Where does our food come from?
There are two things I am passionate about one is sharing the joy of cooking and eating healthy food and the second is knowing where our food comes from. We often don’t really stop and think about where our food comes from and how it is grown.
We know a healthy diet should be made up mostly of vegetables and fruit and from food that is “close to nature” but is the way the food is grown natural? Why do all the health experts keep going on about the health benefits of eating organic food, is it just a health trend or is it really better for us?
We need to start by understanding how food is farmed today. Traditionally farming was organic by nature and for many smaller subsistence farmers, this is still the case. It usually required mixed farming, having animals as well as growing food. Ideally, the manure from the animals is used to help improve the soil and the food that is grown. This way of farming existed before the advent of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and is how we farmed for a long time.
But as the need to feed a growing population became more pressing and more people moved from rural areas into cities the farming system changed. With the introduction of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides it made large scale food production a possibility. it was called the “Green Revolution” a really bad name for a revolution that was anything but green.
Just like food manufacturing changed the selection of foods that were available to us so too farming changed and we didn’t even notice. Large scale, industrialised farming became a more profitable way to farm and could keep up with the growing demand for food.
Mixed small-scale farming fell by the wayside as farmers would now use chemical fertilisers to grow food more intensely, use herbicides to kill weeds and chemical pesticides to keep the insects (pests) away.
Healthy soil creates healthy plants but with chemical fertilisers, farmers no longer had to care for the soil. The food would grow with the aid of these fertilisers but the soil became overused, devoid of minerals and depleted. So more and more chemical fertiliser need to be used. It’s a cycle where no one wins, except for the manufactures of chemical fertilisers.
Insects became a problem for this type of farming because of intensive farming practices. Imagine the fest that an insect must see in a mono-crop farm, rows and rows of their favourite food there for the picking, hard to resist. Very different to a mixed farm where you may find a row of something they enjoy eating but then you may land up as a meal for the chickens or a bird.
Chemical pesticides were used to control insects, they have been seen as pests but now this year information is coming to light of how insect populations are in decline and what a devastating effect this will have on the eco-system. Birds, reptiles and amphibians who live off these insects will be affected and then everything further up the chain, and that includes us. They are pollinators and we need pollinators.
Weeds were also seen as a problem that needed to be irradiated as they got in the way of the growing food. Powerful chemicals were designed that could kill the weeds, products like Roundup that are damaging to our health and other animals in the eco-system. But these chemicals could also damage the crop. This is why genetically modified crops were created. They created Roundup ready seed that was resistant to this herbicide.
Growing food became big business and even bigger business growing crops for food manufacturers and intensive animal production like corn, wheat and soya. These farmers became a powerful group who could dictate to government and make sure they were protected through subsidisation and favourable trade agreements.
Industrial farming practices are really counter-intuitive. No one would look at this form of farming and from their heart feel that this is how we should be growing food. But we have become removed from where our food comes from and this is part of the problem because what is out of sight is often out of mind.
Organic is Better for You
When we eat organically grown food it comes from healthier plants that are likely to have a higher nutrient profile, although this fact is often disputed. But recent findings have proved that organic plants are higher in plant anti-oxidants called phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients are chemicals that plants produce to protect themselves. When we eat vegetables and fruits we absorb these phytonutrients and they help protect us and help keep us healthy.
Organic vegetables and fruit have a 70% higher concentration of these beneficial plant antioxidants. It is because they have to work harder to protect themselves in their natural environment.
Also by avoiding foods that have been grown with the help of chemical pesticides we also reduce our toxic load as a lot of these chemicals stay on the food, we ingest them and then our body has to figure out what to do with these toxic chemicals, it can impact our health.
Organic is Better for the Planet
If you have ever walked through an organic farm or garden it is so full of life, butterflies, bees, bugs, ladybirds, grasshoppers, crickets, lizards and birds. Just think for a moment how those sounds make us feel, yes it can be noisy in nature but it definitely sounds full of life. The life we are part of.
Avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides protects the natural eco-system and ensures that the natural balance is maintained.
How do we support Organic
Small scale farming is well suited to organic farming practices. That is why organisations like Harvest of Hope are so wonderful because they support small scale farmers to grow organic and give them a market for their produce.
The real challenge for a lot of organic farmers is the fact they have to certify their produce as organic and this costs money. Seems a crazy world we live in when organic food needs to be proven it is organic but chemically grown food can just be sold as is without any label warning us of what chemicals are still on or in the plant.
Personally, I would love conventional vegetables and fruit to come with a label stating what chemicals were used. I am sure we would think twice before buying them.
Previously local organic farmers needed to get their products certified through an international certification body. This is very expensive but it seems this has now changed with the introduction of a local affiliate of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) it is called SAOSO (South African Organic Sector Organisation) Let’s hope it grows and allows more farmers to be able to gain certification.
Grow your own
It would be wonderful if organic food was plentiful and cheap but it is unfortunately seen very much as a niche market. So what is the easiest way to get hold of organic food?
Growing our own food. This is a rewarding and cost-effective way to keep healthy. I find it a real challenge growing my own food South Easter winds, poor soil not to mention the drought and water restrictions would make even the keenest gardener cringe. Now that autumn is almost here it seems like a good time to give it another try.
The Dirty Dozen
Realistically it is hard for most of us to buy and grow only organic. The dirty dozen is a list based on foods grown in the USA that have been found by the Environmental Working Group to have the highest concentration of toxic chemicals (pesticides and herbicides) found on them. I am not sure if it would be the same in South Africa. Buy these organic or make sure to clean them well before you eat them.
Cleaning fruits and vegetables
If you are going to be eating conventionally grown vegetables and fruits, then the best way to eat them is to clean them first. Soaking them in water with a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda for about 10 - 15 minutes has been found to be one of the most effective ways. Best to do it just before you are going to eat it otherwise delicate fruit may spoil.