How to buy food that doesn't cost the Earth

You can be a green and ethical shopper, with these hints from Helen Monks

Many people would love to buy food that is totally organic, locally produced, fairly traded or the ultimate result of an animal's cruelty-free life, but the extra expense often means shoppers end up with little more than a guilty conscience and a boot full of Tesco bags.

Most supermarkets have woken up to their customers' increasing interest in the way their food is produced, by offering organic and fairly traded options. These are typically more expensive, but this does not seem to be doing too much harm to the UK's growing appetite for more ethical food.

The Co-Operative Bank's Ethical Consumer Report 2005 indicated significant growth in sales of Fairtrade food (rising 42 per cent between 2003 and 2004), while organic produce sales rose from £1,015m in 2003 to £1,119m in 2004.

But buying with these concerns in mind is just part of the ethical food mix. Consumers are uncovering ever-more choices that can serve to add to the expense - and sometimes the confusion - of being a shopper who buys with an ethical stance in mind.

Growing numbers of consumers are becoming more uncomfortable with the larger supermarkets' apparent stranglehold on grocery sales - and the methods that facilitate farmers to produce meat as cheap as that available in many of these outlets. But many shoppers continue to struggle with compelling themselves to shell out considerably more than they necessarily have to for our food.

However, there are ways to cut down the cost of ethical food - concerned shoppers just need to work out their priorities.

FOOD MILES AND FARMERS' MARKETS

Put simply, food miles are the measure of the distance a food travels from field to plate. The more food miles you cause by the food you buy, the more harm you are likely to cause the environment. A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report last year said that a quarter of all miles covered by heavy goods traffic was to move and distribute food across the country, adding to pollution, congestion and climate change.

More exotic or out-of-season produce may have travelled thousands of miles even before it hits UK shores. This suggests shoppers should question the virtue of buying organic rocket, say, when, on inspection, the country of origin was Kenya.

Al Tepper, also known as green urbanite and blogger City Hippy ( www.cityhippy.net), says: "Before you buy anything, ask yourself where is the food from? Is it grown on the other side of the world, requiring planes, trains and automobiles to transport it and needless food miles and chemical storage systems to keep it faux fresh?

"Buying locally and seasonally ensures that you eat in harmony with nature, while supporting people as near to your community as is possible."

The National Association of Farmers' Markets ( www.farmersmarkets.net) operates a set of standards for its members: farmers, growers or producers from a defined local area are present in person to sell their own produce, direct to the public. All products sold should have been grown, reared, caught, brewed, pickled, baked, smoked or processed by the stallholder. Regularly going to farmers' markets can be a great way of educating yourself about what is grown on your doorstep, and what is in season when and, of course, supporting local farmers.

But while there will be some keenly priced markets that offer only locally produced food, this way of buying food can come at a heavy premium and not all "farmers' markets" will adhere to the standards many ethical consumers and the NAFM demand.

Cut the cost of shopping at farmers' markets by retaining a certain cynicism, suggests Jane Furnival, author of Smart Spending with Jane Furnival (£8.99 Hay House Publishers). "Don't be seduced by the charm of these places, not everything at every market will be organic or local. I've seen farmers' markets where they are selling olives - since when are olives grown in the UK?"

She also recommends going to the market later on in the day when you might be more likely to pick up a bargain and to try stalls in the centre of rows, as opposed to the end where prices are likely to be higher.

OTHER WAYS OF KEEPING IT LOCAL

A further option for shoppers looking to reduce the amount of food miles they are responsible for is to have a regular order of vegetables from local suppliers delivered to home.

These boxes can consist of entirely organic fruits and vegetables and can cost just £10 a week. Try www.alotoforganics.co.uk to find services in your area.

Shopping ethically can be as much about what you don't buy as what you do: "I recommend supporting your local independent shops and traditional fruit and veg markets over supermarkets. As well as helping to support local services, these businesses typically use less packaging or recyclable paper bags," argues Furnival.

Campaigns looking to challenge the buying power of supermarkets and the impact that this power has on farmers, such as the Tescopoly Alliance ( www.tescopoly.org), indicate there is a growing ideological concern among shoppers in this country over the dominance of supermarkets, but buying from more local concerns can also have a strong financial case.

Buying little and often from local outlets may free you up from using your car to get to ring road mega-marts, saving you petrol money and the air from the extra carbon emissions. GROW YOUR OWN

Growing some of your own food can prove a cheap and easy way to eat more ethically and reduce negative impact on the environment.

You don't need a huge amount of space to do some good for the planet and your pocket - you could use window boxes for herbs and salad.

A packet of mint seeds will set you back just 99p and provide plant mint for dozens of meals and salads for years to come, while buying fresh mint from Tesco for a couple of meals costs £1.08.

A potato barrel, which is available at www.strawberryfield.co.uk, involves filling the vessel with compost mix and planting seed potatoes, then, about six to eight weeks later, simply sliding up the side panels and picking as many potatoes as you need.

Go to www.organicgarden.org.uk for free guidance on growing fruit and veg in urban and also leafier environments.

CUT FOOD WASTE

Around one third of food grown for human consumption in the UK ends up in the rubbish bin. Statistics from the government and the food industry last year also showed each adult wastes food worth about £420 each year.

"City Hippy" Mr Tepper says: "The amount of food we purchase and throw away is borderline criminal - plus supermarkets only accept the nicest-looking produce as, apparently, we don't like a bit of mud or the occasional rude-looking turnip, and they also discard a significant proportion on appearance alone.

"By cutting out wasteful practices, farmers could make a third more, you could save a third off your grocery bills, shave off a third of all food miles and the carbon emissions produced as a result."

Remember always to view food as a valuable resource which would have used up equally valuable resources to get to your plate; use your common sense before chucking out food and do not always simply adhere to sell-by dates.

Also, try to think more creatively about using up leftovers, or perhaps ask older relatives for their thrifty recipes.

'Cheap food doesn't have to mean big shops'

"If you don't pay, someone else will further back down the supply chain will," reasons ethical food shopper Laura Vickery.

The 26 year old sustainability adviser from Manchester does not object to paying a little more for organic and fair trade goods if it means that the price paid for her goods was not cruelty, environmental harm or unfair trade practices that undermine communities overseas.

By buying selectively, Laura believes she is continuing to send signals to the big supermarkets that there is a demand for food that has been produced with ethical concerns in mind.

She also recently bought a house with a garden and is now planning to bring down her total food miles by growing her own vegetables and herbs.

"It's something I've always wanted to do. I'll probably start with potatoes, herbs and carrots for my rabbit."

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