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Lunch is a 2 day trade show for café, coffee shop and the food to go sector. This year there was a common theme running it through it I’ve never seen before and that was sustainability. From how they source their ingredients, to food waste and energy usage, even to the packaging, everyone was talking about sustainability.

It’s fantastic that restaurants are now getting on board with this, due I’m sure to the tireless work of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. At this year’s Coffee House Project Coffee Festival, we used perglas for the first time and refilled milk jugs for the baristas throughout the two days. Apart from serving great coffee, the aim of the festival was to reduce waste especially plastic waste, which was achieved by also encouraging people to bring their own refillable cups and water bottles.

One talk at Lunch was with a sustainability panel with Jim Winship, Director, The British Sandwich & Food To Go Association, Martin Kersh Director, Foodservice Packaging Association and Martyn Clover Head of Food, at Tortilla. They all raised some interesting points about how the media is picking up stories and concerns but is focusing on one or two things, when we really need to make changes across the board. The big focus on coffee cups or even veganism in the media comes with little thought about what this impact has on the environment, business and consumers. For example, I didn’t know that coffee cups can be recycled via paper mills and that new compostable cups need a special treatment centre. Consumer behaviour shows that most coffee purchase is spontaneous, and the drinker will buy it as they browse other outlets, meaning they probably don’t want to carry a dirty reusable cup in their bag. So, instead of saying all coffee cups have to be reusable, an answer is better facilities to recycle the cups in the places people are shopping.

What’s missing is a national strategy for waste headed by the government instead of pushing this back onto the food industry to deal with, with uniform colour coded bins across the UK to encourage everyone to recycle more. In London there’s one bin and it gets sorted at the centres but in other places there’s individual bins to encourage the sorting at home. With a local strategy rather than a national one, if we find ourselves in another part of the country do we always know what to recycle?

Another concern raised about reusable packaging was the scenario if a restaurant is asked to put food into a dirty container. Should they have the right to say no or take the risk of being blamed for any possible contamination? It’s great that people want to do more to reduce, reuse and recycle but the packaging we have grew out of hygiene and consumer safety concerns in relation to food. Some packaging might seem over the top but it’s there for a reason. Again some thought needs to go into how we encourage people to use containers but at the same time keep up our high standards of food safety.

What was also discussed by the panel was the media bubble around veganism and climate change. How sensationalism is great for selling newspapers but not for solving the problems we’re facing as humans. I’ve seen first-hand how lumping all farming together as industrial farming isn’t helping tell the real story or find the solutions that fit the UK. An article by Tom Parker Bowles makes some good points on this.

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We should be asking ourselves why we’re not doing more to preserve and protect our local food systems, the ones that work in harmony with our environment. In the UK we have a lot of carbon locked into the soil through pasture management. The land was left to pasture because our ancestors knew this was the best use of the land and the farming systems that worked with that system grew up around it.

The IPCC report on climate change says there’s no silver bullet on what we should or shouldn’t eat. Yes, we should reduce meat intake but it’s really how we manage the land which is key. Some of the biggest monocrops causing issues are things like rice which would fit a vegan diet, whereas pasture based dairy and meat is being blamed for everything wrong with environment, when pasture is a great way to store carbon as well as manage land.

‘Under-grazing is already a real issue in many lowland areas, and it is likely that this problem will increase over coming years. This will have dire consequences for those habitats which require livestock grazing to sustain the delicate balance of plant, insect, bird and other animal species which make them unique’ Nature England report – The importance of livestock grazing for wildlife conservation.

Sustainability is lots of things from food waste, energy use and recycling but it’s also about looking at and respecting the food we grow locally. It could mean changing our diets to fit our indigenous food, rather than chasing the next food fad being flown in from halfway across the world.

Let’s starting with nurturing and supporting the great food we do well in the UK, move away from industrial farming, be more conscious of food waste and source only food that supports farmers and animals that have a low impact on the environment.

Here is Liz Earle interviewing Neil Darwent about the work of Free Range Dairy Network.