Locally foraged nettle soup, wild harvested venison and blackberry sorbet might sound like a menu from the latest bougie restaurant but could be part of eating our way to nature recovery. We need agriculture for food production, but unsustainable agricultural practices are the biggest threats to biodiversity through land conversion, intensification of land use and freshwater pollution.
No matter what you eat, planning your menu before you go shopping reduces food waste. Every kilo of food wasted represents land area, energy, chemicals and transport that put pressure on biodiversity and the climate. Only buy and eat what you need to stay healthy.
Eating a healthy diet is good for your waistline, your health and the planet. Every extra calorie consumed has a carbon and biodiversity footprint involved in the land area and energy used to produce it.
Work on increasing plants in your diet and reducing meat. A recommendation from the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss was: “People must be encouraged to consume a more plant-based diet.” The land area and resources need to produce plants, which are directly eaten by humans, is far less than those needed to feed livestock which are then eaten by humans.
Consuming peas, beans and lentils from overseas is better for nature than consuming locally sourced meat
The further our diet is from the original plant-base the more energy is lost between plant production and our mouths. Plant-based diets vary depending on how much meat is included. A vegan diet is 100 per cent plant-based, but other plant-based diets can include small amounts of animal products.
The transport-related carbon and biodiversity footprint of food is generally quite small compared with the footprint of the food type. Consuming peas, beans and lentils from overseas is better for nature than consuming locally sourced meat. A better diet for nature can also be cheaper than a conventional diet as plant-based protein sources are more cost effective (beans, peas, lentils) than meat equivalents.
If you choose to eat meat and other animal products, consume quality instead of quantity. Meat that comes from more sustainable sources (such as free-range, grass-fed, organic) is better for biodiversity. Most people eat more protein than we need; by reducing the amount of meat eaten and choosing better sources, we can significantly benefit biodiversity.
The recent public consultation on deer management highlighted the development of the wild venison market as part of a national deer management strategy. The development of a market for harvesting wild venison has biodiversity benefits, as increasing deer populations are putting pressure on natural habitats through overgrazing.
An innovative collaboration between Forestry England, Highland Game and the East Lancashire Hospital Trust introduced wild venison on hospital menus due to its health and sustainability properties.
By growing your own salads, herbs and vegetables, you reduce the need for plastic packaging, you can reduce or eliminate the chemicals that get added to your food and it is much cheaper than buying packaged herbs. You can plant herbs on window sills or in flower beds: chives, rosemary, sage, bay and thyme need very little care to provide almost year-round instant flavour; and rosemary, chive and thyme are good for pollinators and can look very attractive.
A side benefit of having a slightly neglected vegetable or herb bed is that pollinators benefit from your rocket flowers if you haven’t managed to pick and eat it fast enough.
More adventurous diets with nature benefits include locally foraged ingredients, particularly those that are abundant, nutritious and undervalued. In spring and summer, nettles make a very good soup. By picking the tender tops, you leave plenty for the insects that use the rest of the plant for food and shelter. Abundant summer blackberries brighten up tarts, ice creams and crumbles.
Eating better for yourself and nature does not have to be an all-or-nothing endeavour. By starting slowly and eating for nature once or twice a week you can build up a repertoire of delicious, healthy and nature-friendly meals.
This approach is also less confronting for those with picky palates for whom new foods may need to be introduced slowly and in small amounts. While dietary change is part of the solution for nature recovery, it will only work alongside other measures to incentivise biodiversity protection and restoration in the wider countryside.
Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist at the Irish Research Council and laureate and professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin