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HEALTH | 05.25.2020

“Home cooking is the healthy recipe for the planet and its people”

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Blanca Ruibal, coordinator at non-profit environmental organization Friends of the Earth, talks about food, linking it inextricably to health, sustainability, individual responsibility and public policy. In her opinion, the pandemic has closed off less convenient paths that butt up against industry and peoples’ tendency not to choose alternative ways of consumption, concerned instead with saving time and money. The future? It will bring interesting challenges, such as extra hours in the day to cook, eat well and protect what’s ours: land, family and supply.

Interview with Blanca Ruibal, Friends of the Earth Coordinator

 

To what extent is COVID-19 serving as a gateway to a culture of buying local?

Like so many things in this exceptional situation, there are two sides to the story. Something very significant has happened with short food supply chains – as the alternatives that shorten the distance between producer and consumer are known – offering price, quality and product knowledge advantages. One of the major problems in the agricultural sector, which is well known and the object of great rural mobilization, is price. The price problem lies in the globalization of the sector and, in the Spanish context, the immense power of supermarkets.

The pandemic has virtually shut down the short channels: village squares, open-air markets, products sold by farmers to school cafeterias or hospitals directly, all of that huge consumption in public food halls. There has been a widespread movement asking ministries and regional governments to allow access to gardens where people can pick their own produce, reopening open-air markets… but the truth is that supermarkets have gained power in this crisis.

 


Should we go back to reflecting on where the food we eat comes from?

In an open-air market, it will probably originate locally. In a supermarket, it is very easy to find South African oranges, Italian oil or Chilean wine. We are cheating small producers. We have a big depopulation problem in Spain. We have a problem with the use of our natural resources, with all our rural areas. We know that agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain economically and yet we are buying and importing oranges from far away. Meanwhile in Valencia, farmers are having to throw them away, because they can’t get a good price for them. In that sense, it is clear that large-scale distribution is not the best option for sustainable purchases. It entails a lot of food miles, plastic and processed products, which are bad for our health and harmful to the environment, because they are not targeted toward people.

At a time of crisis such as this, more traditional channels have prevailed, and we have also bought more fresh products. This is an important key to the healthy recipe for people and for the planet. What do we do? Cook.

 

“We have a big depopulation problem in Spain. We have a problem with the use of our natural resources, with all our rural areas. We know that agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain economically.”

Buying fresh produce makes saving food miles easier. Your best chance of finding oranges from somewhere other than South Africa is not in bottled juice. You are unlikely to find fresh tomatoes from Thailand, but the cartoned product is readily available.

How do we live in a society where we barely spend any time at home because we are so busy traveling and working? We are spending less time on our food. And that’s where we find the worst solutions for the planet. It’s easy to buy clean lettuce wrapped in plastic, but it’s a disaster for the planet.

What about food security?

Food safety is guaranteed by the EU, with strict standards. There are problems, such as the presence of antibiotics in meat, but I don’t think they have worsened due to the pandemic. However, as citizens, we have to question how standards evolve and be vigilant in ensuring that they serve public health and the common good. The industry’s food safety package is in full force whether for small producers who make a hundred units of yogurt, or for giants such as Danone.

 

“Is there anything more natural for our diet and the ecosystem than chickpeas? We realized that there were no masks. Or chickpeas.”

There is also the matter of the security of food production and acquisition, and there we do have problems. A big one is poverty. Food security not only involves eating calories, but quality calories. We have to eat fruit and make sure children eat it too. It also has to do with dependence on foreign food. Ninety-five percent of the chickpeas we eat in Spain come from Canada or Mexico. Is there anything more natural for our diet and the ecosystem than chickpeas?

The pandemic has made us ask ourselves interesting questions. We talked about whether we were able to produce masks… and chickpeas? If something happens and imports are adversely affected, there could be a shortage of that product so dear to us.

We are very dependent on imports. More than half of the food we eat in Spain comes from abroad. It seems crazy that, given the agricultural land we have, with farmers leaving the countryside because they cannot make a living, and our ideal ecosystem, we depend on imports to feed us. Even before the pandemic, other countries were already managing this issue. The United Kingdom has developed an agricultural strategy to reduce dependence.

What has this pandemic taught us about the importance of food?

We know that the pandemic was partially caused by extreme globalization and the movement of people and goods, but it is also harmful to the environment, because we can’t cope any more. Thinking about and being more self-sufficient as a region is an intriguing concept, whether it be to supply medical products or food.

It’s difficult to know what’s going to happen. We need to combine individual responsibility when purchasing with regulations that ensure the common good. In this case, we have the pressing issue of climate change. We must radically change the way we produce and consume. We have abandoned the countryside and destroyed natural resources, and it is essential that we understand agriculture has a role to play there.

Governments have primary responsibility – even more so at EU level, where a common agricultural policy (CAP) is under discussion. It is a good opportunity to ask ourselves what agriculture we want: an agriculture that plays on the global stage to see who can sell the cheapest, or one with more farmers living in rural areas, caring for natural resources and enabling the production of healthy food for our citizens.

And how can we be the most responsible citizens?

We need to make it easy for ourselves. Right now, short food supply chains are an epic journey, because they are marginal and alternative. They don’t yet have strong support from the authorities. We can’t allow the easy way to be harmful to health, to the rural environment and to the planet. There may have been some changes, such as the need for more time to cook and eat well.

 

Will we go back to our usual lifestyle where anything goes?

I want to believe that we may each have learned and enjoyed some things that will lead us to demand the ability to work remotely a few days a week. What seemed impossible has been transformed: we are working remotely in worse conditions, with children at home, but we are doing it. Another myth has been busted.

To organize our time, our homes and our work differently, we could demand it and it will probably happen. Let me work remotely to eat better, properly at a table, with my family. The pandemic has hit very hard, and so will the debate. There will clearly be forces that will want to return to business as usual. Society will have to push this fight where there is much at stake – our health, our well-being – the entire planet has seen how pollution has fallen in our cities.

There are many social and environmental organizations already fighting for the economy to be rebuilt from an environmental and social justice standpoint.

Let’s take advantage of this shock to change things. There is much to change in the agri-food system, but there are also great opportunities, such as reforming the CAP.

Have developed societies been accommodating in something as essential as food?

The system we live in has given us the ability to decide, mainly on questions of time and money, and these questions have prevailed over ethics, principles and the desire to build a better world. Situations like the current one have shown that we have no time to decide, to cook or to spend time with our children. Re-thinking everyday life and cutting travel times has brought us back to what is important. Health, food, caring for family…I think a lot of people will be contemplating this. And how we impact the planet. For example, we can attend important meetings using an app, reducing travel and its huge, devastating cost to the planet.

Does technology support a more sustainable model?

It is undoubtedly offering us great advantages, which are already part of everyone’s experience. Yes, there’s a pandemic, but we have the Internet. But it is important to remember that universalization and the price of technology are important, because there are families and rural environments that do not have access. We have to make technology universal, democratic and accessible, because it’s a right. And we need to address the problem of planned obsolescence. Countries like France are already developing legislation in this regard. Technology is as important as food.

Purchasing solutions to make the long journey easier

There are subsistence agriculture groups that facilitate management and logistics, and cut food prices compared to traditional channels. Adherents to this philosophy, like Blanca and her family, have chosen to buy as much as possible within that formula. Prices are slightly higher than in a traditional supermarket, but are compensated for by savings in the cost of transport to the nearest outlet. This is a personal experience, which in some cases satisfies a determination to support producers who are having a difficult time. For instance, Blanca uses shared Excel sheets to get organized online.

There are also eco-distributors, such as Ecomarca, a distribution project for consumer groups that displays deals from different producers on a website.

The next step is that of cooperative supermarkets, a formula that is expanding into large cities along the lines of New York’s famous Park Slope Food Coop or La Louve in Paris. This is an easier solution for those with a strong drive to consume ecologically. Solutions like La Osa in Madrid allow people to become partners and work a few hours a month to obtain better prices. There is a wide variety of ecological products, allowing for sustainable, supportive and fair purchases, in a more conventional format than a health food store or consumer group. This option is all about expanding your view to reach people and it’s the latest trend in responsible consumption.

Essential ingredients for healthy purchases

The recommendation is to look at fresh products not packaged in plastic or cartons. Buying fresh, unprocessed products removes these environmentally unfriendly containers and high food miles, involving products transported over great distances. We need to look at product labels and origins as a way of supporting local products. It is also important to buy only the essentials in supermarkets, leaving room for the neighborhood stores and markets, where you can choose food based on quality, locality and season.