Understanding Your Choices
Often when we talk about making sustainable choices, we compare the ‘good’ options with the ‘bad’ ones. But what about when you want to compare the good with the good – and find out, for example, if you should buy the organic grapes which are imported from Italy or the locally grown but possibly pesticide laced ones?
Measuring apples with apples (excuse the terrible pun) can be a little tricky. Let’s start by looking at what is good about local, seasonal and organic foods.
Local: Local foods are those that are sold close to where they are grown.
- The amount of distance food travels from production to purchase is called food miles, and the more food miles involved, the more greenhouse gas emissions have been released – both from transportation and refrigeration (where applicable). Local foods have fewer food miles, and therefore fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
- Eating food that has not been stored for long periods (as required for travel) is also better for you – see under ‘Seasonal’ for the explanation as to why.
- Buying locally supports local businesses, and therefore the local economy. You might wonder why this is important – surely supporting a Peruvian farmer is also important? And yes it is, but if everyone supports locally, there will be more balance in the world – and certain markets will not so easily influence the price and squeeze out competition on an international scale.
- Buying locally should also be more cost-effective, because the transporting and storage has been reduced or eliminated. In those cases where the imported French cheese is more affordable than a local one, it’s a sure sign of some very un-fair trade practices taking place, like cheap labour, unfair labour practices, or other unethical methods of cost cutting. Artificial market influencers, such as government subsidies, can also play a role, and the knock on effects of this usually hurts our local producers and risks putting them out of business.
One challenge with the local movement is that there is no definition of what distance constitutes local. In South Africa lots of people treat local as being from anywhere within the country’s borders – especially after the ‘local is lekker’ campaign which defines local as being South African. Others might define it as coming from their area, or province.
In the states the book The 100 Mile Diet has inspired many to follow this rule, whereby you only eat what has been produced within a 100 mile radius to you (which translates to approximately 160 kilometers). If you live in an area with lots of options, this can be a great approach, but is harder for those who stay in places with limited production.
Naturally, the more local, the stronger the benefits.
(As an aside, this principle applies to all things you buy – whether food, appliances, clothes or toiletries.)
Seasonal: Seasonal foods are those that are sold shortly after being harvested, as opposed to being stored and sold out of season.
Seasonal foods are on the shelves shortly after being harvested – they are in season at the time of being sold.
- This means they do not need to be stored for as long – which eliminates the need for long periods of refrigeration and additional transport, which therefore means fewer greenhouse gas emissions are associated with them.
- This not only makes them more affordable, but also makes them more nutritious. For example, S Wunderlich and his colleagues at Montclair State University conducted a study that showed that the levels of vitamin C in broccoli declined over time, once harvested. In fact, out of season broccoli only had half of the vitamin C content compared to the in-season sample.
- Temperature can also affect the nutritional value of fruit and vegetables. L LaBorde and S Pandrangi at Penn State’s College studied the effects of heat on spinach, and showed that higher temperatures result in lower levels of folate. And when I say higher temperatures, they don’t have to even be that high – in fact, spinach stored at a standard fridge temperature will retain only 53% of its folate after 8 days of storage. So another problem with out of season produce is that you cannot be sure how long they have been stored, and at what temperatures.
You can usually spot what’s in season according to price and availability – the more abundant and affordable items are the ones in season.
Organic: Organic fruit and vegetables are grown on farms that do not use synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides and insecticides, or genetically modified seeds. The farming methods are also meant to reduce pollution and sustain the ecosystem. In crops this includes crop rotation to allow the soil to recover, composting, and environmentally friendly pest control.
Organic meat requires the livestock are fed organic feed, which cannot be grown using persistent pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Additionally, no animal by-products or genetically engineered grains can be added to their feed, and the animals are not given routine antibiotics.
- Conventional farming methods, while effective at producing a lot of food in a cost-effective way, tend to be worse for the environment for a few reasons. Firstly, the use of synthetic chemicals are not contained within the farm, but are spread into rivers, streams and underground water systems as water run-off. These then enter eco-systems and can be absorbed by other plants, animals and even humans. Animal waste from conventional farming can release large volumes of methane gasses (one of the worst greenhouse gases), and are not always disposed of safely. Other findings show that large scale farming leads to soil degradation over time, and can contribute to soil erosion – especially when natural habitat is cleared to make space for farming, with possibly the worst example of this being the Palm Oil industry. Organic farming practices manage to avoid these negative side-effects.
- Aside from the benefits to the environment, organic farming is also better for your health. A Stanford study found there is no difference in nutritional value between organic and non-organic food, but confirmed that organic foods were 30% less contaminated with chemicals from pesticides – things which you would rather be without, as they have been associated with cancers, endocrine imbalances and hormone disruptions. (However, for a criticism of the Stanford study – which argues it has an implicit faults that could hide benefits of organic foods – read this.)
Click here to find out which fruit and veg are more prone to pick up pesticides.
- D Davis from the University of Texas published findings that show soil depletion, associated with intensive conventional farming methods, leads to a lowered nutritional value of the crops being raised in it. This means the superior nutrient levels of soil in organic farms (especially older farms, as these levels increase over time) should mean more nutritious food.
Formal certified organic farming in South Africa is still relatively small (and carries a big price tag), although many smaller farms and subsistence producers follow the same or at least similar principles. This is a good reason to get to know more about your suppliers, or shop from a place that does thorough checking on your behalf – like the Organic Food Emporium.
What do you do with your options?
There is a lot to consider when deciding what is better – local, seasonal or organic. So I asked sustainability guru Grace Stead, from Steadfast Greening, what she would recommend, and she said the best rule of thumb is to prioritise these options in the following order: local, seasonal, organic. She says, “Local gives a smaller carbon footprint, and would typically be seasonal. Organic would be great if it is local, but when you fly it around the world just to have organic, it does not really make sense.”
Top tip: To get the trifecta of all three, look for organic fruit and veg box scheme in your area. These are run by local farms, who provide you with the freshly harvested produce weekly. This means you are simply given what is ripe and ready that week, which can make for interesting boxes, and can force you to try something you would never normally buy (like turnips!)
I’ve been using Wensleydale’s online store, who have a number of box size options. I go for the mini-box which only costs R95 per week, and has more than enough veg for the two of us for a week, though we usually need to buy more fruit.
Similar options (which I haven’t tried, but their online shops look promising) include:
- Eat Your Home
- Fresh Organics – they don’t offer boxes, just an online shop which has lots of lovely-looking fruit and veg
If you can’t find a veg box scheme like this, simply look out for small independent farmers that you can buy from directly, especially at markets.
Can you recommend any other South African veg box schemes?
Image from: http://www.freeimages.com