Never before have we been able to eat such a rich variety of foods all year round - runner beans from Kenya, oranges from Florida and wine from California. Whilst we are privileged to have such a wide range of food available to us it is easy to forget about how it has been produced or how far it has traveled to get to us.

Intensive agriculture is driven by the need to increase yields and reduce costs and it's becoming evident that much of the food industry is unsustainable. With oil prices rising and climate change likely to exert even more pressure on agricultural systems, consumers have a major role to play in choosing to purchase food from more sustainable sources.

A Bite Size Introduction to the Issues and Solutions

Food Miles & Eating Out Of Season

Food now travels further than ever to provide us with year-round access to exotic produce from all over the world. Transporting food around the world in this way not only causes unnecessary pollution but also congests roads. Long distance food transport also means loss of freshness, flavour and nutrition as products are harvested before they are ripe and stored and refrigerated for long periods between production, packing and distribution. Chemicals and packaging are needed to increase shelf life and to protect it in transit.

When food is produced in other countries it can be more difficult to monitor production, welfare and environmental standards. Buying food from countries that routinely fell rainforest to plant crops, for example, isn’t something most consumers would be comfortable doing. There is also a risk that as we become more reliant on imported food, we lose our ability to be self-sufficient, thereby putting our long-term food security at risk.

Foods have a natural growing season. By buying seasonal, local food we support the local economy, ensure we are eating food which is fresh and in season, and prevent unnecessary food miles.

Download our Pocket Seasonal Food Calendar using the link below or contact us to request your printed and folded version that you can keep in your purse or wallet when you go shopping.

Would you like to eat more locally produced food? Transition St Albans run open garden events and skill shares to help people learn about growing their own food at home. You could also get an allotment or join the Foodsmiles: Local Food for St Albans project, a community agriculture scheme set up by a group of interested locals to grow food locally for the benefit of all members. There's also Box Local, a food delivery scheme focused on providing local foods.

Meat and Dairy Consumption


The world is eating more meat and dairy and these are resource-intensive to produce. It takes 10kg of grain to produce 1kg beef. If grain was used to feed humans rather than animals, we could produce more than enough food to feed everyone on earth. Instead, half the world's grain is currently used to feed animals.

Figures from the United Nations suggest that livestock farming causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, lorries and planes in the world. Beef is the worst as it requires a lot of energy and natural resources to produce the cattle feed, manage the manure, transport livestock to market, slaughter, process and package. Methane is also produced by cattle and this is a major greenhouse gas. 

The climate changing effects are also made worse because in many parts of the world pristine forest is cleared to make space for cattle to graze. Between 2000 and 2006 Brazil lost around 150,000 km2 of Amazon rainforest to cattle ranching.

Reducing your intake of meat and dairy will not only help the environment but will also improve your health, as high meat and dairy intake is associated with an increased risk of obesity and intestinal cancer.

When you do buy meat, choose organic, Free Range or RSPCA Farm Assured products to ensure higher standards of animal welfare. Whilst it might be more expensive, if you are reducing your overall meat consumption, it should be possible to buy higher quality meat while keeping the same overall budget. 

Chemical Pollution

Intensive agricultural systems rely on a wide range of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides to enable farmers to get the highest yield.  31,000 tonnes of pesticides are sprayed onto the UK each year. These chemicals cause pollution, release greenhouse gases, harm wildlife, and can leave residues in our food. Many of these chemicals are oil-based and so any increase in oil price could have a serious impact on the price of food.

By choosing organic meat, poultry and dairy products you help to protect the local environment and wildlife. Organic produce is also free range and antibiotics are not routinely given so you also choose higher standards of animal welfare. Whilst it is often considered more expensive, it more truly reflects the real costs of farming.

Food Waste

food waste8.3 million tonnes of food is thrown away by households in the UK every year, and most of it could have been eaten. This is around 1/3 of all the food purchased by consumers. Isn't it senseless that after all the energy and water has been invested into producing, packaging and transporting it to us, so much of it ends up in the bin?

Plan your meals for the week in advance before you go shopping and don’t go shopping when you are really hungry as you'll tend to buy more than you need. Take time to think about what you already have and what you need.

The Olio App is a great new way to share excess or unwanted food with your neighbours. Simply download the app to your iphone or Andriod phone


Today’s large industrial fishing fleets are able to set thousands of kilometres of strong, invisible nets each day - some large enough to hold 12 jumbo jets - as well as thousands of kilometresFish RF of longlines with tens of thousands of hooks. These techniques are unselective. Every year millions of tonnes of 'bycatch' (unwanted fish trapped in the nets of the 'target' fish), including 300,000 mammals (dolphins, wales) are caught accidentally and thrown back into the sea dead or dying. Fishing policies, while intended to protect fish populations, actually create an incentive to discard by-catch species which are less commercially valuable or undersized.

In the EU 88% of fish stocks are now over-fished, compared to 25% elsewhere in the world. 30% of managed fisheries are "outside safe biological limits - they cannot reproduce at normal because the parenting population is too depleted.

Check the labels to ensure that the fish you buy comes from sustainable sources - such as those accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and exclude any species identified as most 'at risk' to ensure that we protect the marine environment. It's also helps to try new ‘sustainable’ varieties to take the pressure of the most common commercial species.

Genetic Erosion

Did you know that there are over 200,000 different varieties of wheat and 3,000 varieties of potato? The importance of this diversity cannot be underestimated as it provides a pool of new desirable genetic traits to allow species to resist changing environmental conditions such as disease, drought, floods and salinity.

As farmers turn increasingly to modern, high-yielding varieties, the older traditional or local species are being abandoned causing the genetic erosion of crops and livestock species around the world. At a global level, just 14 animal species account for 90% of all livestock production and only 30 crops account for 90% of calories consumed by people.

In America, 97% of the fruit and vegetables which were available in 1900 are now extinct. Agricultural crops appear to have lost about 75% of their genetic diversity in the last century.  This loss of diversity poses a threat to long-term food security and special efforts are needed not only conserve this diversity but also to utilize it. 

Try and diversify the types of food you eat. Most of us buy the same ingredients every week. By choosing unusual, traditional or rare varieties you strengthen the market for less common varieties.


Fair Trade

Fairtrade Coffee Bean ImageThe aim of intensive agriculture is to produce food at the cheapest prices. This can sometimes mean that workers do not get a fair price for their produce or there may be terms and conditions in place which lead to unnecessary wastage of food.

By choosing products with the Fair Trade logo on them you can ensure that the company selling the products recycles a proportion of its profits into improving living, working, educational and health facilities for the workers and their families. You will already be purchasing locally but for products which you still choose to consume such as tea, coffee and sugar, buy Fair Trade. 

Date of last review: 20 March 2018