not the only problematic food source. Last year New Scientist published a list of '7 foods you should avoid to help feed the world', which hits a bunch of my other dietary staples (chocolate!). And since living in the UK, even my adored avocado toast seems like it will be causing issues (although perhaps that is not so tragic, avocados here taste pretty lacklustre compared to in Australia).
However, what has really prompted me to reconsider what I choose to eat was a recent failed attempt to donate blood. For those that haven’t done so before, when you go to donate blood they do a quick test to make sure you have enough haemoglobin. (In Wales the test is super cool - they look at whether a drop of blood floats or not in an iodine solution. In Melbourne the test is a much more boring digital reader.) I was so sure when I went along this time that my iron levels would be fine, because I’m pretty diligent these days at eating a variety of pretty iron rich foods. Since trying to donate a couple of years ago in Australia, I have made much more of an effort to get enough iron by eating lots of leafy greens and even taking supplements for a while. Fast forward a few years later and turns out I’m still iron deficient...boo!
Where to from here?
Well, the first step is going to a doctor and working out the whole iron-deficiency situation. But I have also been talking to lots of people recently about the balance between individual health and well-being, and choosing sustainable options that are better for the planet.
So going forward I am considering becoming less vegetarian but more vegan. That seems a bit odd, what does it mean?
Here are some thoughts:
Related reading and resources:
Since moving to Cardiff (in actual Wales, not New South Wales) last year, I have stopped really paying attention to the weather forecast. After ambitiously trying to leave my raincoat behind and getting unexpectedly saturated on my short ride to work once, I have realised that I'm better off just wearing it every day because it is always rainy (yes, I should have expected that, I know).
So when storm Emma dumped a load of snow on Cardiff, it was a complete surprise to me. I have been sent home from school in Australia due to heat, but never have I experienced a snow day before, and thanks to Emma I got to have two!
But what does all this have to do with sustainability, I hear you ask.
Last Friday no one could use their cars. It lasted just one day until the roads were cleared and the temperatures began to rise on Saturday, but it was a magical day. The streets were alive, not with cars racing along, but with people. As most workplaces were closed, my housemates and I huddled in our front room (the warmest room the the house), working from home. From there we could see people wandering past, dragging sledges, chatting to neighbours and generally just chilling out rather than rushing from one activity to the next as they normally might. There were no worries of a car coming along, so children (and let's be honest, Australian "adults") frolicked in the streets.
When we ventured out in search of food (because we thought it was a joke when everyone started panic-buying bread and milk on Wednesday), the only shops that were open were those that are locally owned. The larger chain supermarkets remained closed, which meant the local grocer where we buy our fruit and veg was absolutely bustling. We managed to find some bread at a local deli, and for everything else we just ate what was already in the cupboards and fridge (the best way to reduce food waste!).
By Saturday, at least in central Cardiff, the snow had started to turn to slush and noisy, dirty cars ruled the roads again. Just a week later, those magical days feel distant already as the hustle and bustle of work and other activities returned to normal.
Of course, not being able to use the roads caused havoc for emergency services and those with limited mobility (and that is definitely not a good thing!). But for the rest of us, it was an enforced exercise in slowing down and smelling the daffodils.
UNEP WED2015 Post 2 of 2 - This post was originally published on the UNEP website, I wrote it in my role as the official blogger for World Environment Day in 2015
The World Environment Day celebrations at the Milan Expo were a journey through sustainability initiatives, from the ultra modern – an electric tesla car – to traditional zero-waste cooking classes.
For UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Yaya Touré and Executive Director Achim Steiner, the day commenced in style with a ride in a Tesla. Their trip to the Expo continued in a Fiat Panda, which had been retrofitted with an electric drivetrain. UNEP powered the vehicles with 100% renewable electricity in order to minimise the environmental impact of the journey. Steiner valued the importance of the Fiat retrofit in providing a second life for an old car, while Touré was a particular fan of the driving capability of the Tesla.
But this wasn’t the only reason Touré said he needs a new car. Touré is passionate about the need to reduce the air pollution resulting from our reliance on fossil fuel cars, having experienced first-hand the health and environmental impacts. Aware of his influence as an example to young people, Touré identified the need to reduce the impact of his car usage. Hopefully Toure’s one action will inspire many others to reconsider the role of fossil fuel transport in their own lives. While purchasing an electric car may not be realistic for many, bringing this issue to the forefront on World Environment Day may encourage people to consider other options such as walking, cycling and public transport.
The World Environment Day opening ceremony emphasised the need for everyday actions like this to work in tandem with policy actions. The main policy outcome from World Environment Day and the Milan Expo is the Charter of Milan. Based around the Expo theme of “feeding the planet, energy for life”, the Charter of Milan identifies and addresses the main issues surrounding sustainable resource use. Steiner and the Italian Minister of Environment Gian Luca Galletti signed the Charter during the World Environment Day activities, calling on individuals, organisations and governments to take responsibility to ensure the sustainability of food systems in providing for future generations.
The World Environment Day activities were not just policy-related, there was also the opportunity for some practical learning during the sustainable cooking demonstrations and classes. The focus of the program was the reduction of food waste, which currently impacts the adequate provision of food around the world. During the World Environment Day opening ceremony José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the UN FAO, highlighted that around 1/3 of all food produced is wasted. Rich countries waste as much food as is produced in the entire sub-Saharan region.
The cooking classes aimed to educate children on how food can be prepared to ensure minimal wastage. Touré and Steiner participated alongside Italian schoolchildren in the class in Milan, making a traditional Italian dish - ravioli. This dish was selected as leftover vegetables can be used to in the filling. Unfortunately due to practical constraints, the ravioli made during the class was made with zucchini and ricotta rather than leftovers, but the education outcomes for participants remained.
The same activity was undertaken simultaneously in Nairobi, where the UNEP headquarters is located. Children in Nairobi learnt to make samosas, a traditional Kenyan dish, which also can use leftover vegetables for filling. These sessions were facilitated by talented members of the Slow Food movement, a grassroots organisation which aims to encourage interest in the origins and impact of food.
One of the main things I learnt by attending the World Environment Day celebrations was that, as Steiner emphasised, it is not really about just one day on June 5. The real importance of World Environment Day is its role in recognising positive action for the environment which happens every day of the year. It celebrates the importance of every day actions for the environment by people, organisations and governments. Being a professional environmental engineer, it makes me excited to get back to work on Monday and make a difference!
UNEP WED2015 Post 1 of 2 - This post was originally published on the UNEP website, I wrote it in my role as the official blogger for World Environment Day in 2015
Wandering around the World Expo in Milan is a bit like playing “spot the neat sustainability feature”. Some are massive and obvious, like the US Pavilion kitchen garden façade. Some are only revealed when you seek out the sustainability exhibit in the corner, like the photo-catalytic tiles at the New Holland agriculture pavilion. And some are just plain quirky. A highlight of the Expo were the traditional Estonian kiik swings which could generate up to 5 watts of electricity, enough to power a mobile phone!
The sustainability initiatives of the Expo itself echo the aims of World Environment Day – to increase awareness around reducing consumption. The “Towards a Sustainable Expo” provides recognition of sustainable design and practices at the Expo. Among all the countries participating, Mexico and Ireland were identified as leaders in having integrated sustainability into their pavilion design and materials. The program involved the evaluation of participants in the preliminary and definitive design phases of the pavilions, undertaken by the Politecnico di Milano.
This program has successfully improved sustainability outcomes – with 60% of participants installing solar photovoltaic cells, 80% reducing their air-conditioning requirements and 50% installing more than the required amount of green roofing. Given the temporary nature of the Expo, a particular focus was placed on the “second life” or the use of the pavilion after the Expo. Of the 74 program participants, 29 have plans to reuse the entire pavilion after the Expo, with many others planning to reuse part of the pavilion.
Not so obviously promoted were the sustainability features of the Expo more broadly. A chat with the Expo Sustainability Director provided insight into some of the initiatives. The separated waste collection was evidently effective, with clearly labelled bins allowing patrons to easily place their waste in the correct location. Much of the packaging used by caterers was biodegradable or recyclable. Through these initiatives, the Expo is currently diverting 60% of waste from landfill, with a goal to increase it to 70% over the course of the Expo. Organic waste is collected by neat bicycle couriers and composted locally in Milan.
Though pavilions are temporary, the voluntary pavilion sustainability design guidelines encouraged efficient design in order to reduce energy consumption. Most pavilions reduced electricity consumption through the use of LED lighting. Passive designs were also adopted in many pavilions, reducing the requirement for air-conditioning. Notable in this area was the Bahrain Pavilion, which was mostly open to the air but channelled cooling breezes through the space.
Perhaps one of the most secret sustainability initiatives was the water refill stations. Hidden away towards the back of pavilions, they were impossible to locate without consulting a map. But finding one was like an oasis! The taps provided refreshing chilled still and sparkling water, easily removing the need to purchase single-use plastic bottles of water. It’s just a pity we didn’t realise they existed earlier, or I might have avoided heat exhaustion on our first day at the expo.
Last but not least, food! Given the theme of the Expo – “feeding the planet, energy for life”, many stalls had a focus on sustainable food production. This was often (rather deliciously) integrated into the pavilion itself. There were numerous green walls, terrace gardens, innovative growing systems and plain old garden beds located around the Expo. These provide great examples of how food can be produced sustainably and locally. Unfortunately, due to Italian Government regulations, none of the food grown onsite can be sold for consumption due to hygiene and food safety reasons. But this doesn’t stop pavilion staff (and sneaky bloggers) from sampling some of the delicious produce.
The integration of these sustainability features into the Expo meant that it provided an ideal backdrop to the World Environment Day celebrations. Not only did the pavilions exhibit ideas for sustainable food consumption, but also the pavilions and the Expo were in themselves prototypes for sustainable development.
Everyone loves food.
Everyone loves free food.
Everyone loves free, locally sourced, sustainable food.
And that is why urban foraging is awesome!
Living in a city it is very easy to become completely disconnected from production systems that magically land food in the supermarket. With global shipping and cold storage, it is simple to forget that fruit and vegies have a season - and taste so much better then (my boyfriend was rather upset when I said we couldn't have tomatoes in winter).
The intensive agriculture systems that provide much of our food can also result in pretty terrible environmental outcomes. Among others, the production (including fertiliser and pesticide use) and transportation of food result in greenhouse gas emissions. If you are interested in quantifying the emissions impact of your food consumption, the following graph outlines the emissions associated with eating $1 of each of these types of foods (data from the EPA).
So if we don't spend any money on our food, then there can't be any emissions! (not really, that's not how these factors work, but in the case of urban foraging we might be onto something).
But what is urban foraging? Just a fancy way to say finding edible things in the city streets. For example, there is a rosemary bush on the nature strip just down my street. There is no point in buying a couple of sprigs of insipid rosemary for $4 from the supermarket, when it is freshly available - and free!
Similarly, the quince in the picture is from a tree down the street, and the feijoas have been growing outside the window of a friend's apartment. They are so fresh and yummy - and because they were transported to our house by bike - zero emissions! (I was very pleased with my zero emissions quince paste, until someone pointed out that the sugar probably came from Queensland).
I'm not saying we can solve all the food problems by just eating fruit off local trees, but its fun and it might make a small environmental difference. Most of at it makes you pay attention - to the seasons, to the nature that surrounds us even in the city, and of course the free glorious food!
Welcome to Wonderfully Green...
My name is Kara and I created this blog as a way to document all the lovely aspects of sustainability. You can find out more on my About page.
Subscribe by copying the RSS feed link into your favourite RSS reader (click the RSS feed icon above), or follow me on twitter (@karabrussen) for updates.