The importance of flexitarianism and reconnecting to the natural world.
Chef, activist and author
Growing up in military bases around the world, I didn’t always enjoy the fact that we ate leftovers.
When everyone was having a Sunday roast, my resourceful Pilipino mum would make a vast Sunday soup using what was left in the fridge. A cereal multi-pack was a birthday treat. I don’t ever remember eating at restaurants, but our family loved food – it was to be cherished, respected and never ever wasted. It remains one of life’s greatest pleasures, but our current relationship to it is exhausting the planet. How and what we eat needs to change, and the pandemic’s impact on our food systems and security has made that even clearer. Small guiding steps are needed today, not tomorrow.
You do not have to be an environmental expert, or radically change your life, to play your part.
For some, completely cutting out dairy, fish and meat from their diets is unrealistic and impractical. A ‘flexitarian’ approach to cooking and eating is a more manageable middle ground for those that want to limit the damage rearing livestock en masse wreaks, while enjoying responsibly sourced meat and dairy on special occasions. I am for progress, not perfection. One in three Americans now consider themselves flexitarian and recent research published in the science journal Nature reports that, compared to baseline projections for 2050, moving to a more plant-based flexitarian diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 52%. But for responsible eating to become a mainstream behaviour, it must be enjoyable and accessible. This flexible shift away from carbon-intensive animal products needs to stop being seen as a limiting diet, but an expansive one. There are so many delicious fruit and vegetables out there that are incredibly cheap and versatile. The next time you’re in the kitchen, get creative with some swede, fennel, pak choi, cavolo nero, chard, chicory or celeriac. Be inspired by the seasons. Shop locally. Surprise yourself.
The UN estimate that a third of food is wasted, globally, is shameful. Almost everything is edible, and in order to halt that gargantuan global waste we need to start at home. It is time to reclaim and celebrate the words frugal and thrifty. Trust your eyes and nose when judging best before dates, compost when you can and save a stem, top or stalk you normally would have thrown away for a frittata or soup. Age old traditions of fermentation, foraging, stocks and chutneys have largely been lost and it is up to us to revive them alongside new, innovative methods. With the right skills and knowledge, we can start to adopt a practice my eco-chef friend Tom Hunt calls ‘root to fruit’ and try to use up everything.
Here in the UK we have so many inspiring examples – chefs like Douglas McMaster are leading the way with the very first zero-waste restaurant, Silo, closing the loop of production and making sure every left-over ingredient is given new life. Wonderful charities like The Felix Project and FoodCycle take surplus food from supermarkets, which volunteers use to cook a meal for vulnerable people in the local area.
Their work throughout the pandemic has been phenomenal, but the urgent demand for food has quadrupled over the last few months of lockdown, so there is an even greater need for donations and volunteers if we are to get through what will be a dark, cold winter for many. Special mention should also go to the campaign group Feedback, through their Gleaning Network, which partners with farmers to help harvest fresh fruits and vegetables from farms where they would otherwise be wasted. To date, 520 tonnes of fresh produce has been saved from going to waste and has involved more than 2,000 volunteers. Ultimately, being mindful about waste can not only be kind to the planet, but to our communities and purse strings as well.
One consequence of us becoming urban animals is a widening gap in the public’s knowledge of how food is grown. For many children growing up in cities there is a real and understandable disconnect between farm and fork. Some schools don’t have playing fields, let alone kitchen equipment anymore, and young people need spaces where they can get down and dirty, planting vegetables or herbs or trees. We are lucky to have fantastic NGOs like Get Out, based in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, which uses environmental outdoor education to strengthen the connection between the estate’s young people and the natural world.
One of its flagship projects is in partnership with a local school, converting an area into a productive food forest that reflects the principles of permaculture. Everyone deserves to experience nature and without local green areas or charities like these, I worry naturally grown food will remain an exclusive club and abstract force in so many people’s lives. By reconnecting to the land that provides for us, the next generation will have a far greater appreciation of food and where it comes from.
Coronavirus has forced change upon us. Households and their relationship to food has been disrupted like never before, so now is a chance to set new intentions for ourselves and for the environment. Sustainability isn’t a small handful of people doing things perfectly. It’s small, achievable, daily changes that we all need to commit to taking on a long-term basis. Collectively, all our positive adjustments and habits will make a real difference when passed on to our friends, family and neighbours. My mum’s mantra growing up has lost none of its wisdom and simplicity – ‘every grain of rice’. If we are to thrive in an increasingly busy, uncertain world with strained resources, we must honour every single one.
Melissa Hemsley started her career in food a decade ago as a private chef business with her sister as Hemsley + Hemsley. She is a bestselling author, columnist, ‘good food for everyone’ champion and the founder of the live event series, The Sustainability Sessions. Her latest book, Eat Green, provides 100+ flexitarian recipes. Melissa is also a proud supporter and volunteer for Fairtrade UK, The Felix Project, The Prince’s Trust, Women Supporting Women and Cook for Syria (Unicef)