Can food be socially just and cheap? The best books on sustainable eating – The Guardian

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Imagine if there were a standard recipe for sustainable eating, a sort of chow for ethical people. We could stock the pantry with bags of it and rest easy. Why can’t we? Because the notion of sustainable eating is irreducibly complex. It is inextricable from culture and geographically variable.

The idea of “sustainablility” reflects our values, and our values are as variable as our tastes. They might include animal rights, genetic modification, use of natural resources and a living wage for farm workers, just for a start.

There may be no such thing as food that is socially just, environmentally beneficial and cheap. But everyone prefers to spend less. So how do we economise without compromise? Maybe the simplest answer is to eat whole unprocessed food, and don’t waste it. To do that, you need to build skills in the kitchen. If you eat meat, choose the very best-raised animals you can afford (pastured, not grain-fed, and directly from a small producer if possible), treat meat as the precious resource it is and use every bit of it down to the bones.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book came out 15 years ago and has aged as well as a prime cut of beef. It puts appropriate emphasis on the quality of the meat you buy, makes offcuts approachable, their preparation straightforward and the results delicious. No diet is sustainable if you don’t enjoy it.

Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is full of beautiful sentences that yield sensible ideas to make cooking whole food, including meat and fish, in your own kitchen a practical pleasure. Her take on leftovers is the best way I have found to reduce food waste.

One of the most powerful things you can do to eat more sustainably is to learn how food is produced. In the US, less than 2% of the population farms, and in the UK, the number is 1%. Nobody illuminates the connection between sustainable food and sustainable community like John Berger. Best known for his seminal book on art, Ways of Seeing, Berger spent 17 years on a trilogy of novels tracing the shift from peasant-scale agriculture to industrial food production, which is also a shift from village life and values to those of the city. The first in the series, Pig Earth, cracks open the heart to let the ideas flow in.

And Wendell Berry is the master of showing the world what sustainable farming looks and feels like, of revealing its central importance to our souls as well as our stomachs. His collection Bringing It to the Table gets directly to the connection between eating and morality.

One thing we should all agree on: we can’t discuss sustainable eating without addressing the climate crisis. Agriculture contributes a hefty 30% to our total greenhouse gases. It’s a huge part of the world’s most pressing existential problem, and yet it holds the potential to be part of the solution. Drawdown by Paul Hawken includes a section on food production, which illuminates the many well-researched and proven agricultural techniques we can use to make it a force for good in the fight for our planet’s survival.

Kristin Kimball is the author of Good Husbandry: Growing a Family on a Community Farm, published by Granta.

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