It seems an odd thing to worry about, when so many people in the world don't have enough to eat at all, or are suffering the ill effects of malnutrition. So many people live without the luxury to be able to choose what kind of fruit and vegetables to eat, they are just glad to get anything to eat. But actually that's just the point. Those of us who do have that luxury, should take advantage of it to make good and wise choices about the provenance of our food that will, in the long run, benefit those elsewhere in the world or our communities who do not have that luxury.
Every time we look at our plates we should ask ourselves where the food came from, how it was produced and what it cost - not just in terms of money, but in terms of the environment and social justice.
So what about fruit and vegetables?
We are advised by health professionals that for good health we should be eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Actually, the food gurus suggest this should be closer to nine portions per day, but with average consumption at only three portions, a push to five seems slightly more realistic. However, eating more fruit and vegetables, while beneficial to health, isn't about ethics. What is about ethics is how we eat and buy those fruits and veggies. We are living in a time when you can walk into a supermarket at any time of day or night, any month of the year, and expect to buy a pineapple or some strawberries - despite the fact that these products do not grow locally, or are in completely the wrong season...is this right?
Every time we pick up an apple or pineapple we need to consider:
- food miles
- grower and picker rights
To entice us to buy fruits and vegetables, supermarkets lay out stacks of perfectly formed specimens. Unfortunately, this means that 20-40% of farm produce is wasted, because it isn't perfect enough for our shelves, even though it tastes absolutely fine. It also means that to reduce the risk of blemished produce, the farmer relies more and more on a range of pesticides and fertilisers (the fertilisers also keep the food available out of season, which we'll come back to later). The fertilisers also cause massive problems in the environment, as soil biodiversity and water courses are polluted by the run off from farmers' fields. The very creatures on whom we rely to pollinate our crops (bees and other pollinating insects) are damaged by the chemicals we put on the crops to help them grow better. In developing countries, without such stringent safety controls, farm workers handling these chemical pesticides are often also put at risk to their health.
As a consumer, we can change things for the better by:
- accepting (or even seeking out) fruit and veg that doesn't necessarily look perfect. Jamie Oliver is on a mission to sort this out and has convinced ASDA to try a "wonky veg bargain box" which seems to have gone down very well.
- Buying organic produce. Yes, it costs a little more, but organic farms do not pollute the environment. Plus, because they use natural methods to keep their farms healthy, such as crop rotation, they tend to be more biodiverse environments rather than the big swathes of monoculture operated by industrial pesticide farms.
- Growing your own. If you've got even a small space and can grow a few of your own fruits and veggies in season, then you know you've got something on your plate that hasn't contributed any pesticides to the environment (as long as you grow organically of course!!)
Is it crazy that for every 100 items of fruit and veg eaten in the UK, only five are grown here? In 2003 the Guardian bought a basket of fresh food containing twenty items. It included pears, tomatoes and lettuce. The total food miles of the produce in the basket was more than 100,000 miles! Peas are being air-freighted from South Africa, lettuce is being flown in from Spain, tomatoes from Saudi Arabia. Supermarkets want to give us what we want, and we want a wide variety of cheap fruit and vegetable available year-round. So they provide it, shopping around globally for the best deal. The problem is that this is not the best deal for the planet. Food miles, and in particular air-freight food miles, contribute 20% of the UKs greenhouse gas emissions.
What can we do about it?
- buy local (not just "British grown" from the supermarket, as despite the fact that your apple may have been grown in the orchard next door to the supermarket, it will still have been taken to a centralised sorting/storage point, then perhaps somewhere else to be packaged, then somewhere else to be distributed, then back to the supermarket to be sold.) Buy from local green grocers, farmers markets, box schemes or farm shops, where the food is actually locally sourced.
- Grow your own, then the food miles are food steps - close to zero pollution.
- If you really want to buy fresh fruit and veg that isn't in season (more on seasonality later) or doesn't grow locally - and who doesn't love a banana or pineapple - then try to get food that has been trucked in from mainland Europe rather than air-freighted. If you're still hankering for that fresh pineapple that you really can't source locally, then think carefully about the country that it came from, and try to make decisions not to buy things from countries who make poor ethical decisions.
Grower and Picker Rights
While it's great to get fresh fruit and veg for a bargain price, we need to think about how realistic those prices are. If we are paying next to nothing for fruits and veg, then it's highly likely that whoever grew it is getting even less - I mean, even with economies of scale, the Supermarket is focused on profit isn't it? Because supermarkets buy in such large quantities they can force the farmer to accept a lower price than they would normally. This means that either the farm becomes unprofitable, or the workers on the farm are paid less, or put in more dangerous or awful working conditions to cut costs. In addition, because our farmers receive subsidies from the government and the EU, it makes sense for them to produce more than we need, thus making it much harder for farmers in the developing world to make any money.
To shop ethically with regards to grower and picker rights:
- seek out the Fair Trade logo, which ensures that farmers, usually in the developing world, have been paid a fair price for their produce;
- grow your own - you are the grower and picker;
- buy from local farm shops, farmers markets or pick your own, where you can see or ask questions about conditions and prices;
- ask questions - are the strawberries you are buying picked by migrant workers, and if so are they treated fairly and paid a decent wage? I live just up the road from a massive S&A soft fruit farm, and I often wonder how the workers there are treated.
Science is a wonderful thing, and advances in agricultural and food storage science have meant that we are able to grow or preserve fruit and veg to such an extent that from somewhere in the globe, we are usually able to get pretty much any fruit and veg that we want, year round. By doing this we are a) increasing our food miles, b) losing biodiversity, because we tend to only cultivate the fruits that will have the longest storage, or the longest harvest time, c) losing out on taste and nutrients because fruit and veg loses out during storage and transport, d) blighting our countryside with the polytunnels that we need to grow this fruit and veg over such an extended period and e) losing touch with the cycle of the seasons.
- grow your own
- buy from farmers markets, farm shops and pick-your-own etc.
- in the supermarket, seek out British grown produce that is in season now (this is not easy. I live in Herefordshire, one of the biggest apple producers in the UK, and yet even as the apple harvest was in full swing all around me, and there were free windfall apples on offer at nearly every farm gate, the choice in the supermarket was still pretty much limited to imported Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious!).
How do we shop for fruit and veg ethically in the Ink-Spots household?
Not nearly as well as I'd like, which is what this series of posts on the blog is all about really. Working full-time, I still rely on the convenience of the supermarket for much of my shopping.
I've made enquiries about a fortnightly delivery from a local fruit and veg box scheme, and have now prioritised it to get on and join the scheme as soon as I'm back from holidays (www.growinglocal.org.uk if you're interested). I did get a veg box delivery when we lived in Scotland, but found the choice in the bag limited in the winter, and in the Summer grew most of what we wanted anyway so didn't bother in the end.
Here I have a rented garden with very limited growing space, so while I grow my own herbs, and plan to grow lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, chard and a few potatoes again this year, my growing-your-own options are pretty limited until we've got a long-term home and garden again.
I do opt for Fair Trade wherever there is a choice.
I love our local pick-your-own, and the children love to go there with a shopping list for fruit, which I also found remarkably inexpensive, and will continue to visit there as often as I can.
Organic produce is still all too often a little too pricey in the supermarket, but I think I should go for it a bit more often.
I'm not too good at seasonality - partly because we always want a nice salad, tomatoes and so on. The strawberries I've bought recently have been noticeably tasteless, so I'll give them a miss now until they are actually in season. I think using the fruit and veg box scheme should help me to keep a bit closer to the seasons.
The same applies to air miles. I love a banana, a pineapple, and chillies and lemongrass and so on, even though I know that they are air-freighted across the world. Hopefully having a bag of local fruit and veg that needs using up will encourage me to be a bit more inventive with local foods, and have the air-freighted foods a bit less frequently.
|court farm leisure, my local pick-your-own and farm shop, Tillington, Herefordshire|