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Answered: Price, plastic and local food

Slow progress on plastic, whether to choose local or organic, and how to make a difference on a budget – you asked, and we answered. 

My son keeps asking which plants are weeds. He points to wildflowers and asks if those are weeds. So what characteristics mean that a plant is considered a weed?

Zairis Coello, by Facebook

Great question. It’s gardeners and growers who call some plants ‘weeds’. What they mean by this is usually a weed is a plant which they haven’t sown or planted, and it’s growing where they don’t want it to. Many weeds are wildflowers. They grow because the soil and conditions suit them, they often blossom easily and provide nectar and pollen for important insects. But the reason gardeners take out most weeds is because they compete with our chosen plants for space, soil nutrients, moisture and sunlight – all things vital for growing. And many weeds can get out of control, swamping your growing area. But some weeds are quite beautiful. Golden yellow dandelions, for instance, or dark red Herb Robert. So I think it’s up to you as to how many you allow in your growing space, and whether you cultivate them as a chosen plant - or a weed.

Sarah Brown, gardening columnist, Garden Organic

Broccoli

Should we be ending the relatively modern 'garden centre' model of cheap seasonal plants, piled high and sold in non-recyclable plastic? Would we be better going back to the old style 'nursery' where you ordered your bare rooted plants and collected them in the autumn?

Hecate, by wickedleeks.com

This is a very valid point, Hecate. Garden centres could lead the fight to save the natural environment, by cutting out single use plastic, not stocking plants grown in peat-based composts, and by not selling toxic pesticides. As retail operations, they could embody the circular economy, thus increasing their sustainable approach to business. Have a listen to The Organic Gardening Podcast July episode, where we explore this very topic. And yes, bare root plants are often stronger, healthier and more likely to survive being replanted.

Sarah Brown, gardening columnist, Garden Organic

Bag

As we have to drive to where we get our Ecover laundry bottles filled, I saved them until we had four and went trundling along to do them all at once, thereby using less fuel. However, they were almost £2 per fill per bottle more than buying ‘new’ bottles at the supermarket. It cannot be right that it costs more to do the transport and supply the containers and still pay more. Even more so since Ecover was on offer at the supermarket, making it even cheaper.

Tracy Pronyszyn, by email

Why is it more expensive for me to go to the refill shop, with my own container and fill it with, say liquid soap, when those items are supplied in huge containers? I’m happy to pay more, but sometimes feel as though the prices are just too high to encourage people with little disposable income.

Diana R, by wickedleeks.com

Yes, it’s bonkers. Refill options shouldn’t be more expensive, and they often aren't. While refilling washing-up liquid recently, it struck me that perhaps higher prices cover the cost of spillages – customers aren’t as accurate as machines?! The more popular refills become, the more cost-effective they’ll get, so we need to shout loudly and make our demands heard. More supermarkets are trialling refill schemes (Waitrose is trialling its Unpacked options in certain stores; M&S, Asda and Sainsbury’s have run refill station trials; or try loopstore.co.uk) plus there’s a growing trend in household cleaning for concentrated pods that you dilute with water at home (try Oceansaver or Spruce). City to Sea’s Refill app (refill.org.uk) connects users to more than 200,000 places globally where you can eat, drink and shop without waste. And while it’s brilliant that the increasingly popular refill concept is reaching mainstream supermarkets, don’t forget, there are so many brilliant independent refill stores and zero waste shops on the high street that offer ethical alternatives without the hefty marketing budgets, and often they work out cheaper too. So please don’t be disheartened – your small changes do count and the more of us that call for change the better.

Anna Turns, environmental journalist and Wicked Leeks features writer

Why is it taking so long to reduce single use plastics? I accept some products would be difficult to be repackaged in something more sustainable. However, many should be easy. Pasta, rice, tea spring to mind, and there are probably thousands more. So why is it taking so long to make packaging more sustainable?

Jane Edwards, by wickedleeks.com

Because we don’t have an even playing field. Replacing single-use with reusable options involves complex behaviour changes, and while plastic is still the cheapest option, there’s no financial incentive for everyone to switch. We urgently need effective legislation that forces manufacturers to avoid unnecessary packaging. This ‘extended producer responsibility’ encourages investment in nationwide deposit return schemes and other initiatives that minimise post-consumer waste. Occasionally, single-use plastic might be justified because it reduces food waste and it’s lighter to transport, but non-essential use needs to get thrown out. Innovative compostable alternatives such as MarinaTex (cling film made of fish waste) have been developed, but these won’t become more mainstream until waste streams are better able to cope with compostable materials that are currently considered contamination in most food waste bins. Ideally, a more circular system will turn all ‘waste’ into a valuable resource. That’s a massive step change.

Anna Turns, environmental journalist and Wicked Leeks features writer

If one had the choice between a local conventionally grown product or an organic one from another continent which would be better for you and the environment? For example, organic apples from Chile or conventionally grown apples from Kent.

Tom FitzPatrick, by email 

Tricky one. If I knew where the apples had been grown, and knew and trusted the grower, in this instance I would go for the Kent-grown non-organic apples. Sorry to the Soil Association and all those organic growers that this will annoy. It does of course depend on how the organic apples are grown in Chile, how they are transported, packed, etc. compared to how those non-organic apples are grown in Kent; information that we normally don’t have when we pick up a bag of apples in a supermarket, and the reason so many people put that trust in the tried and tested organic certification standards. I don’t think that we should pretend that organic has all the answers to all the world’s problems, and in particular it gives no measure of the climate change implications of transport. Of course, what so many of us want is produce that is both local and organic, and I think it is a fair criticism of Riverford that we could do even more to promote production within the UK and to push our customers more towards consuming what is in season locally.

Guy Singh-Watson, founder, Riverford Organic Farmers

Plane

Which has the smaller carbon footprint - beans (or tomatoes or whatever) grown in Spain/Morocco/Kenya using natural light and flown to market, or those grown in the Netherlands, UK or northern France inside greenhouses? And why isn’t this information transparent?

Climate Bodger, by wickedleeks.com

Air freight is generally higher carbon than transport by sea or land, even if you take into account the carbon saved by growing the veg outside rather than in heated greenhouses. Even though the carbon from air freighting fruit and veg is a small part of our overall carbon footprint as a nation, when it comes to your shopping basket it is very high compared to food transported by sea or land. Interestingly, when you start to transport foods like tomatoes from Spain by lorry then the carbon saved in growing them outside does actually outweigh the carbon used in heating greenhouses. Confusing, isn’t it? I think the real problem is your point on why isn’t the information more transparent. A big reason for this is simply because it is so complex. To calculate the carbon footprint of a food over its whole lifecycle is still a developing discipline. Do you include the energy used to produce the fertiliser? Or the manure? Do you include the energy used by the consumer travelling to the shop? Personally, I think the information will always be complex, so we need to educate people to make decisions without labels. If shops made clear not just country of origin but means of transport, and made more seasonal food available, people could choose to avoid air freight. I do think people want their food decisions to have less impact, and that will push the retailers in the right direction.

Louise Gray, author of Ethical Carnivore and Wicked Leeks columnist

If you’re on a budget but really want to make a difference, where’s the best place to start?

Jacqui Martin, via wickedleeks.com

Air travel tends to be an individual’s biggest environmental impact, so reduce that down and you’re already doing well. Next you can consider your food. Shifting your diet towards less meat and more whole fruit and veg will reduce your impact and also tends to be less expensive – but there are ways of doing it that are better for sustainability, either by buying organic, eating seasonally, or without packaging. Choosing any (or all!) of these is a good start. An easy way to eat seasonally is to look closely at what there is most of. Are there loads of tomatoes and peppers at the front of the shelf or online shop? They are most likely in season. If you have to look hard for something, chances are it’s not in season and is being imported from somewhere further afield. Consider what’s in your local area – explore the high street, is there a butcher stocking grass-fed or organic meat? Ask for the more unusual cuts; this helps the farmer make more money from an animal, while they are also usually less expensive for you. Aside from what you buy and eat, bring a general aversion to plastic and food waste into your everyday life. Shopping local and talking to local shop owners about what you’d like to buy maintains a resilient local economy and could also bring more choice to your area. A sustainable future should include people, and there is huge power in changing a whole community.

Nina Pullman, editor, Wicked Leeks

Tractor

Should we be reducing the size of farms and increasing the number of farmers instead of the other way around? Is it even possible to farm without fossil-oil-based inputs or synthetic pesticides at scale without increasing the amount of labour?

Rob Ball, by email

Contrary to the theory of economies of scale, we now know that small farms can be higher yielding and more biodiverse than big farms. They are more ecologically efficient, just not more economically efficient, and therein lies the problem. Big farms might not produce more food per acre, but their costs of production per unit are significantly lower. This is what the current farming model rewards: economic efficiency, even though we know that the economic benefits of agriculture are outweighed by the environmental cost, as revealed by the Dasgupta report. When we harness human knowledge and resourcefulness, we don’t use as much machine power. The more labour-intensive our food production is, the less impact it has. While smaller fields and more hedges are great for biodiversity, it inherently takes longer for farmers to work with and reduces profit. If we want to stop the trend of farms and field sizes getting bigger, the current model of incentivisation needs to change. This change is apparently in motion, with a different system of farming subsidies being developed. Whether this will stem the tide remains to be seen.

Jack Thompson, staff writer, Wicked Leeks and food policy student at City University

Organc

How is the organic registration held accountable? How do I know that my organic bananas are not being treated with chemicals?

Frappemarzipan, by wickedleeks.com.

In a world of much uncertainty, the organic certification is probably one of the most concrete guarantees. Certification is incredibly hard to obtain, and growers or producers must prove they’re not using any artificial chemicals across their entire supply chain, including animal feed, straw, compost. This is regulated by a group of certifiers in the UK, who require their standards to be matched by international organisations doing the same thing to certify imports. These standards are upheld by inspections, which in a pandemic year has broadly been impossible. When knowing the grower is a luxury most don’t have, an organic certification is the best option. That said, there are also plenty of good farmers who might not quite meet organic standards. So, either shop via a label or discover the farmers in your area.

Nina Pullman, editor, Wicked Leeks

Fork

Should we be worried about meat coming from Australia?

Heather Townley, by Facebook

Yes. Farmers in the UK have rightly pointed out that a free trade deal with Australia could open the flood gates to cheap meat raised with low animal welfare standards. Previously, high import taxes prevented Australian meat making headway in the UK, but under the government’s new deal, it may start appearing on supermarket shelves. The government has insisted that it will encourage Australia to improve welfare standards but they have not committed to banning meat that is below our expectations. As is often the case, it is down to us to make the choice. Yes, you may see quite cheap Australian meat on the shelves. It is up to you if you want to buy it. As I made clear in my book, Ethical Carnivore, we need to be eating less meat for the environment, so why not spend more on the good stuff?

Louise Gray, author of Ethical Carnivore and Wicked Leeks columnist

I feel very privileged to be able to afford to make choices about how my food is produced and what I eat. If all food was produced worldwide as Riverford do, would there be enough to feed everyone?

Helen Irving, by Facebook

Organic farming can deliver yields equal to or even higher than conventional, if it’s grown in a complex and integrated system. I have seen this in Uganda, Kenya and Togo, where such organic systems delivered yields up to 10 times higher than a conventional monoculture next door, as well as sequestering carbon and harbouring biodiversity. So yes, organic farming could feed the world, but it will be difficult without reducing the amount of animal protein we consume and tackling the issue of food waste. I think we also need to accept that organic is a stepping stone towards a truly sustainable farming system, which would include much more diversity within the fields, more perennial crops and more people working on the land.

Guy Singh-Watson, founder, Riverford Organic Farmers

This article was originally published in the Wicked Leeks summer 2021 issue. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu here.

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