Eat Your Greens!

What’s the best way for an eco-friendly mum and dad to feed their family? Helen Holmes investigates the options for buying and eating delicious food that is local, seasonal and organic.

You can hardly turn on the television or pick up a newspaper at the moment without seeing something about climate change and being given some new way to change your lifestyle to become more environmentally-friendly.

But although global warming hasn’t yet managed to banish the British winter and certainly hasn’t improved the summers so far, the question of what warm and comforting food we can put on our plates to cheer us up on a chilly day, without being environmental baddies, seems to get more and more complicated.

I thought I had this sorted. Organic food is good. Food that has travelled thousands of miles to get to me is bad. But then someone claimed that because farmers in new Zealand are so damn efficient and eco-friendly, and a lot of farming in Britain is intensive and heavy on electricity from coal-fired power stations, it might actually be better for the environment to eat fruit that has come all the way from the other side of the world than something grown on our doorstep.

When you add to this the fact that the supermarkets are now lining up to show off their green credentials and yet it’s really difficult to know whether they’re for real, or if it’s all a big marketing exercise, and I’m left well and truly confused.

Let’s face it, if I tried to work out the relative ecological merits of everything I ate then no one in my family would be having a Christmas dinner this year because I’d still be sitting at the kitchen table tearing my hair out.

Having said that, I think there are a few broad generalisations that I can make with confidence, at least until someone else contradicts me:

Organic food is, generally speaking, better, for your health and for the environment.

With fifty percent of British parents feeding their babies organic baby food it seems that this is something that at least half of us can agree on. As Mary-Anne Barber of the Lantern organic food shop in Alton says:

“The benefits of organic farming for wildlife and the environment include lower pollution from sprays, less carbon dioxide production, and less dangerous waste produced. Studies show that on average organic food contains higher levels of vitamins and minerals than non-organic and it also avoids the use of artificial colourings, flavourings and preservatives. No routine use of antibiotics is allowed in animal rearing, which reduces the risk of bacterial resistance to antibiotics in humans, and the Soil Association standards of animal welfare are some of the highest in the world.”

Local produce, if it is seasonal and not grown using artificial heat or light, is both tastier and better for the environment.

Labels in the supermarket will usually tell you where something has come from, and if it’s UK grown or reared then that’s a good start. However, beyond this, it’s hard to tell because supermarket distribution systems can mean that even if the cabbages claim to have been grown in Dorset, they could still have found their way to your Hampshire supermarket shelf via, say, Birmingham.

It’s pretty unrealistic to suggest that we busy parents are going to be able to avoid the supermarket altogether. Despite my best efforts I still find myself wheeling a trolley up and down the aisles every Friday morning. Testament to this is the fact that when I get something particularly exciting out of the fridge my three year old son now asks “Was it on buy one get one free, Mummy?”

However, I do try, and one excellent way of not only getting some locally grown veg and meat and discovering fab local producers, but also having a fun day out, is to pay a visit to one of the many local farmers markets.

Farmers markets don’t just provide a place to shop, they also offer entertainment, and instant gratification on the food front. At the markets across Hampshire this winter there will be carol singers, hog roasts, buffalo burgers, mulled wine and mulled cider and all sorts of seasonal produce, which will also be available gift wrapped so you can cross a few Christmas presents off the list as well as ordering a turkey.

It’s sometimes really difficult, not to say impossible, to work out what the greenest option is when it comes to food, even assuming that we had the time and resources to follow it through. But if I am certain of anything, it is that locally produced food is more fun to buy and more satisfying to eat.

Carbon Emissions in the Food Chain
Most people are now aware of the idea of a carbon footprint (The amount of carbon dioxide that your activities – everything from driving a car to making a cup of tea – cause to be released over a specific time period, usually calculated per year). What can be surprising is the proportion of this that is created by the food we consume. 5% of the average Briton’s carbon footprint comes from food. This is not just caused by the transporting of food from field to kitchen, but also by the manufacture of herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers used by farmers, heat and light used to help plants grow and the processing and packaging of food. Going Carbon Neutral Trees absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, the opposite of us humans! Companies and individuals can offset their carbon emissions by having trees planted for them by the Carbon Neutral Company. For more information go to