The average farmer in Australia makes just 18 cents of every dollar when you buy from large supermarkets. The other 82 cents goes to various other middlemen. While farmers help to feed our communities, they often cannot afford the very foods they grow. This, among other reasons, is why I shop local…
Every Sunday I bike or bus to my local organic farmers market. I don’t buy all my groceries organic as it can get quite expensive, but I do focus on buying the foods on the Dirty Dozen list organic as they’re the ones that are the most pesticide laden. The fruits and vegetables on the Fab 14 list I tend to buy conventional.
I must specify that the Fab 14 and Dirty Dozen lists aren’t completely reliable when it comes to relaying which foods are best to buy conventional, as sweet corn made it to number two on the Clean 15 list, even though the seeds are sprayed with chemicals to help deter pests due to the soil being so degraded.
What’s more, this ranking doesn’t include residues of glyphosate, also known as Roundup, a pesticide that majority of corn crops have been genetically modified to resist. It is only in recent times that the FDA has started testing corn for glyphosate residues.
Why Buy Organic
Ideally, it is best to buy as much, if not all, of your fresh produce, meat, and groceries organic as this means the food isn’t permitted to be genetically modified or sprayed with glyphosate and other toxic chemicals.
In the past couple of months, I’ve switched to buying all of my fresh produce, meat, and dairy products organic, as I’ve read and heard too much about the extreme health impacts caused by these toxic chemicals.
While these lists are a useful guide, they do not ensure that the fresh produce listed has been properly tested for all chemicals used during farming.
According to an article written in The Guardian, ‘more than 7 percent of pears and 3.7 percent of apples tested by Australia’s federal agriculture department were found to have more pesticide residue than the maximum legal limit, according to the department’s most recent survey in 2020-21. That’s one in 14 pears exceeding the limits. Yet there was no warning to consumers, despite the sudden jump in pesticide detection in these fruits compared with other years.’
Fresh Produce is Not Tested for Chemical Content
What’s more shocking is that, in Australia, apples and pears are among the few fresh produce items tested by federal authorities to see if they meet the standards set for pesticide residue levels.
The majority of fruits and vegetables are left to be tested under a self-regulatory scheme, meaning the wholesale markets or major supermarkets are in charge of this testing, and the results do not need to be made public.
The last time major testing was carried out by the federal food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), they measured the pesticide residue content on samples from 2013 and 2014, with the results being published years later in 2019.
According to The Guardian, ‘the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is responsible for authorising the use and sale of agricultural chemicals in Australia and for seeking higher or lower residue limits with FSANZ. It is also responsible for reviewing products if scientific evidence emerges of a problem. Many of these reviews can take years if not decades, which means potentially dangerous chemicals continue to be in use in Australia years after they have been withdrawn overseas. But that’s where its role ends.’
When it comes to who is responsible for ensuring proper testing of pesticide residues in food and in the environment, it really comes down to a handful of regulators, some based at state and federal levels, others being industry self-regulated.
Pesticides that are Banned Elsewhere but still used in Australia
In Australia and in the U.S., most conventionally-grown apples are drenched in a chemical known as diphenylamine (DPA), which helps to prevent “storage scald,” the blackening or browning of fruit skin that can occur during the long months of cold storage.
A study cited in an article by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) stated that ‘tests of raw apples conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, found DPA on 80 percent of the apples tested.’
The use of DPA on apples grown in the European Union has been banned “until they are confident it is safe.” What is of particular concern is that there may be a possible presence of nitrosamines, a family of potent carcinogens, on DPA-treated fruit.
Other toxic pesticides still being used on Australian food crops and animals, but which have been banned by the European Union – and in some cases the United States – because of the harm they pose to human health or their damage to the environment, include:
- Paraquat. A highly poisonous weed killer which has been linked to Parkinson’s disease.
- Atrazine. This common agricultural herbicide has been found to interfere with reproduction and may even cause cancer.
- Diuron. This herbicide, used on sugar crops and other plants, has been found to cause significant harm to marine ecosystems.
- Chlorpyrifos. An insecticide used on cotton and food crops, which has been shown to impact brain function in children.
- Dimethoate. This insecticide is mainly used on fruits, vegetables and berries, and has been found to be a possible human carcinogen.
- Diazinon. An insecticide used on sheep and cattle to help kill flying and crawling insects like ticks, mites and spiders. This chemical has been found to cause damage to the nervous system in both humans and animals.
- Malathion. This insecticide may affect fertility, and is a possible human carcinogen.
- Neonicotinoids. A group of pesticides blamed for the massive decline in bee populations in Europe and North America.
- Fipronil. This insecticide is a possible human carcinogen and has been found to be toxic to bees.
- Carbendazim. This fungicide is a known endocrine disruptor and has been linked to causing mutations in animals.
- Procymidone. This fungicide, often used in vineyards, has been linked to lowering fertility in males and can cause feminisation in animals.
- Dichlorvos. This insecticide has been found to cause neurotoxic effects in humans.
Read more about these toxic pesticides and their impact to human health here.
Why There is No “Safe Level” for Pesticides
There are maximum residue limits (MRLs) set for pesticides permitted in specific foods, however, there’s still an element of risk even at these low levels, particularly if we’re consuming foods coated in a cocktail of these different chemicals on the daily.
According to a study conducted by the Australian Total Diet Study (ATDS), where 88 different food samples were collected during one week in May 2013 and one week in February 2014, the insecticide, prothiofos, was found to exceed the safe levels for the average daily intake for children under twelve years of age by 200 percent in table grapes.
This was a serious breach, and The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) were notified.
Unfortunately, washing your fresh produce doesn’t necessarily remove all pesticide residue, particularly from strawberries. Some pesticides are systemic (which means they are absorbed right into the food itself), while others are designed to remain on the food without being washed off by rain.
Why Organic is More Expensive
Most of the time, when you buy organic, you are paying for the labour and work that has gone into growing the food.
Organic farmers tend to grow a smaller percentage of one crop compared to that of commercial farmers, as they use less chemicals making the farming more intensive. They can only care for a certain area properly in order to have it reach harvest without being overrun by pests or destroyed by harsh climatic conditions like drought or heavy rain.
Pineapples, for instance, take around three years to grow before they can be harvested. This means during those three years, no money is made on that crop, and a lot of labour is put into growing that fruit. As fewer chemicals are used to grow the crop, more labour is required to bring it to harvest. Thus, when it comes to selling that food, the price is more compared with with conventionally grown pineapples.
Monocropping is a big issue in farming, both conventional and organic, and is largely linked to the rise in pests and soil degradation. In Australia, our climate is very hot and humid for most of the year, which is ideal for insects and pests. This means that more chemicals are used in the farming of our crops compared to those in colder climates, like the U.K.
Intercropping and other regenerative farming practices are being integrated more and more into organic farming to help control pests naturally, and restore the health of the soil, so that less chemicals need to be used to grow the crops.
Grocery Sales are Controlled by Two Major Chains
In Australia, Coles and Woolworths, the two largest retailers, control almost 80 percent of the market, which, according to Local Harvest, makes Australia one of the most concentrated grocery markets in the world.
Unlike independent stores, supermarkets have huge buying power and can therefore influence the market, sourcing and selling produce at a cheaper price. This pressures farmers to provide cheaper and cheaper produce, and has been a huge contributor to the rise in farmers turning to factory farming and other intensive farming practices that degrade the environment and disregard animal welfare.
Supermarkets will also tend to stock very limited options for fruit and vegetables, usually favouring those that have a longer shelf life, resulting in a decrease in biodiversity. But, the supermarkets aren’t to blame for these problems with our current food system, they’re simply responding to consumer demand. Thus, the power to change this lies with us. With every dollar we spend, we have the power to vote for the type of food system we would like to be a part of.
Why I Choose Local
I choose to buy as much as I can from my local farmers market for a few reasons:
- I can buy high-quality foods without the retail margin.
- I get to try new food items like red spinach and other foods like that which I couldn’t get at supermarkets. This, in turn, expands upon the variety of foods I’m eating, helping create a wider variety of gut bacteria in my digestive tract, which, in turn, helps with immunity and increases my overall level of health.
- Buying directly from local farmers ensures your produce is fresher. Buying local means food is left to ripen on the plant for longer, not needing to be picked early to travel long distances to the supermarket store. In Australia, most of the food we consume has been in transit or cold-stored for days, even weeks, while produce from the farmer’s market usually gets picked within 24 hours of arriving at the markets.
- Buying local means less transportation is needed to get the food from the farm to you. Our current food system involves transporting produce long distances, producing a lot of carbon emissions in the process. According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Third Industrial Revolution, world oil production has already peaked, so while energy demand continues to rise, supply will soon start to dwindle, sending prices for energy (and food) sky-high. Instead of waiting to change our food systems when we’re in dire straits, we can use our dollar now to support energy efficient, sustainable agricultural methods, like small-scale, local, organic, regenerative farming.
- When you buy local, the money used to purchase the goods actually goes to the farmer. According to an article by Local Harvest, around 18 cents for every dollar made goes to the grower when you shop at large supermarkets. The other 82 cents go to various unnecessary middlemen. By shopping local, you help to cut out these middlemen and support smaller farmers.
These are some of the reasons why I choose to shop local and organic as much as possible.
Learning the Labels
The most nutrient-dense food comes from systems that are also best for the environment and for animal welfare, but finding these foods in the modern food system can be a real challenge. For example, the free range eggs available at the supermarket are better than factory-farmed eggs, but the hens who lay them do not actually have much space, while organic eggs come from hens who have a little more freedom and space, but not as much as we’d like to think.
The best, most nutritious eggs come from fully pasture-raised chickens, but they can be hard to come by unless you live in a close proximity to a farm that sells them (or you raise your own chickens).
This same concept applies to meat. Grass-fed beef doesn’t necessarily mean grass-finished. Meat can be labelled grass-fed if more than 50 percent of the animal’s feed is grass (as opposed to grain). The label ‘organic chicken’ doesn’t mean that the chicken has spent its life in a field scratching around for grubs, but simply that it was fed cereal that was grown organically. And most pasture-raised pork is still fed a diet based largely on soy.
This can make it really frustrating to decipher the jargon when shopping for quality produce.
If you’re really wanting to obtain the best-quality produce (like me), your best option is to shop at farms, farmers’ markets, butchers, and fishmongers who are willing to share and be completely transparent about how their produce was grown/raised/caught.
Ask questions. If they’re proud of what they are selling, they should answer honestly. In the U.K, you can look for meat that is certified by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA), or the growing Land to Market programme managed by the Savory Institute.
Another option is to buy your meat and produce online from a specialist in organic and grass-fed systems. Nutritionist Izabella Natrins shares some useful ideas as to where to buy sustainably produced real food and other helpful resources on her website, and in her book, The Real Food Solution. There are online supplier such as The Ethical Butcher, Farms to Feed Us, Farm2Fork, and FarmDrop who offer grass-fed beef, and high-quality produce farmed using organic and/or regenerative systems.
In the U.S, a website called EatWild, founded by Jo Robinson, provides links to producers who provide meat, eggs, and dairy from grass-fed animals.
As shoppers, we have the power to change a food system if we’re not happy with it, simply by voting with our dollar. If we don’t like the system that produces our food, we can stop buying food from that system. That’s our power.
My experience at the farmers market
As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products. I am not a doctor. All opinions expressed are my own personal thoughts and feelings of the products mentioned. Check with your doctor or health practitioner if you are uncertain about trying out any of the products, recipes or tips mentioned in this post.
Tell me your market finds. What’s your favourite thing about the farmers market? Share in the comments below.
Lots of love,
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