What have we been eating? Ecological Footprint pertaining to food – Alice investigates

Over the past while I’ve been wondering what big (ish) datasets are out there that pertain to the food system and how might they be useful to my research into the new organisational forms appearing in the food system and their use of the internet. I want to map these new entities, see how they fit with real world places and spaces, flows and infrastructures. And frankly I want to do some drawing with super-fine (0.5 and under) fiber-tipped pens (black or paler blue – not indigo) on blue tinted tracing paper (fine grain size A3 and up) and hopefully finishing it all off with some colouring in, probably via a watercolour wash in a minimalist pre-defined pallet of yellows, greys and a slash of vermillion – though these are probably not foody-enough colours so I may have to rethink this. Sigh.

Finally the time comes to really delve in – I’ve been resisting it all so well (can you tell?), but today I’m picking through the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, and mulling over my first challenge of the day – why the hell am I looking at this at all? I notice straight away that this is going to be a challenge. The document makes my dyslexic and impetuous brain offer up what I can only describe as why would I bother to even consider this tripe syndrome. This denotes an imminent battle between myself and my roving mind. I force myself to be present in the text. Focus – slip- focus – slip – refocus- screw you brain – slip. I’m getting grumpy. I’ve never seen so many acronyms in a chapter. I find NDNS RP, DRV, COMA, DLW, EI, TEE, NMES, NSP, RNI, EAR, SACN, PUFA, CAPI, LRNI, RE, It takes some time, looking over the vast amounts of  acronyms, appendices, tables, explanations to figure out what these guys have been up to and why its at all relevant to me – because yeah there’s food in there, but its not exactly about super-cool-techy new organisations is it? In fact why do I look at any of this big data? I grumble-trundle on.

It clicks of course – finally – I allow myself to rest my now battle weary and probably useless mind in the roots of my research and remember that I am looking at sustainable food, and in some way at the question of how resource-efficient is our diet? – a sort of happy planet index for eating and I find a new question – or boundary for the way I look at these emerging organisations of foodyness – are these new organisations delivering more resource efficient wellness? Granted, we clearly don’t just eat to get nutrients for living – we have this diverse and complex way of eating – with rituals and routines and norms so we definitely demand more from food than simply proper and efficient sustenance. My first thought is that this begs a new question of my research – What exactly do we want from food and how does that relate to these new organisations and the form they take? I also discover a new assumption / worldview that I’m harbouring.

To me, it turns out; sustainable diets are about some kind of right to eat, in a fair way, something about greed being a sin, and somehow a sustainable diet in a resource scarce future involves the efficient delivery of health. When did I become such a food nazi? Wait  – are we talking resource scarce future – says who? Says me? What about technology and abundance? What about food culture and – well – cheese? Will there be cheese in the future? Did I say Nazi – that is way not PC. Did I mention I met a lady from Bath University who engineers Manufactured Meat – i.e. bio-reactor cell-based tissue for nom noms? Well she was awesome and I didn’t hate her at all and it all sounds terribly resource efficient. I digress (constantly).

The survey itself is it turns out interesting.Though pointing out problems of under-reporting,  the survey’s 6,828 participants record their food intake over 4 days. These 4 day recordings were spread over both weekdays and weekends in year 1 of the 4 year study, leading to a slight bias towards weekend recordings (there are after all only 2 weekend days and 5 weekdays). There was an attempt to correct for this in the subsequent 3 years, but results remained slightly skewed towards weekends. My initial concern is that this might mean things like munching takeaways, pizza breakfasts and 24 hour binge drinking and only managing 1 of your 5-a-day (chips) might be over represented in the average, but then if participants under-reported it all anyway, this might be for the best.

Results are then presented as a daily average. In the tables (section 5) total quantities of food consumed per day are separated per food type and gender, age and in a myriad of other ways.

The results are as anticipated pretty bad – we are all eating too much. We don’t eat enough fruit and veg, or oily fish, we eat enough fat, but in the wrong forms, exceeding saturated fats across the ages and genders. In terms of ages, babies and the over 65’s have the better diets. NMES or non-milk extrinsic sugars (which by the way are added-sugars and honey – why they don’t just say that I will never understand) are over-consumed by everyone, and we don’t consume enough vitamin A, riboflavin or any other mineral for that matter. The report also states that those taking vitamin and mineral supplements had a higher intake of vitamins and minerals – what a finding! Finally it closes saying that kids between 11 and 18 for the most part just eat yellow or brown coloured crap and nothing else.

Next up I want to see how I can turn this information into ecological footprints for the UK average diet. According to the WWF – The simplest way to define ecological footprint would be to call it the impact of human activities measured in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water required to produce the goods consumed and to assimilate the wastes generated. Table 5.1c of the Diet and Nutrition Survey gives the average amount in grams of foods consumed across the sexes for different age groups. These age groups arn’t averaged out across the dataset, so I either need to derive my own average or figure out how to present the information as age specific. I find a report called Sustainable Food Consumption at a Sub-national Level: An Ecological Footprint, Nutritional and Economic Analysis by Andrea Collins and Ruth Fairchild from Cardiff University. It dates back to 2007, but should be a good starting point for turning the survey info into Global Hectares.

A word on Global Hectares first – Global Hectares (gha) are a funny old way to present information on sustainability, but a great visual aid for thinking about the impact of human activity. One Global Hectare is essentially a way to think about the expanse of space needed for the average of all biologically productive spaces (like croplands, fisheries, forests – so not spaces like glaciers or deserts or the open seas…) on earth in a year – measured in hectares. Hectares if you grew up in the UK is an odd one – whilst an agricultural norm in metric based countries, we are more used to the Acre which is a wiley measure with variations in traditional use across the country. Long-story-short – a hectare is 10,000m2 or 100 x 100m – Thats something between a rugby and football pitch to the sportingly inclined.  For those with no imagination for space – screw it – I tried to find you a good picture on the internet, but all that google came up was Israel and Palestine stuff.

Still although we might not easily be able to imagine 11.3 billion hectares, we can probably stretch ourselves to the idea of something like 1.8 global hectares  – that is our share – per person of the earth’s bounty each year … try to imagine an ASDA superstore including its car parking and loading area, or a small town-common in a battle with its council to be sold for expensive-cheap housing. Thats how much we get in our global slice – Each. To provide everything we consume in a year.

How much of this fair share are people in the UK munching their way through then? The most useful part of Collins and Fairchild’s report is a table that examines the Global Hectares associated with foodstuffs (in grams). Ecological Footprint in the key table is calculated from 2 factors. Firstly the biologically productive area (‘Real Land’ requirements) but also ‘Energy Land’. Energy land comprises of the embodied energy required to produce a primary / raw product – say milk, plus the embodied energy of processing and adding value to that product – for example making that milk into cheese. According to Collins and Fairchild Cardiff in Wales has about 23% of its Ecological Footprint in Food and Drink Consumption in 2001.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey splits its age groups 1.5-3, 4-10, 11-18, 19-64, 65+. Their actual sample involved in adults – 78% aged 19 to 64 years and 22% aged 65 years and over and in children 18% aged 1.5 to three years, 38% aged four to ten years and 44% aged 11 to 18 years. The sample was weighted to bring the proportions in line with the age profile of the UK general population only there is no indication of how that was undertaken or to which demographic split that refers. I like that the split of ages samples roughly inline with the schooling system however, unfortunately every other categorisation of UK demographics seemingly favours a different set of boxes. The office of national statistics for example refers to: 0-15, 16-24, 25-49, 50-64, 65+. This means that, for any UK urban areas’ demographic data I need to recalculate how this survey is split. Sounds like a massive pain in the arse. You know, the night of the arse-pain-revelation I dreamt of non-standardised data dancing the nutcracker suite all contorted and jarringly and woke up feeling very enervated indeed.

I found some relief when I encounter the in-depth ish Population estimates for England and Wales (mid 2012) splits UK population down 0, 1-4, 5-9, 10-14, 15-19, 20-24, 25-29, 30-34,35-39,40-44,45-49, 50-54, 55-59, 60-64, 65-69, 70-74, 75-79, 80-84, 85-89, 90+ which means that at least for the England and Wales average, I can sort-of corroborate the accounts. I come up with the following categories for number of people in England and Wales:

# aged 1.5 to 3 2,841.2
#  aged 4 to 10 3,251.1
#  aged 11 to 18 6,661.7
# aged 19 to 64 33,439.4
# aged 65+ 9,642.4

Obvioulsy I’m using # as in # (number of) as opposed to #IdontevenknowIdon’tknowhowtousemathematicalsymbolsandIdon’tcare.

It doesn’t take much to combine this, the Diet and Nutrition survey’s daily intake of food with the Global Hectares of various food stuffs to find an Ecological footprint for food for England and Wales of:

133143276.05gha /year

And an average ecological footprint (per person) of:

2.384550343gha / year

Which is all the more worrisome if we consider that our current ‘fair share’ of the earth’s resources is in the order of 1.8gha in total (including food and everything else!) and that the supposed biologically productive land in the UK can be split down to 1.34gha per person…

However there’s a big old flaw in my calculation if I’m thinking about the cost of our food system to the planet and am basing it on the Diet and Nutrition Survey – what about food that wasn’t consumed but that rather went to waste? I’ll have to factor that in later!

So finally I can begin to envisage the MAP. It shows for every city in the UK the resource-efficiency of feeding its urban population. I can break it down for different types of food. What are we over-eating, what are we under eating. Cereals, Fats, Meats, Fruit and Veg and all the stuff you find in the nutritional information on the back of a packet. Collins and Fairchild discuss what changing the balance of eating could do for Cardiff – I can do this for UK cities – what happens if we eat less meat? I can show this as a food footprint for the sum of individuals categorised munchings as per this survey, and plot that in geographical space. I can show it as tonnes of product consumed. I might even get to draw some pictures at this rate. I’m going to buy some new watercolours especially.


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