I’ve been thinking a lot about food recently. I notice that in many of the conversations we have about food, especially around local food, the issues around pesticides and their impact on our bodies and planet are largely not part of those conversations.

Over the Christmas period in 2020, I watched a Horizon programme about food in our supermarkets. It told of how the pesticides sprayed on fruit, whilst they have been tested for their impact on humans individually, haven’t been tested on their cumulative affect, except on rats, where they impact on fertility. This got me thinking.

In fact it got me thinking so much, I turned to one of my life experiments. I proposed to feed our family on only organic food, within our budget of £80 and week. Food prices were different then, I couldn’t do it now. But at that time, my month long experiment in January 2020 worked. And it got me a veg bag from Coed Organic. I was looking for a local producer of organic veg, and things happened to align.

And I carried on thinking.

Two years on, I’m still thinking about pesticides, and wondering why no one else is. This article from Wicked Leeks, which I found on a post in The Something Club UK, illustrates some of the issues, in terms of which supermarkets are doing what to address the issues of pesticides and our food.

The article makes reference to PAN UK (Pesticide Action Network, the only UK charity focused on tackling problems caused by pesticides). So I did some reading.

I don’t want to scare you dear reader. But, you should be very scared. I only hope that the fear leads you to action, as it has for me.

To go away from the point somewhat, but to build a context around this, a thread on Twitter I found yesterday highlights some of the wider issues, for me, these issues which we become focused on obscure our focus on pesticides in the conversations I regularly notice around local food, food growing and climate action.

Local food isn’t always the best option. As Rob Rubba goes in to great detail to explain in his Twitter thread, local food doesn’t always come without pesticides, and it isn’t always sustainable. Yet ‘local food’, having become a bit of a buzzword recently, can be touted as the best new thing. Shop from your local greengrocer and your doing your best.

However, when I start to look below the surface, and take my inquiry upstream, what I find concerns me.

Where does the food in your local greengrocer come from?

Even organic food that we find in local shops, and supermarkets in particular, comes with a whole host of questions. Is a monoculture grown organic tomato from Spain really what we want to be eating? For me, not. Especially when it comes to the working conditions. Plus the impacts on land and biodiversity, and not to mention the nutritional value of these foods (we know that food grown in agroecological systems is better nutritionally). Yet I feel thwarted by my choices. There has been a rise in sales of organic produce online. And in the in supermarkets the trend in lockdown was the same.

Organic is definitely a better choice in the supermarket, as the image below illustrates. But it’s still not perfect.

What then, do we do?

It’s a sorry state we are in. The IPCC report this week is frankly terrifying.

My first answer to ‘what do we do?’, is ‘ask difficult questions’.

Ask yourself where your food comes from. Do it for your own health and that of your family.

Ask your greengrocer difficult questions about where the food they have on their shelves comes from.

Ask if you can really afford to carry on not asking difficult questions. Then act.

Finding a way out of the current unsustainable food system and eating food without pesticides and other harmful impacts (which are nicely glossed over buy marketing efforts) is no small challenge, but it is doable. With small changes to shopping and consumption habits. Starting with fruit and veg, then focus on the amount of ultra-processed food in your diet. Is the cost of convenience really worth it? It’s a hard question to ask, when our lives are so busy. But I can’t stress the importance of starting to ask these questions enough.

Once you’ve started asking yourself, it’s time to start talking about these things with other people.

I’m trying to transition to a slower pace of life. Making time for cooking real food with the best quality, local, organic food I can afford. This is what I am doing.

  • Buying a veg bag from Coed Organic.

There are lots of local producers in the Vale and Cardiff where we can get good veg and other food. I’ll make a proper list to share soon, but here are some places to start with.

Jo’s Organics – Penarth

Blaencamel Farm– Cilcennin, Ceridigion – Seasonal, local & organic veg

Amano Growers – Ponthir, Caerleon – Seasonal, local & organic veg

Paul’s Organic Veg

Hodmedod’s, UK – British Sustainable Pulses & Grains, mostly organic

Essential Trading Co-op, Bristol – Ethical dried wholefoods, mostly organic

Riverside Sourdough, Cardiff

Glasbren CSA, Carmarthenshire

Riverside Market, Cardiff

Cowbridge Farmers Market

Cowbridge Food Collective

Slade Farm Organics, St Brides

Open Food Network

The new Farmers Market in Dinas Powys may be a good option, but I haven’t been there yet.

Other things I am doing:

  • Buying meat from Slade Farm Organics.

  • Reducing our meat consumption to once a week

Traditionally meat was a special thing that we had on rare occasions. Its cheapness and availability are evidence of our broken systems.

  • Exploring the possibility of being part of a small food buying group for bulk purchases of wholefoods from Suma

  • Growing food

As much as I can in our tiny courtyard garden. Using permaculture design as my guide. This season I’m aiming to be self-sufficientish in salad leaves.

  • Trying to move away from my over reliance on supermarkets by exploring other options such as using our local shops and the food buying group (mainly Jo’s, for the reasons above, but Coop feels ok, for now)

There are also some online places where I’d feel ok about buying food, such as Riverford, Abel & Cole and Ocado. These open up a whole plethora of other dilemmas around climate and emissions, packaging and the not very local nature of the produce. Defining local is hard.

  • Keeping on trying to do things better. And it’s only my measure of better. Awareness is the key here. Taking time to regularly observe and reflect on how things are for me, in my mind and body. It’s difficult to find ways with food that feel comfortable, but I’m getting there. Things are starting to come into focus.

Cost is always an issue. That’s all I’m going to say on that now (well, not quite). Other than my approach is to eat less of the foods that are most expensive, like meat, and eat more of the reasonably priced foods, like beans and pulses. There’s no getting away from the fact that veg from the budget supermarkets (which incidentally come out top in analyses of climate emissions) is cheaper than veg from a local farm. The true cost of our food is disguised by the ever expanding and complex nature of our food systems, with all its greenwashing and marketing.

Thinking, and worrying about pesticides, has been a way into a broader exploration of food for me. What will be that catalyst for you on your journey to more sustainable and healthful food?

It’s time to get real.

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Thanks to Sarah Jones, Hannah Garcia and other folks at Green Squirrel and The Something Club UK for the inspiration.

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