Eating: one of the most simple and basic human activities. Yet as our food systems become increasingly more mechanised and complicated, this simple act begins to carry with it a whole spectrum of messages. When you lift that juicy apple to your lips, do you think about which chemicals were used to make it so perfectly red? How many miles has it been traveling in order to reach your hungry mouth? Perhaps these questions are undesirable to think about; or maybe you simply do not know the answer. There are a number of factors it may be worth considering when it comes to food, which can help us to make choices that benefit us and the environment. These include additives, pesticide residue and diversity of food species.
Concerns over routine use of food additives are well publicised; for example, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) last week published a report (1) which highlights those chemicals that are very common in processed foods but which may sneak onto the label under the heading of simply “flavourings”. Even if some additives are identified, just because they have been added to food, (one could say bizarrely), it does not necessarily mean that they are good to eat. In an earlier article (2) I give an example of sulphites, which are routinely added to many foods and drinks including wine and dried fruit, but which have also been shown to cause a range of health issues, from nausea to lung problems (3).
One example the EWG gives of this is phosphates, which are widely added to many food products around the world to “leaven baked goods, reduce acid and improve moisture retention and tenderness in processed meats.” (4). Phosphates have been linked to heart disease in a number of studies (4) but for now they are considered a safe food additive, even in the EU, which has some of the strictest food labelling laws in the world (1).
Worrying though the EWG’s findings may be, in many ways it is quite easy to avoid the risk which eating chemical food additives can pose to your health, and that is simply to avoid food which is made using additives. Cooking from scratch is easier and cheaper than buying processed food, so this should not really be a problem. Some people even enjoy cooking, especially when it is to share with friends.
Once you have decided to avoid processed foods (especially those with added chemicals and “flavourings”), the messages you send to the world about the food you consume become healthier, as you concentrate on fresh produce. Fruit and vegetables may seem quite uncomplicated; however, even these simplest of foods nowadays carry with them a range of concerns which, whether you are aware of it or not, you are contributing to every time you put one in your mouth.
What’s wrong with fruit?
As well as a ‘dirty dozen’ for food additives, the EWG has also published a ‘dirty dozen’ of fruits and vegetables with high pesticide residue (5) (no, I don’t know why these things only happen in twelves either). Among these are such common foods as grapes – a single grape sample in the study contained 15 pesticides; strawberries and cherry tomatoes – samples of which each contained 13 pesticides; and apples, 99% of the samples of which tested positive for pesticide residue (for more see the report 5).
As apples are one of the world’s most consumed cultivated fruit (6), second only to bananas in popularity (7), this shows there is a huge potential for buyers to tip the pesticide trend the other way. This idea of consumer power is roughly that if everyone who is buying apples now decides that they prefer their fruit chemical-free, the market would have to respond to this consumer demand.
This idea is a little hazy, however, as it implies that the market right now is responding to consumer demand. Since World War Two we have lost an estimated 70% of our food varieties (8) and at the moment the world’s top consumed fruit and vegetables are only a handful of the vast array of varieties which exist; or which did exist, before we began concentrating so heavily on just a few strains. For example, though there are around 7,500 varieties of apple (9), in most British supermarkets you will probably only find up to eight: Braeburn, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Jazz and Cox (10). This may be because consumers do not want more than those choices; but how can the supermarkets tell this if they do not provide alternative varieties as well?
What happens if you follow market logic
In the UK, this year was a particularly good one for apples. Celebrations amongst apple farmers at this news did not ensue, however. On the contrary; in many places supermarkets have actually been rejecting British apples in favour of imported ones. There was one report this year of a man in Northern England checking 22 choices of apple in his local supermarket during “peak apple season,” there to find a range of apples from Chile, the USA, New Zealand and South Africa (11), and not a single apple from the UK.
While this is happening, apple farmers in the UK have been unable to sell their proliferation of fruit. I visited one apple farm in September as part of the Gleaning Network (12), a network of volunteers who redistribute surplus food from farms to charities and community groups. With about ten of us picking Bramleys for a couple of hours we managed to harvest around 837kg (13) of apples for redistribution: apples which would otherwise have gone to waste as the farmer could not sell them. There were many more surplus apples than this; but we simply ran out of space.
During the gleaning day we heard some of the reasons why these particular apples were being treated as a potential waste product. One reason was, ironically, the fact that this year has been so good for apples; meaning that the market is overrun and prices fall (13). This suggests that the current economic logic in place around national and international trade needs a little adaptation if it is ever going to become efficient. If encouragement of abundance ends up being detrimental because of a process in the system of markets, achievement of abundance is more difficult. If you stop to think about it, the apples themselves are worth a lot – the ones which we gleaned went towards feeding hundreds of people – and a bureaucratic process which ignores this probably could do with a little tweaking.
The same goes for the logic of supermarkets ignoring British produce at peak British apple season in order to fly in apples from halfway across the world. When examined at face value, this activity has no benefit for anyone. It does not benefit the British farmers, who cannot get a good price for their fruit, if they are lucky enough to be able to sell it at all. Consumers would benefit more from fruit which is grown locally as it keeps its nutrition better; by buying imported fruit we are inputting less nutrition into our bodies, so we have to buy more food; thus using up more money as well. So why, amidst this plethora of disadvantages, do supermarkets continue to operate in this way?
A search for more
Even if supermarkets did not bring with them all of these potential pitfalls, you may still wish to purchase your fresh fruit and vegetables from elsewhere for the simple reason of flavour. If you can only find eight types of apple at most, you may begin to get a craving for more. Apples are one of the more diverse items on sale; carrots, for example, are almost always represented by just two or three varieties in UK supermarkets, yet there exist at least 123 distinct varieties (14). If you wish to try any of the other hundred-and-twenty or so, you can try a local greengrocer, organic shop or community garden. One of the best ways of trying out different varieties is to grow them yourself, and if you are not inclined to do this there may well be an allotment, community garden or local group close to your home who are already engaged in this.
The experience of different varieties is not just about novelty and taste. There are many studies (see for example 15) to suggest that our bodies require a diversity of flavours precisely because the flavours indicate different nutrients present in foods, and we need a healthy mix of these in order to stay strong. For this reason, choosing varieties other than those most common on the global market is not just about trying something new; it is a way of empowering yourself through choice towards better and more autonomous health.
If we do not make this choice then the varieties which we do not choose will stop being cultivated and will die out, as has happened already with so much of our food. When there are less varieties of plants they become less stable and as a food source are more precarious, as well as labour-intensive. For example, all cultivated bananas are completely sterile, meaning that they have to be manually propagated using tissue from the mother plant (16). They cannot reproduce naturally in a wild state and their gene pool is limited to what it already is (16).
Some suggest that genes are the answer to recreating and sustaining biodiversity in food. For example, the apple, though in many ways a true British tradition, actually comes originally from somewhere around present-day Kazakhstan (17), where some of the original strains of apple still grow wild. However, due to more intensive farming many of the wild apples are dying out (18). In a recent Guardian article, Alyson Fowler suggests that without the genes from these original stock of wild apples we would not be able to keep our modern apples disease-free and resilient. She does not specify how one should use the genes in order to do this; but she says
As the majority of cultivated apples are grown not from seed but from limbs grafted onto rootstock, this could be a suggestion that we need to grow more wild apples as rootstocks to ensure stronger trees.
This article contains much to consider when thinking about what to eat which may concern you, but there also many positive approaches to retaining food varieties and keeping our bodies healthy. The EWG has produced a counter-report to the ‘Dirty Dozen’ foods with pesticide residue; this one is called ‘The Clean Fifteen’ (19) of fruits and vegetables which are generally free from pesticides and includes sweetcorn, cabbage, onions, asparagus and avocados (the cleanest). So even if you still have to shop in a supermarket, you can at least negate the effects which pesticide residue could have on your health by choosing foods which do not contain them in harmful levels.
When it comes to increasing varieties of food, there are many groups working towards making our food chain more biodiverse, resilient and interesting. Some examples which provide for the very start of the food chain are the Heritage Seed Library (20) and the Real Seeds (21) company, both of which provide seeds for a large range of different strains of fruits and vegetables in the UK.
More orchards, less borders
A group who are working towards encouraging biodiversity in living trees is the French-British project Orchards without Borders (Vergers Sans Frontiers) (22), whose aim is to
The three organisations involved – the Brighton Permaculture Trust (23) Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (24), and Collines Normandes CPIE (25) provide education on tree planting and care and implement orchard planting on both sides of the channel, as well as sharing of information and resources on sustainable planting.
The concept of Orchards without Borders is an important step in creating a global community of shared abundance. In our increasingly internationalised world, it is clear that to some extent borders are becoming less and less important: take the case of the apples from seven different countries in the supermarket in England, for example. Yet there are other ways of responding to this increased interconnectedness than to simply let market trends decide where our food comes from. Orchards without Borders is celebrating and promoting inter-cultural exchange at a local level; sharing of resources and knowledge at the same time as strengthening food production in the places where we actually live.
As part of this they are organising an educational trip from Brighton, where the UK division is based, to Normandy. In order to become a part of what I see as a very important movement, I shall be participating in the trip, to share my skills and knowledge and of course to learn as well. The trip will include a visit to a French school where we will be helping children to plant apple trees in their school garden and providing educational materials on how to care for them. This aspect of engaging with young people seems particularly appealing; as if young people care about sustaining biodiversity then our planet may well be in safer hands.
The Orchards Without Borders project is just one way of finding alternatives to the supermarket system and all of the inefficiencies and health hazards it can bring with it. There are many other ways; indeed, the only limit is your imagination. If you believe that your health and the health of the planet and those around you is important enough, there are many ways of implementing whichever positive change you see as most important.
And then next time you bite into a really juicy apple, you may enjoy it that extra little bit.
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2. Haworth, Charlotte, 2014. ‘The Importance of Eating Food’. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2014/09/26/importance-eating-food/ – retrieved 16/11/14
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