Gone Organic. Shopping, environment and the politics of food

For 30 days I only bought organic. This is what I learnt.

A month ago I pledged to ‘go organic’ for 30 days. It meant that in my food shopping I would only buy organic produce and products. If something would only be available in its conventional version I would not buy it. What was the point? It was an inquiry in the opportunities and constraints for consumers who want to be aware of their impact on the environment and on their own body. I am now near the completion the pledge, and I think I learnt something.

Tons of pesticides are thrown into crops, soil and air every day with the aim of securing faster and bigger produce, untainted by insects and malformations. There are ways to protect produce from parasites and insects which are less hostile for the environment, but the agro-industry and the pesticides companies won’t have it. Governments are hostages of the myth that pesticides help fight world hunger. As it stands at the moment, change is more likely to happen through consumer demand than through regulation. But is it possible at all? Can you ‘go organic’ and lead a normal life? One day I decided to find out by myself.

After starting the pledge I started to wander through the alleys of my local hypermarket with different eyes — this is a massive 24/7 Tesco near the intersection of a London motorway, which is itself the symbol of what has gone wrong in the system of production and distribution of food. Yet, Tesco is not the worst operator when it comes to organic. In its large stores, such as the one in my area, it carries a wide selection, but what it distributes in smaller shops in the city centre is much more limited and insufficient to live on. This is roughly the same for the other few chains in the UK, which form a very competitive oligarchy and copy each other’s practices. Seeking to fill my shopping basket with only organic food I began to see how much of what the supermarket contained was now not available to me. Just how many kilos pesticides had been used to produce all the items that, in that precise movement, were on display in the store? A mind-boggling quantity no doubt, yet only a fraction of the amount thrown every day into the planet.

One the early discoveries was, of course, about prices. Organic food is consistently more expensive than conventional one. You have to pay a premium. Organic vegetables and meat are a fifty to hundred percent pricier than their conventional counterparts. Among organic choices only milk is an affordable one. Butter is some twenty-five percent more expensive. These are not statistical figures, it’s my experience as a shopper. If you seek actual products, i.e, those composed of many ingredients, the price gap skyrockets and anyway they are usually found only in dedicated organic shops. You cannot make much economies when you go organic. And this is particularly upsetting as food prices are fast rising in the post-Brexit economy.

Not only that, but organic vegetables and fruits are usually smaller in size (see photo above). Salts in chemical fertilizers make plants bloat with water, so they grow bigger. They are also pumped with nitrogen and potassium, which alter the balance of their nutrients, but makes them grow faster. However, when you buy vegetables you don’t examine them at the microscope and if you have a family to feed you are likely to be affected by size.

Less food, and using a higher share of the modest budget of a teacher — what a deal! But before throwing off the towel and leave organic to middle class hipsters in gentrified neighbourhoods, I paused to understand how my habits were changing. Because food was now so expensive, I started to take extra care with what I was wasting. I would not let anything go off (and organic food goes off faster) and make reminders to myself to use what I would earlier neglect and forget in a corner of the fridge. Meat costed me now more than double the money that I used to spend on it, so I bought it rarely. Incidentally, the production of red meat is one of the main causes of global warming and so is food waste in western societies. I was starting to see the beneficial collateral effects of going organic. It was not only about the food on my table, there was a bigger picture to take into account.

As days went by, my 11-year old daughter began to be critical about the fewer options on our table and that raised the problem of how to make up for the products that were now not available or too expensive. The solution is that you need to start make your own. I learned how to do shortcrust. Well, if you are Jamie Oliver is very simple, but I always used to pick up a ready made one from the shelf. It was so cheap. So for a while it was pies with veggies all the time. And they tasted great. I revived my pizza skills and I also started to do flatbreads, because the chain supermarkets still do not carry much organic bread — or pizza. (Yes, I did travel once forty minutes to Kensington to a Wholefood and adored the wider choice there, but doing it often would have been beyond what I can afford.) I had a go also at fresh tortellini (too time consuming) and was forced to try a number of new recipes to avoid waste. Had I not had an interest in cooking it might have been a month of bland dinners, but in general I realised that going organic is an opportunity, for anybody, to become more knowledgeable and confident in the kitchen.

There was one aspect torturing me and my fantasies to save the planet. The organic fruits and vegetables for sale in store were often those which had more packaging. The move from independent shops to the large distribution has also meant a spiralling increase in the use of packaging, I guess with the intention of speeding up the consumer journey. What was the point of going organic if I then indirectly encouraged the use of more plastic? I don’t have a farmers’ market nearby (they often carry organic produce and do not package it heavily), but I realised that I could subscribe to a scheme delivering organic vegetables in boxes or bags, rather than individually packaged. I opted for one that uses collection points and provides locally produced, seasonal, and organic vegetables and fruits. Suddenly, a couple of weeks into the pledge, I was spending a share of my shopping money not to sustain big multinationals, but local farmers, who earned most of what I spent. I also discovered the existence of local shops that I ignored, owned by individuals, not by shareholders and CEOs who pay their workers the minimum wage. The choice of going organic, so much individual, appeared to me now as political as ever. The politics of food impinges on many other aspects of society. At experiential level, I could visualise the link between environment-friendly choices and labour practices, which I earlier knew only in theory.

I am now at the end of the 30-day pledge and I have changed considerably. As an Italian I miss incredibly parmesan (the organic option is pricey and difficult to find) as well as other cheese that is not available organic. The choice of fruits is also quite limited. But the real problem is that I cannot afford to a spend a third to a half more of my budget on food indefinitely. Some changes however will be everlasting. I am used now to eat less meat and to opt preferably for local, organic produce, even if it might not constitute 100 percent of my shopping. The veggie scheme is efficient and the small premium I pay there will force me to continue to be mindful about wasting. Overall, I learned that what food you buy affects not only your body, but wider economic and political forces. Going organic might be about justice as it is about health and environment.

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