Exasperated? Yeah, there’s just so much pressure these days to be a responsible consumer in so many ways, so why this now? Why for the most basic thing of them all – one’s food? Can’t we just buy cheap, plentiful, top quality produce and be done with it – after all what difference does it make when you’re buying produce that didn’t even come from a factory, or from child labour, and didn’t have harsh chemicals and dyes – oh wait!
Yep, there is good looking produce and there’s produce that’s genuinely good – for your health, for the grower and for the health of the planet.
What kind of consideration makes for a better choice when picking your produce?
The Chemicals, to start with.
Conventionally grown grains, greens and fruits and vegetables today are grown largely as monocultures, in degraded soil requiring a lot of fertilizers, pesticides and with herbicides used rampantly to keep the weeds in check. Not only is this produce toxic for you and your family to consume, it is deficient in nutrients, causes soil degradation and topsoil loss, uses excessive amounts of water – usually from deep aquifers that are getting depleted rapidly – and also contaminates the water sources for all downstream users, and the air for the folks living around.
Organic production reduces the damage considerably, but doesn’t go far enough in rejuvenating and maintaining the ecosystem – both soil and water – without considerable external inputs and energy costs on an ongoing basis.
The best alternative to fix these problems are natural farming methods where soil building and diversity are as much a goal as the produce itself.
Go with the local and the seasonal
Food has a footprint, and it often travels many many miles. It is sensible to buy what grows in your neighbourhood, and then in increasing circles outwards from there. Not only does this reduce the footprint, it also helps the local economy and makes it a lot more resilient – something we are starting to value in times of the lockdowns and limited transport.
Go a step further to eat more seasonal produce – the longer it has been in a cold storage, or the more processed it has been, the lesser its nutritional value and the more expensive it becomes as well. The food from a given region is also likelier to be better adapted for the weather there, will be fresher and hence taste better too! Local and seasonal produce is also great for the birds, insects, animals and even other plants that have “grown” up with them – and a loss in their diversity eventually leads to a loss in our food quality and diversity in this intricate web of interdependence.
The Ugly Ducklings Are Fine
Good fruit and vegetables come in all shapes and sizes! It is impossible that all the tomatoes on a plant or all carrots in a row will be of the same size and shape as they are ready to be harvested. The idea of “grading” today goes too far and wastes tons of perfectly good, nutritious food from every farm. We’ve been made accustomed to over-sorted produce in a strange attempt to make it feel like a factory product. Given that this is prevalent everywhere, even organic and natural farmers are forced to sort and waste precious food, or get much lesser value for the gourds that are too big or too small, or produce that isn’t exactly the shape the market today absurdly demands of a farm.
This is just plain wrong – and it is upto us consumers to start changing this and accepting that just like people, good farm produce comes in various shapes and sizes and even colours.
Similarly , good fruit and veggies are attractive for the fauna too – birds and insects love them because they are healthy! We should be very suspicious, in fact, of a farm where none of the produce has any insects attracted to it. Natural pest control measures and the plant’s own defences do limit insects quite a lot, and then farmers are able to eliminate most hollowed out ones at the time of harvesting, and minimal sorting. But as consumers, we have to educate ourselves better too and not completely reject produce that has minor blemishes, or even the odd one with a tiny hole in one corner – that’s often a delicious, super nutritious and perfectly healthy piece that you can cut the affected part out of and use the rest.
An educated farm-produce consumer is a less fussy, more responsible consumer. Make the effort!
Work With Nature – Quantity and Availability
A good, diverse farm produces many things at the same go. What grows well, and in what quantities also changes by the year – there are just so many variables in nature it is impossible to control or predict this too early.
Different seasons also – thankfully – produce different things. This is what we evolved with over millennia, and our biology is well adapted to being in sync with the seasons’ bounty.
It’s important to remember to work with what nature is producing at any given point in time – the more your recipes, meal plans are in sync with that, the healthier you eat and the less you demand of farms and nature.
Why is it important?
As consumers, when we create a collective pressure for a lot of a fewer varieties of fruits and veggies (and our supply chains today are always happier dealing with lesser variety!) – we force farms to be less diverse, to be closer to being monocultures than to natural systems, and to manage temperature, water and pests and other fauna out of sync with nature. This ends up being a battle with the ecosystem the produce is grown in and eventually harms the soil, the water table and quality as well as the level of nutrition you derive from the produce.
These few very fundamental shifts in our idea of fresh food, what we pick it at a store and how we plan meals and recipes send signals to the farms and farmers we depend on. As responsible consumers, we can contribute to the improvement of both our ecosystems, as well as to the nutrition we get from our food, through these few changes.
Do think about this the next time you pick a bag and head out to buy vegetables.