Whilst there are many things to be grateful for living in the UK on a pleasant Spring day, you would have to be living under a rock not to see that there are increasingly tough times ahead for many people. Inflation is continuing to rise and is predicted to last for years rather than months. People choose box schemes and organic products for a variety of reasons. Some want to support local growers & minimise food miles, some do it to reduce their single use plastic consumption and others trying to get back to ‘real’ food with good nutritional levels.
UK food production as been hit extremely hard from all quarters with pandemics, Brexit, fuel and fertiliser costs and the other ripple effects of war causing food prices to rise 5.9% between March 2021 and 2022. It is likely to continue this way. Organic food has always been more expensive, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the absence of fertilisers and pesticides is more labour intensive and can be lower yielding. Secondly, organic farmers are more likely to be paid a fairer wage, especially in developing countries. Thirdly, the traceability, fees and standards set by certifying bodies all cost money.
In these tough times when faced with an ever dwindling budget it is perfectly reasonable to question why we should put such a large portion of our income into something which many people view merely as fuel, or a way to treat ourselves. If there are cheaper alternatives we should cut our cloth, right? A recent article reminded me just how important it is (even/especially now) that we view our food as a future investment, and not just something to fill our stomachs.
When I was first introduced to organic food when (significantly!) younger it was in the context of someone with ill health trying to avoid chemicals and gain increased nutrients. Researching a little more, I learned about the biodiversity that is gained, and that organic farming offers a more sustainable way of doing this, as well as better standards of animal care. It was only upon becoming a Bean that I was shown the light, and discovered that organic boiled down to one basic thing, often overlooked. Dirt.
The adjective ‘dirty’ has negative associations along with grubby and mucky which leaves us dismissing an amazing world beneath us that has the potential to make or break the human race! We know that atmospheric carbon emissions are escalating global warming, but plants can capture that and lock it into the soil. Yet the soil has been suffering from increasing degradation for decades, as a result of intensive farming practices, deforestation, pollution and overgrazing, as well as numerous other human practices. The concept that a farm could lose it’s soil absolutely blew my mind when I first learned of this – if a farm doesn’t have soil then what’s left?! And how do we find it again? ‘The processes that generate high quality, fertile topsoil can take centuries’.
The trigger that caused me to write this monologue (well done to anyone who’s made it this far…) was reading this article ‘The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing- and the key to our planet’s future‘. (Be warned, if you thought this nugget was lengthy, that article is an epic! But definitely worth the read. With some tea. And a biscuit or 2.) It reminded me how important the biological structure of the soil was, which is easily forgotten when you’re just trying to pick up something for your tea. Recently the importance of the human gut microbiome and it’s impact on the health of the individual has been highlighted. It turns out the microbes of the soil are equally important and ‘could be seen as the plant’s external gut’.
If we don’t radically change how we farm, between soil degradation and a lack of water where it will be needed, there will be areas of the world where once-fertile lands turn to dustbowls and people go hungry. In the article a farmer in South Oxfordshire has managed to successfully farm an area with 40% stone, not only without the use of of pesticides or herbicides but without any fertiliser of any kind, including animal manure, pioneering ‘stockfree organic’ meaning no livestock products at any time which, when considering carbon emissions, is an incredible feat. If this could be replicated elsewhere it would be an amazing thing.
Unfortunately Tolly, the farmer from South Oxfordshire, can’t feed the entire UK despite his impressive yields. Nor are perennial crops, that minimise soil damage, in commercial use yet, and the future technologies which could help are not available and could be monopolised by corporations. So what can we do? Whilst the article doesn’t discuss the standard organic model, organic farming’s ultimate goal of soil protection, nurture and the development of soil’s complex ecosystem fits far better with a sustainable future than conventional farming practices.
That’s all gravy if you can afford the ethics, but what if we can’t? The Soil Association has ‘Organic September’ where it encourages people to make one swap for the month and see if they can sustain it. We encourage that approach. Fresh organic produce can range between being as cheap as its conventional counterpart (if the supply chain is streamlined and minimally processed), to 100% more expensive, depending on the product and country of origin. However if you were to swap buying some fresh tomatoes to cook with, versus a tin of (in my opinion, excellent!) chopped or cherry tomatoes, that would be a far more cost effective switch, and whilst non organic pasta is dirt… no! I mean very! cheap, when a bag of organic wholewheat pasta works out at around 25p a portion, it might be a viable alternative for some. Waste is a big money drain too, so buying the correct amount of a loose product rather than a pre-pack of fresh mushrooms that you’re only going to use half of could equate to similar spends.
Seasonality is also key. Our local growers are evangelical and do everything they can to make their produce as competitively priced, and therefore as accessible, as possible. If the season is at a lean point, as it is now, choosing the best value imports rather than the ‘usual’ shopping list could save you a lot. And never overlook the power of a dried lentil to bulk a meal AND boost its nutritional value, as legumes count as 1 of your 5 a day! Our shop has a fantastic section known as ‘Half Price Land’ where Organic slightly tired veggies come to reside whilst they wait to become your dinner! Having the non-Organic and Organic fresh produce sections side by side can help to show what the best value Organic products are. We’ve even had a number of Organic lines in both sections (English asparagus, anyone?) as they are cheaper than the conventional produce, largely thanks to allowing the wonky things in rather than only the uniform ones. Our organic veg boxes are a great place to start – we do the work to select seasonal produce for you, which means you get the best value, week by wqeek.
No matter what you choose to spend your money on, if you can only do one thing – if you have a bit of bare earth at home – go and plant something in it!