Harvest mouse Micromys minutus, adult on wheat showing farmland habitat, Hertfordshire

Food and the choices we make

Food is a vital part of all our lives. Not only do we need it for physical sustenance, it also plays an important social role, bringing together friends and families.

Our choices

As most of the UK's land area is farmland, food production also influences how much of our land is managed and is a major economic product of our countryside.

The way our food is produced has changed dramatically. Following the Second World War and a time of food shortages and rationing, farmers were encouraged to significantly increase food production, principally through payments from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Farmers rose to this challenge and the CAP was extremely successful in boosting UK, and EU, food production. However, this came at a huge cost. 

The way much of our farmland has been managed, the types of crops grown - and when - as well as increased use of chemicals and fertilisers have made it difficult for much of our farmland wildlife to survive and rear young successfully. The CAP drove unsustainable practices and did not reward those farmers who were managing their land well. We now have the opportunity to change that as the subsidy system is changing to reward good practice. At the same time we need to ensure that farmers and producers receive a fair price for their food. 

The case for local food report cover

How consumers can influence change

Many people are now agreed that the current system of farm support has to change, and a positive start has been made through a number of CAP reforms in recent years.

This includes the decoupling of subsidy from production and the introduction of cross compliance – a suite of requirements farmers must follow, including keeping the land in 'good agricultural and environmental condition'.

However, changes in policy are not the only way to influence how our land is managed.

Consumers can, and do, influence how our countryside and the seas are managed. Growing consumer demand for more sustainable products has led to a proliferation of brands which claim higher environmental standards and interest in local food has greatly supported the growth of box schemes in recent years.

The growth of demand for organic produce has influenced supermarkets, producers and government alike to support organic farming, which is beneficial to wildlife. Many supermarkets have also responded to increased public interest in food by offering more products which meet improved environmental or animal welfare standards.

What can you do?

The way food is grown has a massive effect on its 'environmental footprint', from greenhouse gas emissions through to impacts on water, soil and air quality and wildlife.

As interest in these issues grow, more producers are seeking to highlight the environmental benefits of their products. Organic food is one very good example but others are also trying to use their 'greener' production methods to gain an edge in the market.

Why do your choices matter?

If you care about how your food is produced and want to help protect birds and the countryside, here's what you can do...

  • Organic food is often great for birds and the environment, so try to buy organic foods where you can.
  • Think about reducing the amount of meat and dairy in your diet. Not only is there evidence that those who eat more than 100g of red meat a day are at higher risk of health problems, much of the meat produced in the world today (including cattle, but particularly pig and poultry meat) is dependant on feed, often soy-based, which has been produced on deforested land and has resulted in wildlife losses and negative climate change impacts. Cattle are also directly responsible for significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • However – this doesn't mean stopping eating meat altogether! Cattle grazing is extremely important for maintaining many areas of wildlife rich habitat but it's often very difficult to distinguish between environmentally friendly, extensive systems and intensive cereal-feed based systems. When buying beef, try to buy meat which has been reared outside on a natural diet. The Pasture for Life marquee is one example of this, guaranteeing meat raised exclusively on pasture. Look out for meat from 'Conservation Grazing' schemes when you shop.
  • Buy direct from the producer through farmers markets, farm shops and box schemes. Not only does this mean you know exactly where your food has come from (and can ask the farmer about what he does for wildlife on his farm), it also makes sure that the farmer receives a better return for his produce.
  • Coffee and cocoa grown in the shade of the natural forest canopy (as opposed to completely clearing the forest) helps to maintain areas for wild birds and other wildlife. You can already buy 'shade-grown' and 'bird-friendly' coffee, along with 'forest friendly' chocolate.
  • Avoid genetically modified (GM) foods. The RSPB maintains an open mind on the likely environmental impacts of GM crops but believes that firm scientific facts are needed on a case-by-case basis before they are grown commercially. At present, we feel that GM crops currently on the market have not been properly assessed for their potential environmental impacts. Until tests are done that show specific GM crops do not harm wildlife and the environment, people should avoid buying GM products.

What about labels?

Growing public interest in environmentally friendly and ethical foods has led to a proliferation of new brands on the market.

However, in many cases, 'green' labelling is little more than greenwashing and can be very hard for people to have confidence in the products they buy.

Here are a few tips to help you navigate through the labels out there:

  • Be wary of products which use buzzwords like 'traditional', 'natural', 'eco' etc. If a product has clear and verifiable environmental benefits, the label should state this clearly. If a 'green buzzword' has been used with no further explanation, it is most likely a marketing ploy.
  • All agricultural produce grown in the EU has to meet certain environmental criteria so if you buy a product made with EU ingredients you know certain basic standards have been met. However, there are a number of labels on the market which secure higher environmental standards for their produce.
  • All products labelled as Organic must meet certain EU rules and reflect verifiable standards the consumer can be confident in. However, some certification bodies, particularly the Soil Association, go beyond this legal baseline and define higher standards in certain areas.
  • Look out for the smaller conservation labels, such as Conservation Grade, which ensures valuable wildlife habitats are established on all participating farms.
  • The Leaf Marque (Linking Environment and Farming) encourages farmers to grow in a more sustainable way and importantly, covers the whole farm (not just the product being certified).
  • When buying coffee or chocolate, try to buy 'shade grown' products. 'Rainforest Alliance' certifies growers using shade grown techniques and its coffee is widely available. Organic coffee and chocolate is also generally grown in an environmentally beneficial way.

Above all, keep asking questions - show that you care about the way your food was produced. If people demand genuinely sustainable and environmentally friendly products, food retailers, processors and producers will respond.

 RSPB's Flatford Wildlife Garden, Suffolk, England