Have you ever looked at your spice rack and wondered where they came from? Who grew them, picked them, milled them, what do their landscapes and livelihoods look like? Probably not, and you won’t be the only one.
Those little pots of spices, colourful as they are, give away very little in terms of origin. Add to that the oils, sauces, even garlic, herbs and ginger, which make up a home cook’s essential toolkit, and the whole category of store cupboard staples appears to have escaped the growing scrutiny we might apply to other food categories, particularly fruit, veg and meat.
But all of those products have the same food supply chains behind them. They were still grown in soil at some point, probably with pesticides, and affected by the same worker rights and environmental issues as any other food.
Spices and other store cupboard staples also have a few more specific issues, according to specialist suppliers. “Countries like India and Egypt are huge herb and spice producing countries but have some inherent risks to do with traditional cultural practices,” explains Matt Richards, supplier relationships manager at Organic Herb Trading, which imports organic herbs and spices.
“For example, children working as part of the family unit is the norm (as it is the world over), but it is sometimes difficult for authorities to enforce the international regulations on child labour in remote parts. We cover this in our own audits, and through the majority of the product we buy from India being certified ‘Fair’ (Fairtrade, Fair for Life), but for the wider industry it is something that is a risk.” It’s not always a case of exploitation, although of course that does exist, according to Richards, but rather educating communities on the importance of child education.
Then there is the impact of wild ingredients, particularly herbs, which are often not harvested from a sustainable source. “This can threaten species, but also whole ecosystems by upsetting the ecological balance,” says Richards, who says Organic Herb Trading relies on certifications like FairWild and organic when sourcing wild harvested herbs from Eastern Europe.
Organic, while standards may vary globally, guards against the use of artificial chemicals in production of any product. But as intensive agriculture encroaches on organic land, the problem of pesticide ‘drift’, affecting organic ingredient growers across the world, is threatening what little supply there is. “This is a constant threat; pressure on land use is threatening organic supply globally,” says Richards.
In any case, the very few organic spices you might find in supermarkets gives you a sense of their availability. As Riverford is the only recipe box kit to adhere to 100 per cent organic principles, head of recipes and cook Kirsty Hale knows first-hand just how challenging this can be. “It does mean that our range is a bit more restrained, so we have to be a bit more creative with our vegetables,” she says.
"We had to stop using cumin for a while, because there’s only one organic cumin producer in the world, in Turkey, and something happened to their shipment to the UK. Taking it out of recipes felt so strange to me as a chef. I had to take it out or sub it for other ingredients like organic fennel seed or ground coriander.”
Hale says there are more organic ingredients available nowadays, but she still scours health food shops to find new suppliers, while some things are just plain impossible to source to certain credentials. “The one thing we really struggle with is some of the Asian ingredients, because there are a lot of sauces in standard Asian fare, and they’re not always ethically created. For example, Thai fish sauce; you can’t get it organically. It has to do with some of the fishing methods,” she says, adding that instead she uses an ethical soy.
“It’s often about where they are produced in the world. Perhaps organic production isn’t a thing, or maybe it’s produced naturally but not certified,” she says.
And therein lies the problem – sometimes you just can’t have an ethical alternative.
“There’s usually a reason why if you can’t find it on the shelf,” says Geetie Singh-Watson, who opened the UK’s first organic pub in London over 25 years ago. These days, Singh-Watson runs The Bull Inn in Totnes, where everything is either 100 per cent organic or sourced through worker cooperatives, and chefs have to learn flexibility from day one.
“For my chefs, the hardest thing they learn is to adapt; we don’t have constant supply from any supplier. The flexibility we have to have in our thinking is huge,” she says. “I choose organic, Fairtrade and worker cooperatives in that order. And also independents are really important.”
The lack of transparency in ingredient supply chains means producers are more vulnerable to exploitation, as there is very little chance any consumer will hear about it or complain, hence the value placed on cooperatives by wholesalers such as Essential. “For us, it is all about ethical relationships,” says Essential’s buying director, Jasper Beese. “It’s okay to have a supplier sign a form that states, ‘we pay a living wage to our workers’ or ‘we do not use child labour’, but it’s only when you actually visit them that you get a true insight.”
Anonymous supply chains also leave room for more organised exploitation. “In the past, we have been made aware of organised crime, especially in southern Europe,” says Beese. “Organic producer titles have been bought and then cheap products have been dumped on the market, enabling them to launder money. The product seemed good, but nearly half the price.”
So how can the average consumer navigate this unseen world of ingredient sustainability? Ask questions, suggests Richards at Organic Herb Trading, who says consumers should be “brave and inquisitive”, rather than boycotting specific herbs or countries. Meanwhile, price is a good instinct to hone when it comes to ethical choices, says Hale, as an indicator of lower standards somewhere along the line. “You can pay a whole £1 more for the same weight in nuts and there’s a good reason for that,” she adds.
It’s echoed by Beese at Essential, who says: “One of the things I always look for when doing a grocery shop is the price, especially on organic. If something is too cheap, there is probably a reason why.”
But not everyone can afford to pay the extra prices, and that goes for consumers and businesses. Founder of Indian home cooking recipe box SpiceBox, Grace Regan, says her aim is to source everything organically, but as a small business in London, it’s not yet financially possible. “There’s this constant friction between making the best decision when it comes to sourcing, and making the figures add up,” she says. Regan sources organic rice and flour as two high volume products for which she can afford to pay more.
And it’s also not just down to the individual, believes Singh-Watson, who says: “Consumers can’t be expected to take responsibility for those things – it’s our government and the supermarkets’ responsibility to provide us with the choices that support societal and environmental values.”
Back to the spice rack, and the stories behind those jars – perhaps one proactive step is simply to be curious. As Hale puts it: “Think of it as a constant work in progress. And share your knowledge with friends and family.”
Ethical ingredients: The directory
Organic Herb Trading
Your local ethical independent, such as Unicorn in Manchester, Beanies in Sheffield or Hisbe in Brighton
Organic recipe box providers, such as Riverford
This article was initially published in issue 6 of Wicked Leeks magazine. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu by clicking here.