Monday, March 19, 2007

Interview with Friends of the Earth

I am a big supporter of Friends of the Earth, the environmental campaigning organisation. In particular their campaigns on food and farming are close to my heart. Richard Hines from the Friends of the Earth Real Food & Farming Team agreed to answer some of my questions.

Bean-sprouts: A lot of families are on a very tight budget and find it hard to afford fresh fruit and veg, never mind buying organic. What would you suggest?

Richard: Get down to your local market or greengrocer and you might be surprised how reasonable their prices are. Studies have shown that they're cheaper than the supermarkets for fruit & veg which means you can eat tasty fresh produce on a tight budget. And if you spend an extra few minutes cooking from fresh instead of buying ready-made meals you'll save loads of money too, and have a much healthier diet.

Bean-sprouts: I know all the reasons to buy organic, and Fair Trade, and local. But it's rare to be able to get all three in one product. When I have to choose between them, which should I go for and why?

Richard: Each product is different so there isn't a golden rule for choosing what to buy. But you can go a long way to reducing your environmental impact by buying seasonal, local produce from local shops wherever possible. That way you'll be benefiting the environment by cutting down on food miles whilst supporting local farmers and shops. But if you simply must have those bananas and chocolate then look for the Fair Trade version. And if pesticides are your main concern then organic produce will be your best bet.

Bean-sprouts: Another ethical dilemma is when big companies with poor ethical or environmental records produce certified organic or Fair Trade products alongside the rest of their range. Should conscientious buyers choose these products or continue avoiding the company?

Richard: When choosing what to buy, shoppers should certainly bear in mind who they're buying from as well as what they're buying. Simply having a few green or ethical products doesn't hide the fact that big companies damage the environment and often treat suppliers unfairly. If a company has a poor record, seek out alternatives. And if your local shops don't have the products you want, ask for them!

Bean-sprouts: How can I be sure that food I buy does not contain genetically modified ingredients?

Richard: GM products have to be labelled so they should be easy to spot, and thanks to opposition from shoppers there still aren't many out there. Unfortunately there is a loophole when it comes to meat and dairy. Although they need to be labelled if they contain GM ingredients themselves, products from animals fed GM (such as GM soya) do not have to be labelled as such. The only way to guarantee that the food you're eating doesn't come from animals fed GM is to buy organic.

Thank you, Richard. That was very interesting and helpful. I must admit I sometimes buy non-organic meat, but now I know it may come from animals fed on GM ingredients I will avoid it religiously in future.


Kirsty said...

I didn't know that about non organic meat either. Good interview!

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview, great questions. Since rearing our own piglets and goats I've become only too aware how much GM there is in animal feeds. Its actually difficult sourcing GM free feed here in Ireland, the local co-ops don't stock it, it has to be ordered in and does cost significantly more. I for one would welcome a choice of buying meat GM free which would be a little more expensive, but less than organic.

Anonymous said...

And what do you do when there is no local market or greengrocer? Or what if their stock is expensive, poor quality or both? (Obviously, we grow our own veg but not everyone can.)

Also, it's worth checking if locally grown produce is grown using organic methods even if not certified organic. We can't afford organic certification but all our fruit and vegetables are grown using organic methods, while our animals are not only fed mainly on organic feed but are actually reared to higher standards than most of the organic certification standards (some of which allow a lot of liberties to be taken with animal welfare).

Our pork, chicken and eggs come from animals that are not fed any GM feeds. Nor does their feed use hexane extraction. Our animals are fed our own vegetables, organic feeds, and barley from a local farmer who uses minimal inputs (again, he can't afford to be certified as organic).

Would you steer clear of our meat because it's not certified "organic"? And what about the stocking rates and housing conditions that some organic standards allow?

Melanie Rimmer said...

Good points, Stonehead. Obviously if you have no choice then you have no choice and just have to take what you can get. I am lucky enough to have an excellent farm shop nearby (nearer than the nearest high street) where both the greengrocer and the butcher are very helpful and knowledgeable about their stock. They tell me about the conditions that the food was produced in, and if they described meat such as yours I would buy it happily. It's all about information and trust - I can get my information from the staff at the farm shop who I trust, but in most shops the only information available is on the label. Even then the information my not be trustworthy unless backed up by law, as the "organic" designation is.

So in a nutshell, when I have the choice I choose to buy food that gives me trustworthy information about the conditions of production, including animal welfare, minimal use of agrochemicals, minimal routine animal medication (steroids, antibiotics), no GM and other things. Quite a big nutshell, then, like a coconut perhaps.

I'd love to eat your meat, Stonehead. Was that a backhanded invitataion to dinner?

Lesley said...

I saw on Rich's blog which is at:
that Andy Walker is seeking sponsorship to help 'Friends of the Earth'. He is acting as a voluntary 'body' in the Xtreme Everest project.

Anonymous said...

No more organic meat for us either! Thanks for the great interview Mel.

Anonymous said...

If you want a lengthier argument as to why the organic certification schemes can be bad for livestock and certain types of farms, have a look at

As always, there is much more to it than "organic good", "non-organic bad".

And don't get me wrong, I'm generally in favour of organic farming and food production but as you say, you have to be much better informed than just taking organic philosophy and certification at face value.

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