Can you afford to "eat green"?

Written by: Rob Peters

In a perfect world we would all be eating green products. We would steer clear of the hormone-injected monster turkey, we would balk at the chickens that are packed into a shed, sat down on a cement floor and eat 23 hours of the day, before being slaughtered and sent off to a supermarket shelf, the de-beaked chickens sitting in tiny cages for their eggs is a horror-show, and we would avoid mass-produced products like the plague.

But this is not a perfect world, and while eating green is commendable, is it affordable?

It’s a question I posed to myself before taking on this article, but first it was necessary for me to understand exactly what eating green is, and there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer.

Trying to get your head around things like food miles (the distance a product travels to get to your plate), climate-friendly food (the amount of energy required to produce a certain type of produce) and eating organic can become a headache, particularly when you consider the debate that rages around each topic under the ‘eating green‘ umbrella.

A meat-free Monday campaign for example triggered a massive debate – and in some sectors an outcry – within one local organisation, and I can guarantee any of the above mentioned factors have done the same at some point in time as people on each side of the fence waded in with their own particular viewpoint.     

I am no expert, so giving advice on the subject would be purely opinion-based.

I approached coordinators who work for the ESKOM Energy and Sustainability Programme – a partnership environmental education programme between ESKOM and WESSA – to get their thoughts on the viability of eating green in SA.

Bear in mind the bulk of the population gets by on a shoe-string budget, and in that light, they mobilised their regional coordinators to see exactly what is available, ranging from organic markets to more upmarket stores like Woolworths. Participants were given R50 and sent out in search of a green meal.

The main objectives of this project were:

  • To understand the social and environmental cost of eco-meals;
  • To determine whether an average budget would be enough to source an eco-meal;
  • To calculate the footprints of the meals we consume;
  • To determine how difficult it is to source environmentally or socially friendly food products.

The results do clear a few things up, but as they themselves admit, it has prompted them to look into a more thorough investigation in the future to get a better understanding of the situation.

One of the biggest issues that seemed to come out of the initial results – and remember these are very early findings – is the lack of environmental information at the stores.

One of the WESSA participants found that the packaged organic items, which were labelled, were beyond the budget, while the loose vegetables could have come from anywhere. That’s where the food miles come in obviously. One store’s staff could provide answers on where the food came from, but another had no clue. So it varies on that front.

Another interesting point made is that buying ‘organic‘ is not necessarily best for the planet. For example, you might be picking up a tin of organic tomato paste, but if it came from Italy you’re not doing all that much really. Local produce is the way to go and asking shop assistants where the product comes from is your best bet. But as it has been pointed out, that may not provide you with any answers!

Most concerning of the participant’s findings, however, was the cost of the organic food.

After completing the process at a number of different producers, it became evident that only higher-income earners were able to truly embrace green eating.

If you are not amongst that group – which to be honest I do not count myself amongst the country’s elite -you can grow your own, but I’m not about to start a vegetable garden… my wife tried and failed on that front some time ago. Buying from a local community – a nearby rural town for example – is another option, which will not only help on the ‘green front’, but will also benefit the community.

It needs to be stressed that this is a very brief summary of both the project and the findings, but it’s apparent that not only does there need to be a more in-depth study of the local knowledge of ‘green eating’, but there needs to be a very large shift in the attitudes of both the providers of produce, the storekeepers and those that buy it.

The liveeco team

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