Updated: Mar 24, 2020
We recently caught a Brut Media exposé that unveiled the hidden face of avocado production - violations of the right to water, drying rivers, forced climate migration... so what do we do about our environmentally and socially damaging global food system?
How often do you look at the little sticker or label on your fruit and vegetables to find out where they were grown? Rarely. How often do you stop to consider how those products were grown, under what conditions and by whom? Probably less than rarely. Until recently, I didn't really do much of this either. Then I caught the Brut video and the importance of doing so came crashing home.
I'd urge you to watch as activist Rodrigo Mundaca explains the social and environmental impacts of a system in which producers hoard surface water to feed the avocado plantations, drying out rivers and landscapes, forcing climate migration and requiring whole communities to get their water supplies from tanker trucks, just so we, in the privileged West can 'gram another photo of smashed avo on toast.
"Will you continue to support producers who violate the human right to water?" Mundaca asks.
I know I definitely don't want to and I'm sure you don't either. I know the issues extend far beyond those purely of avocado production, but the theories are applicable to so much of what we consume. So what can we do about a food production system that is so socially and environmentally damaging? How do we know what to do? I'm not claiming to know all the answers, but here are a few thoughts about how we could shop more consciously...
1. Do we buy seasonally?
Firstly, do we even have seasons any more and secondly, if we do, shouldn't we be making the most of them? If we eat fruit and vegetables during the seasons that they wouldn't naturally grow, these effort to replicate natural growing conditions will be far more energy intensive - not ideal. By extension, you would hope that the most minimal energy input is when you buy products when they're meant to be in season.
This Guardian article also suggests that "by shopping seasonally you should, by and large, find yourself buying British" - importantly supporting our domestic food economy. It helps so that when the winds blow, or we hunker down and wait out a global pandemic, we have a wider supply in which to draw from, so the shelves don't go all Ned Stark.
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There's also the economics of it all. Supply and demand dictates that when fruits and veggies are in season, there's an abundance of them, meaning they're available at a lower price. Not that we necessarily want to drive down the prices, but an opportunity to benefit from the laws of economics shouldn't be sniffed at.
2. Buy local?
Surely the best way to know how things are grown is to shop locally. Information is best sourced from the horse's mouth, right? Speak to your local greengrocer. Chat with your local allotment growers. Visit your local Friday market. Speak with your local organic farmer. This is something I've done and our local farmer, Fred, was so thrilled to take us on a tour of his patch. He even runs a "pick your own" every Saturday, where you can literally grab a spade and dig out your crops for the week. Because there's no middle man, he's able to sell his organic produce at wholesale pricing. Other than being a fantastic source of knowledge, buying locally also keeps money in the local economy. He can also tell us all about how the produce was grown.
Something surprising from my research, however, was the axiom that buying local means fewer carbon emissions. You'd think that because the produce doesn't do so much travelling, the carbon emissions would be lower. "You won't eat locally produced beef for environmental reasons but you would eat an avocado that's been flown in from Columbia?" Interestingly, our understanding of this might be a little misguided because it is not necessarily the case that transport is responsible for a largest share of a food's final carbon footprint.
Far more importantly, the article argues, is what we chose to eat.
3. Choosing what we eat
It was George Monbiot who alerted me to this article, when he said in reference to greenhouse gas emissions "Even if you shipped bananas 6 times round the planet, their impact would be lower than local beef and lamb". That really got me thinking.
We often think that it's transportation that makes up the majority of emissions, but we forget about those associated with land use changes, the farming process, processing, retail and packaging.
At the top of the charts were beef and lamb, with the majority of their emissions come from the farming process - methane released as gasses and emissions from fertilisers, manure and farm equipment. Some of the lowest were bananas, root vegetables, apples, nuts and citrus fruits. Interestingly, nuts had a negative land use change value because nut trees are replacing land previously designated for crops and trees store more carbon.
The article concludes by arguing "you can have a larger difference by focusing on what you eat" - food for thought (pardon the pun).
4. Buy organic? Buy Fairtrade?
Whereas Organic sets the standards for agricultural methods, Fairtrade sets the standards for working with humans, so is likely one of the best indicators out that the product you purchase has championed fair trading conditions and farmer empowerment.
There are over 6,000 Fairtrade products, from flowers to coffee. I find that Fairtrade products most notably at Coop, as well as Oxfam, although Fairtrade products are sold commonly throughout most supermarkets - just look for their logo. Likewise with Organic, which covers everything from fashion and textiles to beauty and food.
I've also noticed other accreditation coming to the front - for example, Tony's Chocolate, which promotes itself as "100% slave free". Even the fact that it has to make a point that it is slave free is a startling reminder of the deep rooted issues that our food system is facing.
So, despite the separate h, there are many synergies between them all - promoting better standards for people and planet.
5. Buy plastic free?
One thing for certain is that we can avoid further pollution of the earth by buying "naked" fruits and vegetables. There are far more loose options than there were a few years ago. We need to make sure supermarkets continue to offer these plastic-free options, so buy them where you see them.
The key thing to remember here is that there is no away, especially for the soft-wrinkly packaging which is not currently recycled and is unlikely to be any time soon. That means that every packet or wrapper you buy unnecessarily (and it most certainly is unnecessary when you chose to buy fruit and vegetables wrapped up when there are naked version available), will exist on this planet in some form forever. This is your legacy, think carefully about you want it to be.
6. Avoid air-frighted foods
Air-freight is less common than we think (accounting for 0.16% of food miles), but it does happen for foods which are highly and quickly perishable - commonly asparagus, green beans and berries. A quick tip is to check for foods that have a short shelf AND have traveled a long way.
7. Waste less
The environmental impacts of the food system go beyond our consumption choices - the amount we waste also matters. There's wastage across the entire chain, from the produce that doesn't even get harvested, to the produce that is rejected by supermarkets for not meeting the necessary aesthetic standard and on top of that, the wastage of products that don't get sold (France is on the ball with this and banned this from happening there). It's easy to think that food wastage is someone else's problem.
In reality, 50% of food waste takes place in the homes of the "developed world". In a world where there are over 800 million undernourished people it is not just environmentally disastrous (think of all the energy and input it's taken to grow plus the methane it generates when it undergoes decomposition in landfill) but morally wrong to waste food.
We can take ownership of this problem. We can plan our meals and buy only what we need by writing lists. We can support "wonky" initiatives in supermarkets, showing that aesthetics don't matter. We can use apps like Olio which make it easier to share our unwanted foods with our neighbours. We can compost our food scraps. We don't have the space for this at home so I've taken to collecting these and giving them to our local animal sanctuary - the goats and chickens love our peelings and fruit cores.
Again, it's one of those one that doesn't just help stop climate change, but will save you money too.
There are many arguments I haven't engaged in here, water footprints for example (- did you know, 1kg of potatoes takes 250litres of water - 1kg of rice takes 3,400litres?) and I know that this doesn't necessarily answer the question about how you know exactly whether you're buying an avocado from a corrupt producer or not.
However these thoughts are the starting point for better engagement in the food system - turning us from sleepwalkers into conscious consumers or as Christiana Figueres, leader of the 2015 Paris accord talks puts it, from consumers to citizens. The best we can do is to engage, question and listen, after all this is what Mundaca asks of us..."That's why we think it's very important for you to care about the...chain". We must also demand better, not just of the existing system, but of a new system, one "that is economically viable, of course, but also environmentally just and more environmentally sound" and as always, the best way to do this is with the power of our purses.
As Figueras puts it, now is the time to ask ourselves "Before you make a purchase, or an investment, or any kind of decision that impacts on the planet and on other people, the question should be: “Do I really need this and is this actually conducive to furthering the quality of life on this planet?”"
This is my pledge to engage more at the supermarket - to check the labels of the products I buy, to support my local and national food economies, buying Fairtrade and Organic where possible and all without plastic. Most importantly, to encourage others to do the same. So next time you're out shopping have a bit of fun and give your family a little test. "Where were these spring onions grown Mum?" I can guarantee they'd never have guessed Senegal.