Food Miles, Fairtrade & Carbon Footprint

Large boot stepping in grass in extreme closeup symbol for ecological footprint

Food shopping these days is either a nightmare in guilt management or a marathon in label deduction and ethical decision making (not to mention cost-calculating). Furthermore, no matter how ‘clued-up’ you believe yourself to be, there always seems to be that one product that ends up flipping everything you thought you knew entirely on its head.

Take the beloved tomato: key ingredient in so many of Britain’s favourite dishes. It might come as small surprise to learn that heated greenhouses in the UK use more energy than unheated greenhouses in Spain, but Spain actually uses more pesticides – thus lending a bit more of a provenance conundrum to pickle (pardon the pun) over.

Well, established wisdom goes that by a return to seasonal eating (you’ve heard this argument before), a more sustainable future is well within our grasp. Easier said than done, however.

If we remember that the most important and impactful factor in both livestock and plant-based farming is transportation (food miles), then concerns over carbon footprint would seem to suggest that the British tomato is the greener option. But that isn’t necessarily so. It may seem nonsensical, but according to Professor David Reay, a climate scientist at the University of Edinburgh, those bananas from the Dominican Republic and even those oranges from Brazil are actually some of the most carbon friendly foods available. However, it must be remembered that such a statement doesn’t take into consideration the production practices of the plantations.

Air miles increase carbon dioxide emissions approximately tenfold. Food miles incurred on the road have doubled since 1974, and by air a 100% increase has occurred since only the mid-1990s. This is by cause of the consideration of comparative labour costs (though if you take the example of British fish oil – a product sent to China to be processed and then sent back to the UK to be sold – that way madness lies).

Then there is the case of organic. Organic is good, right? Well, not if you’re buying it from abroad. The whole point of organic is to reduce environmental impact. Therefore, you simply must ensure it is locally grown. The stats put it bluntly: if your shopping basket has 26 organic items which are not locally grown, then the food miles could add up to being very close to a six-times-round-the-equator trip… Which null and voids both the time taken in concern and actual cost expenditure. In other words, what then is the point?

From the war years and systematised rationing, British households have now gone in the other direction and through a disparity of wealth seen those in higher income families throwing away a lot of the food they buy on a weekly basis (roughly £800 per year’s worth). This be madness, with no method in it. Indeed, figures show that the actual amount that UK households throw away equates to a fifth of what they buy. If this wastefulness is reduced, then money is saved (always a bonus) and the environmental impact is reduced, and so on and so forth, right along the entire supply chain to that Net Zero striven for by 2050.

If the majority of such waste is expired fruit and veg, of course, then composting is the most logical step instead of disposal.
Nevertheless, these days the guilt a consumer battles with when food shopping doesn’t stop with concerns over food miles and obscene food waste and the entanglement of appetite with carbon footprint. Happily, thought is also now given to those who produce what is variously sought after and desired to replenish our glasses and fill our plates: we’re talking, of course, about Fairtrade.
The Fairtrade Foundation’s journey began in 1992, due to appeals from Mexican small-scale coffee farmers dating back to the late 1980s. Now overseen by Chief Executive Mike Gidney, the foundation works closely with its partners in order to support producer organisations and their extended networks – and, happily, coffee farming in Mexico is that bit more economically justifiable for its hardworking, very human farmers.

Indeed, globally, 80% of coffee is produced by 25 million such smallholders, who generally earn between 7% and 10% of the retail price. In Brazil, however, they still earn a mere 2%. As A Well-Fed World put it, “coffee is tied to a long history of colonialism and slavery, and production of the crop remains a hotbed of exploitation and environmental degradation”.
Take for example Honduras: approximately 40% of the workforce employed when the coffee-harvesting season is at its peak are children. They can be as young as six, work up to 10 hours a day, and are put at risk from multiple sources, including the sun and poisoning from the agrochemicals involved in processing the beans.

Even concerns over animal welfare come into consideration when discussing the planet’s seemingly favourite bean. Really, who wants to drink a cup of coffee pre-digested by civets, as is Kopi Luwak? Those with cash to spare appear to have such a desire (it doesn’t come cheap). Or – even worse – by elephants, as is Black Ivory Coffee? The mind boggles; and yet the market is there.

Whatever the preferred steaming hot cup of choice, it is the efforts of the Fairtrade Foundation that ensure that those who devote their lives to coffee farming are given some small hope of, at the very least, earning a living wage – as is their human right.

A Return to the Land: Soil Health, Regenerative Agriculture, & Growing Your Own

In the 1900s, through the introduction of overtly mechanized agricultural practices and the great influx and use of synthetically produced fertilisers and pesticides, farmers soon discovered that they had a problem on their hands: neither the land nor the livestock and plants upon it were thriving anymore. So it was that in the 1920s Dr Rudolf Steiner became the founder of a biodynamic approach to agriculture, an approach which – no surprise, given Steiner’s combined scientific and philosophical background – led to the holistic spiritual-scientific practice of anthroposophy.

Essentially, what needed to be created was a closed-loop system of fertility; an entire living organism self-sufficient and thriving, in and of itself. The premise was simple: when a problem appeared, then it was indication of an imbalance in the farm organism. Correct the imbalance and the problem would go away (very like the logic behind much holistic advice for the human body, in particular Eastern systems of alternative medicine, such as Ayurveda).

By the 1940s, J I Rodale was conducting the first experiments in organic agriculture on a 63-acre plot of land in Pennsylvania, USA, a process which led to his 1954 declaration, “Organics is not a fad.” This came nearly a decade after Britain’s Lady Eve Balfour, founder of The Soil Association (the UK’s leading organic food and farming organization), had published her book, “The Living Soil”:

If fresh food is necessary to health in man and beast, then that food must be provided not only from our own soil but as near as possible to the sources of consumption.

Of late, this biodynamic approach is again becoming more popular, many farmers now seeing the benefits of such practice in the face of an ultra-pessimistic future due to climate change; global warming enacted by man’s own greed and destruction of the planet, all to attempt to satisfy an insatiable appetite.

Of late, this biodynamic approach is again becoming more popular, many farmers now seeing the benefits of such practice in the face of an ultra-pessimistic future due to climate change; global warming enacted by man’s own greed and destruction of the planet, all to attempt to satisfy an insatiable appetite.

Then there’s the GM (Genetically Modified) debate, supporters claiming not everything natural is good for you, and higher yields equating to a done-and-dusted reduction in global hunger eventually. But – and it’s a big but – what is that future, exactly? Over a course of 19 separate studies on rats, severe liver and kidney problems presented themselves every time when fed on GM foods. And if GM plants cross-pollinate with wild, what then? Superweeds and a sayonara? Biodiversity could well be affected through spread of a monoculture, and we won’t even go into the risks – actual and ethical – involved in the cross-kingdom genetic transferal currently being dabbled in in laboratories, blending the floral with the faunal…

As mentioned, GM – that devil-beast geoengineered creation you heard so much about not too many years back – is rearing its head again, biting onto the frantic flag of ‘hunger crisis’. To resort to and put Mankind’s faith in GM would be to go against every biodynamic and organic effort out there. It is only through adoption of biodynamic and organic farming methods that Nature can be reconnected with and her destruction arrested.

If one sets aside GM, then, and considers instead the domino-effect of environmentally insensitive commercial farming practices – for instance, the fact that 70% of local British wildlife (hedgehogs and water voles in particular) have disappeared by cause of habitat clearance and polluted runoff – it pays to take pause to consider one’s next steps, does it not?

However, what works against any vegan lifestyle assertions as regards a biodynamic approach is that proponents claim this process necessarily involves animal input; input for the good of the soil and the farm and the earth at large. (When you consider the position of manure as fertiliser and horns as additional mineralic boosters once buried in a field, perhaps the premise of Rainton Farm comes back to mind.) At risk of sounding very New Age indeed: it’s all for the greater good of the planet, man. In more, ahem, down to earth terms: it’s all about biological harmony.
You’ll have heard, of course, about the logic of crop rotation and the rotation also of grazing land for livestock. In addition to these practices, biodynamic farming puts into effect preparations for optimum compost: yarrow and chamomile, stinging nettle and oak bark, dandelion and valerian. Some will sound oh-so-very-local and familiar to many readers, and it is to a large extent this that is key: developing an active and creative conversation with nature, locally. It is also a question of history and looking to those perhaps forgotten or under-used breeds and species and methods of yore – when the soil wasn’t so depleted and when the temperature of the globe wasn’t as critically elevated as it is today.

Regenerative organic farming takes into consideration the part that human communities play within this maintenance of farming ecosystems, also, and goes beyond ‘sustainable’. Adopted by Robert Rodale, the son of the organic farming extoller J I Rodale, regenerative organic farming took the wisdom of his paternal predecessor and combined it with that of Dr Rudolf Steiner, Sir Albert Howard, and other holistic practitioners too numerous to name. What resulted were Rodale Jr’s three focal points for consideration and control:

This trio of precepts obviously lends itself well to current thinking as regards areas of concern in which the greatest change can be made for the greatest good. For, as the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) reports, there are apparently only 60 harvests left due to degraded soil health, while a never-ending increase in population predicts a horrific 9 billion mouths to feed from this depleted forecast (and nutritionally deficient soil). Humanity’s very survival is under threat – no wonder so many environmentally-concerned voices are now grappling to be heard.

Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.

(Vedas [Sanskrit scripture], c.1500BC)

The Soil Association has stated that over 7 billion organisms are to be found in a single tablespoon of humble soil, with a quarter of all known species on the Earth being soil-dwelling.  In the UK, almost 10 billion tonnes of carbon are contained within the soil, equal to the total human output of emissions in one year.  As pertains to Man as a whole, 95% of our food is by grace of soil, and yet the Soil Association paints a terrifying picture when it reports that each minute 30 football fields’ worth of fertile or top soil is lost, the replenishment of a centimetre of which will take up to 1,000 years to form again.  So, the issue of soil health really does go hand-in-hand with concerns for the future of the planet – yet another positive for regenerative organic farming.

By limiting soil erosion and remineralising it, leading to purer groundwater and, hence, runoff – the refusal to use pesticides or fertilisers is clearly the way forward, coupled with careful implementation of age-old agricultural know-how (such as bio- and phyto-remediation, using living things and plants to heal the soil).  Indeed, even a small-scale effort seeks to reap a global effect, not least by the resultant carbon sequestered in the soil, acting as a ‘carbon sink’ (think an effect similar to the oceans and old-growth forests, acting to cleanse the Earth’s atmosphere).

Ecological health really must start local, within the very ground beneath our feet.  Geochemist Asmeret Asefaw Berhe put it bluntly in her TED talk: “6ft or so of soil represents the difference between life and lifelessness on Earth.”  The goal is to increase carbon in the soil by 0.4% annually so as to effect an offset of GHGs by a third.  As another practitioner put it, “forest by forest, farm by farm”: regeneration works from the individual to the masses, as regards safeguarding the planet from its current degradational path for the next generation.

Provenance was the buzz word a decade or so ago; that time has come again.  But what of smaller scale endeavours?  Think locally; think annuals and perennials, vegetables and herbs, flowers and berries, fruits and nuts, grains and pasture, foraging and hedgerows, and general plant diversity – for this way of farming mimics the natural way of things, doesn’t dominate it and try to shape it into a very human-shaped entity.  Just as we strive for a symbiosis in our bodies, so an entire symbiotic and robust system should result from these practices.

The Guardian reported not so long ago that, between 2008 and 2011, homegrown fruit and vegetables had increased as a ‘hobby’ from 2.9% to 5%.  Since then, one only need skim over a newsstand to be struck by the plethora of image-dense magazines promoting Grow Your Own.  All good and well if you have a garden and a fair amount of time on your hands (not to mention a green hue to your fingertips), but what of the wide multitude who live in apartments?  There is the possibility of an allotment, but again the hurdle of time management comes into effect, particularly for the early mid-lifers who are bogged down in a demanding career schedule.  That said, 80% of gardeners believe it more effective a stress-buster than meditation…

If you do decide to grow your own, time also comes into play with each of the fruit and individual vegetables themselves.  Did you know, for instance, that green beans lose 77% of their vitamin C after just seven days once harvested?  Fresh really is best, it seems.  The fertilizer of even a humble hobbyist should be organic, but help your efforts further by including soil-saving plants like clover, legumes, and even trees if you have the space.

If, however, after all that information it still seems an overwhelming concept to dig into soil, then why not regrow from food scraps and thereby reduce some transport costs (both economic and pollutant) in the process?  Avocado might be one of the trickier, more patience-asking choices, but basil and bok/pak choy, and carrot greens and celery lend themselves well to water regrowth pre-potting.  If you’re willing to harvest seeds into pots on the windowsill, go for tomato and/or chillis.

In short, both farming and gardening when done biodynamically and organically – and, ideally, regeneratively – offer microcosmic insights into the potential macrocosmic effects to be seen throughout the planet as a whole in not too many years to come.  The future retains a Pandoric iota of hope after all.

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