A Household Food Sustainability Audit

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Whether we like it or not the fertilising, growing, watering, processing, packaging and transporting of our food adds significantly to the carbon load of the planet as well as being a significant consumer of non-renewable resources. Here in Australia, 15% of our greenhouse gas emissions are contributed by the agricultural sector but this could be closer to 30% when transport, food processing and waste are taken into account. It has also been calculated that conventional agriculture requires 10 KJ of fossil fuels to produce 1 KJ of feed energy, which has pretty scary ramifications if you start factoring in peak oil.

OK, so we know that there is a problem, but what do we do about it? It seems reasonable to use our purchasing power and behaviour to reduce our environmental impact as much as we can but that presumes we know where to start. The premise of this article and the associated sustainable food audit form is that it gives us a way to review how sustainable our practices are at the moment and help us work through what we need to do to improve.

You may want to work through the Sustainable Lifestyle Assessment Matrix (SLAM) first to understand the bigger picture of sustainable living or if you just want to focus on food alone (and it is a great place to start, everyone has to eat!) give the household sustainable food audit a go. It can be as simple or formal as you like,  filling the form out as you go or just running through things in your head and working out where you go from there. I recommend the more formal method so you have a record of where you are starting from which you can come back to later, re-do and get a feeling of how far you have come.

I also suggest that you share this with your family, or the people you are living with, so improvement can be on a united front.


Go through all of the questions one section at a time and mark the number most appropriate for your answer from “always” = 3 down to “never” = 0 by circling, crossing out or whatever. Some questions may appear to support a more yes/no answer so to reflect this it would be best to mark 3 for yes and 0 for no. If the question is not applicable to your situation, strike it out and when counting up the maximum possible number to work out score do not add 3 for that question.    

To calculate your score add up all of the potential answers and multiply by 3 to give the maximum possible score, and then add up all of the scores from your answers. Divide your answer score number by the maximum possible score and multiply by 100, this will give you your sustainable food score as a percentage. The number itself does not mean much, but acts as a basis upon which to improve.

Review the results with your family, focussing on some of the lower scores and this will help you focus on areas which you wish to improve. This may be as simple as buying organic veggies more often or making sure you buy free range eggs; or you may wish to write up a plan so that you can track your progress over time. Either way you may want to run the sustainable food audit again every year or two to check over all progress.

Organic Vs Local

While it would be best to be able to use fresh produce from our own back yards that we know to have been organically produced, this is rarely possible for this to always be the case and even the largest home producer usually has to buy some food in. This being the case, you may find that you can buy organic tinned tomatoes from Europe or locally produced conventionally grown tomatoes, which is more sustainably responsible? While there is no simple answer, it is generally recognised that the contribution of main stream agriculture to green house gas production is much greater than the transport contribution. In other words, go organic rather than local if you have to make a choice. This obviously does not take into account the impact of sending money and jobs overseas by buying the overseas products and as always there is a trade off that we all must consider when answering these questions for ourselves.

What is Local?

Another question implicit in the audit tool is “how local is local”? There are a number of ways that the word local may be defined, sometimes it is defined by drawing an arbitrary line around where we live at a given radius eg 100 miles or 100 kilometres. To me a better way is to regard anything produced in our bioregion as being local. The bioregion concept may be defined as follows -

“Bioregions are defined through physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries and soil and terrain characteristics. Bioregionalism stresses that the determination of a bioregion is also a cultural phenomenon, and emphasizes local populations, knowledge, and solutions.” - "Bioregionalism: The Need for a Firmer Theoretical Foundation", Don Alexander, Trumpeter v13.3, 1996.

In our case, our bioregion is the Sydney basin, so by definition anything that is produced within the Sydney basin is “local” to us.

Notes on Question Categories

Groceries – These are non perishable food items that includes things like biscuits, chutneys, jams, pasta, tinned foods, packet mixes etc, 

Fresh Foods – Are perishable and bought generally as needed, being stored in a refrigerator or cool dark place where an extended life is desired. These questions help you work out the big questions like local vs. organic and how you can eat more seasonally.

Make Your Own – This is really around asking whether you buy mainly industrially produced, packaged and preserved food or do you have a go at making some of the products that you would normally buy. There are quite likely a large number of food products that could be made at home but the ones chosen will help you focus on whether you generally do or don’t “make your own” where you can.

Growing Your Own – As mentioned earlier, the best and most environmentally friendly food is that which we grow in our own back yard using organic principles, but the amount each of us can grow and how organic it will be varies. This set of questions focuses on how much we currently produce (and therefore may want to increase in the future) and how it is produced. While meat is more difficult in an urban or suburban area some small livestock is possible, but how the feed for the livestock is produced must also be taken into account.

Takeaway/Eating Out – It is recognised that eating lots of takeaway/restaurant food that is over processed as well as being full of fat and salt is bad for our health as well as the health of the planet, depending of course on the particular food supplier. It may be difficult to completely remove these food sources from our urban grazing list, but there are still some choices that can be made to increase the sustainability of where we eat.

Beverages – Unless you are drinking rainwater straight from your tank, all beverages will have some form of environmental impact in the way they are grown, processed, packaged and transported but these can be reduced by making your own beverages from local ingredients. Organic and local (as difficult as that may be) are the order of the day as with everything else. Fair trade, while not being a strict sustainability issue is still a social justice issue and it is worth the effort to use fair trade products where they are available.

Preparation/consumption – These questions are about cutting down meat consumption, avoiding food waste and reducing energy consumption and while some are not strictly food related items they do impact on the environmental harm our eating causes.

Remember, the numbers themselves do not mean much, but provide a base upon which to improve and help you work out the direction you wish to improve in. The whole point of this exercise is to help you work out where the sustainability of your food lifestyle is at currently and then help you make decisions on how you wish to improve it. Hopefully, it could even be fun as well!

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