Ethical shopping: why it's not easy

Organic, local or Fairtrade? Being an ethical shopper is tough. Kate Finnegan opens up her cupboards to the experts - and they're less than impressed
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"And this is just revolting. What do you use this for?" Renee Elliott, founder of the organic food shop Planet Organic, is gingerly holding a box of Knorr fish stock cubes as if she might catch something from it. The offending object has, unfortunately, come from my kitchen cupboard. As I struggle to remember why I agreed to have my kitchen ethically audited by Elliott and her partner-in-crime, chef Nurdin Topham, they tear into hydrogenated fats, fake fishy tastes, MSG and additives, and tell me why organic bouillon would always be far more delicious than this. Before moving on to the next item from my store cupboard, Topham suddenly looks at my cringing red face and says, "Are you OK? Is it too much?"

We are standing in my tiny kitchen with Sanjiv Lingayah, a director of London-based social awareness group Anti-Apathy. During June, Anti-Apathy is conducting a London-based social experiment about sustainable food called Reality Bites. It will follow the experiences of 12 participants from different walks of life as they explore the issues surrounding, and their own attitudes to, food produced in an environmentally friendly way. Elliott, who has founded three Planet Organic shops in London in the last 10 years, and Topham, Raymond Blanc's development chef at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and a qualified nutritional therapist, are the experts on hand to advise.

With organic foods available in every supermarket and the words local, seasonal and farmers' market tripping off our tongues so easily, is Reality Bites necessary? Surely we all know the deal by now. Apparently not. Research by the Countryside Agency reveals that although 45 per cent of consumers are positive about ethical and environmental products, only five per cent proactively purchase them. "Reality Bites isn't about judging people who are active as 'the best' and labelling the rest failures," says Lingayah. "Our interest is to understand what drives behaviour and to remove obstacles where possible."

Perhaps a surfeit of information is one of the problems. I have been so confused by the food miles issue that in the past year I've almost stopped eating fruit altogether. I'm unsure whether I'm supposed to buy Pacific or Shetland salmon, and wait for a thunderbolt to strike if I should, God forbid, choose the wrong one. So, given this confusion, how do my cupboards and fridge measure up? Admittedly, I knew the "inspectors" were coming so my last supermarket shop (Tesco) was perhaps more conscious than usual, but not much - I simply can't afford to buy 100 per cent sustainable.

Elliott approves of my wholemeal spaghetti. Kind of. "White pasta, for me, is nutritionally valueless. In the Mediterranean, where they eat so well, they can get away with it. In Britain and the US, the eating is so bad there isn't a place for white pasta as the main constituent of a meal."

My RSPB-approved Spanish rice - brown, organic, kind to birds - fares better. "I don't mind that it's Spanish because I don't worry so much about food miles," says Elliot. I'm amazed. My anxiety about food miles is why I've barely bought any fruit for months, I tell her. "Well, a lot of organic fruit is shipped anyway, but I also think you pick your battles," she says. "Food miles is so complicated - we're talking about fuel, we're talking about distribution networks - it's too big. But you grow something in an organic, sustainable way and that has impact. It employs more people, it protects the land, it protects the consumer." When Lingayah points out that it's also important to support agriculture in developing countries, I feel less worried about my Kenyan green beans.

Topham wants to sample my Tesco non-organic English asparagus. It bends a little before he snaps it, which reveals it's not really fresh, but apparently it's pretty good. He is worried about Britons' general lack of interest in fruit and vegetables. "We're still consuming between two and three a day even though we're aware of the five-a-day campaign," he says. "From a nutritional point of view that's still very low - it should be nine. But I think the reason is because you pick up fruit in any supermarket, except perhaps Marks & Spencer or Waitrose, who are a little bit more aware of the ripeness issue, and it doesn't taste of anything exciting."

I'll admit, I was proud of my honey - Fairtrade Chilean. But Lingayah observes that I could have bought British. While Elliott isn't that impressed by Fairtrade. "Fairtrade has a halo effect - people give more value to it than it actually delivers," she says. "They think it's automatically quality, that the farmers will be using fewer pesticides, but they aren't. And when the farmer is guaranteed a price, there's no incentive to improve quality."

We're all a bit surprised by this notion - isn't it illegal to question Fairtrade? - so she explains. "People like Fairtrade because they feel camaraderie with people on the other side of the world. But it's not just about being paid a fair wage - it's about protecting their crop, their land and their home as well." Note to self: Fairtrade and organic next time.

Topham is interested in my semi-skimmed organic milk. "Full-fat milk is four per cent fat - it's not a high-fat product. Semi-skimmed is two per cent, there's little difference. And as soon as you take away the fat you're also removing the fat-soluble vitamins A, E and D." This is music to my taste buds; I love "proper" milk.

I don't eat meat but I do eat fish. Unfortunately, I'm not very proud of the example lying in my fridge. Scottish salmon steaks: a result of Tesco fish-counter confusion. I knew I'd done wrong - it's farmed. "Have you been to a fish farm?" asks Elliott. "It's like a battery chicken farm. The water moves slowly, the fish are over-crowded and in any conventional farming system, whether you're talking about a cow or a fish, that creates disease. The water's filled with lice. To combat the disease they put antibiotics in the seed."

Not much arguing against that, is there? Topham gives me the Pocket Good Fish Guide, a wallet-sized reference chart from the Marine Conservation Society, which tells you the fish to eat and those to avoid.

But price is a consideration, too. Sustainable food is still more expensive than conventional. "You can buy organic smart and not spend a lot of money on it," says Elliott. "If you're buying seasonal, raw ingredients and cooking, it doesn't have to be more expensive. And if you can't afford to buy everything organic, buy what you eat the most of. If you have kids who love apples, buy organic apples. Buy what you can. And that will make an enormous difference to the market and to the farmer and to the land."

There's no scoring at the end of my "audit" but Lingayah is impressed by my kitchen contents. "I think you make some amazing choices," he says. For a gold star, I think I might have to make my own muesli and ferment my own bread (both of which Elliott does), but as they laughingly admit, they're foodie purists. "There's a lot of organic here and you're on the right track," says Elliott. And I've certainly learnt a lot. The first thing I do after they leave is chuck my Knorr fish stock cubes in the bin.

www.antiapathy.org; www.eattheseasons.co.uk; www.fishonline.org; www.manoir.com

How green is your kitchen?

BUY IT AGAIN

Fish The Marine Stewardship Council's choice of the best fish to eat includes hand-caught clams, cockles, scallops, mussels, farmed and Pacific oysters, line-caught Pacific salmon (preferably from Alaska), and pot- or creel-caught scampi or Dublin Bay prawns. Next best includes pollock, Cape hake, coley, herring and line-caught mackerel from Cornwall (in season now).

Organic, seasonal fruit and vegetables In season now: artichokes, asparagus, courgettes, spring onions, radishes, raspberries, gooseberries and strawberries.

Non-organic fruit and veg Can't afford organic? A Which? report in 2003 found the following non-organic foods contained either no pesticides or very low levels: cabbages, frozen peas, garlic, leeks, marrows, radishes, swedes, sweetcorn and turnips.

British apples and pears A 2004 study for Friends of the Earth revealed the non-organic home-grown fruit had far fewer instances of pesticide residues compared to imported. Remember that peeling and washing reduces residues.

Organic wholegrains Wholemeal pasta, rice and bread have more nutritional value than their white equivalents.

Free-range organic eggs The only guarantee that the hens laying the eggs have the right to roam.

BAN IT

Trawled fish Trawling on an industrial scale damages the environment and marine life it does not catch. "It takes 16lbs of dead marine animals to produce just 1lb of sole," says Renee Elliott. When shopping for fish bear in mind that Marks & Spencer is top of the MCS Sustainable Seafood Supermarket League Table for the most sustainable policies for both capture and farmed fish. (Waitrose and Sainsbury's come second and third.)

Chocolate Don't worry - only the non-organic kind. "A lot of people don't know that cocoa is one of the most highly sprayed food crops in the world. So I always say to people if you're going to buy chocolate, buy organic," says Elliott.

Fruit and veg more likely to contain pesticides A Which? survey in 2003 found grapes, lettuce, celery, imported pears, peaches and strawberries more consistently contained pesticide residue than other tested foods. Time to switch to organic?

Hydrogenated fat Under Britain's current food labelling system this is the only current indicator that a food is likely to contain trans fats. Trans fats turn up in many heavily processed foods, commercial baked goods and confectionery. The European Food Safety Authority has concluded that, gram for gram, trans fats may cause more damage to the heart than saturated fats. These harmful fats are formed in the hydrogenation process.

Palm oil Very difficult to avoid, palm oil is a vegetable oil present in 1 in 10 supermarket products. According to Friends of the Earth, it is the most significant cause of rainforest loss in Malaysia and Indonesia and is destroying biodiversity. In addition it threatens the extinction of the orang-utan and is associated with worker exploitation.

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