Picking my way through the minefield

There has been an outpouring of comment today about Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's programme on free range chicken. Reading through the comments about the choices people make in the food they buy made my head reel: organic, free range, local or none of these. There are environmental issues and animal welfare issues as well as questions as to how much money and time you have. There are health issues and class issues and issues about how well travelled you are or wish to appear to be. It is a nightmare.

So here is my attempt at what I do and why I do it, in the hopes that writing it down will help me to see the inconsistencies and that other people's comments will help me to work out whether I would like to do anything differently.

I have bought only free range eggs for years and now we get about two eggs a day from our own chickens. There is no doubt that there is a difference in the freshness of using newlaid eggs and I love the fact that the chickens who are a pleasure to have about the place are also useful and productive. The only change I might make here at some stage is to have more chickens, not many, perhaps another couple if we let ours go broody.

I buy free range whole chickens from our local butcher but sometimes supplement that with chicken thighs from the supermarket for casseroles. I am somewhat erratic about whether this meat is free range or not and I will try to stop this and buy this meat as well from my butcher. I would in any case much rather give the business to him than to Tescos. He is a very gentle and courteous man whose tiny shop is as much a drop in centre for the elderly as an excellent butcher's.

I buy most of my other meat from him too, making a big freezer order up and stocking up for two or three months at a time. I am much more concerned with eating local, traceable meat than with necessarily eating organically. I know the abattoir he uses and he knows where everything comes from. I am always more comfortable with the animal welfare issues when buying lamb as it generally has an open air life and there are thousands of sheep on the hills around here. I wonder if I should think more carefully about pork? Pigs can be very intensively farmed and they are intelligent and curious animals. I am sure I would recoil from factory farming conditions for pigs too. I would quite like to have a go at rearing a couple of weaners over the summer for our own consumption but I suspect we would need to have a bit more time and not to have the regular night away from home which is part of our current pattern. Has anyone had a go at rearing pigs? Is it easy enough for complete novices like us?

I try to buy Welsh milk and butter. Whether this is truly local I cannot say. Since we are only twenty or so miles from the border, the Cheshire plain is probably more local than much of Wales but milk doesn't come labelled from Cheshire as it does from Wales.

Vegetables and fruit are hugely affected by the seasons. In the summer we can be quite close to self sufficient in vegetables. I don't at all mind the gluts and the casting about for yet more things to do with courgettes and beans. I like jam and chutney making and we produce endless supplies of apples, strawberries in season, gooseberries by the barrowful and increasingly raspberries. This is a part of my food shopping and eating habits which has changed a lot in the last few years. When I need to buy vegetables I try to buy from farm shops and we eat much more seasonally than we used to. I feel slightly odd if I buy green beans from Kenya in January and I am scarily conscious of food miles. Again I think local is more important than organic although we do grow our own veg organically. The big thing we haven't cracked is successional sowing and growing things to eat over the winter, although this year we have skinny little leeks and huge twisted parsnips for the first time. So I think I don't want to change much here other than to grow even more and to eat more, resisting my usual urge to have cheese on toast (wot? no veg?) for lunch.

Fish is a minefield too. I am bothered about sustainability and now rarely if ever buy cod. I like salmon but know that farmed salmon can be full of antibiotics. I love prawns but they come freighted with food miles. Tinned sardines are a favourite here and now one of you is going to tell me that they are an ethical nightmare or full of mercury and death in a tin. Help. But fish is meant to be good for you and I doubt we eat enough.

And fruit, what about fruit? We eat our own apples and if I buy any I try to buy English or Welsh in season but what about bananas and oranges, kiwi fruit and blueberries? I try to buy fairtrade bananas and we are growing our own blueberries now but there must be a huge environmental cost in bringing us bananas and pineapples all year round. But it is good for you. Isn't it?

I never buy processed food, ready meals from the chill cabinet. One cause for self congratulation because I used to when I lived away from home and worked every hour God sent. I do however sometimes buy sandwiches and I am going to try to do less of that.

I think it is easy to get totally neurotic about food at one end of the scale, as well as to be totally fixated on price at the expense of all else. Writing this is making me realise that I have a sort of food philosophy although I am sure it would fail in the face of anyone truly zealous about animal welfare, health or the environment:
grow or rear what you can yourself, buy locally and seasonally for most of the time, use supermarkets sparingly, don't waste (and isn't the compost heap or the chicken run a godsend for the failing vegetables at the bottom of the rack?) and very importantly, cook from scratch so you are not filling up with highly processed and chemically treated food.

I can feel the prick of a thousand objections right now. Could do better, I know.


  1. I heartily agree with your food philosophy. Brilliantly said.

  2. No objections only I try to buy locally and organic. For two reasons 1.) with the organic organisations I am sure the farmer gets paid enough to keep going and that cheating about the origin is more difficult than with non organically produced food. (may vary from country to country even in the EU)
    2.) organic farming is environmental protection put to practice.
    I know environmental influences like the fallout in rain water and pollution from non organic neighbouring fields can not be ruled out. I buy these products mainly because I want to support those who practice environmental protection.
    Fish? yes I know and am not sure what to do as I am ,for health reasons, not supposed to eat Herring and Mackerel the two fish left of whom there are plenty....

  3. Well written Elizabeth. I do feel sad when I see the younger generation simply buying convenience food 'because it's easy'. Is there something generational about our views also? I grew up during the War, and had a grandmother who would never waste anything.
    I always buy free range chicken, organic eggs, and we are fortunate to have our own vegetable garden.

  4. well said, Elizm. I do buy cod from the dread Tesco, but only the packs in pink which claim to be organic or properly sustainably sourced or something. Possible total *ollocks and do worry that my attitude does veer on the salving of conscience rather than looking a little deeper.

  5. I think your philosophy is pretty much spot on with mine.

    I'm very lucky that our local butcher stocks local stock from an organic farm, so I buy everything from there. I only have a small garden (not a smallholder yet!) so I grow what I can and our 4 chickens supply us with enough eggs for us and enough to sell to pay for themselves. My wife and I don't much like fish and buy red meat mainly in sausage-form, again from the same butcher.

    All our fruit and veg come from the Riverford organic box delivery, which is about 100 miles distant (so, vaguely local).

    We avoid supermarkets (particularly Tesco) and buy ready-made stuff from a small nutrition/organic shop in our town. The produce isn't local, but it's organic or natural, at least.

    I just wish I had the space to grow more of my own produce.

  6. Well done and nicely written - you seem to be doing pretty well. I'm sure thinking it through and writing it down like that has made what you actually do lot clearer. I might do it myself.

    Have pm'd you.

  7. I think you're doing so well, much better than I am doing.

    When I was younger we used to raise and show pigs. They are highly intelligent and pleasant to work with. They are actually very clean animals, contrary to popular belief. They will use one particular area for eliminating waste and nothing else. They do like the mud, though, and they like to root around for things in the dirt/mud. Pork that you raise for yourself and have butchered is superior to anything you can purchase unless you go to a butcher shop.

    You might enjoy it, especially since I know you already enjoy the chickens. It takes a certain kind of person to appreciate that kind of thing. However, if you would get attached to the animals the way you would to a pet, it's probably not for you.

  8. Sounds fairly similar to my philosophy Elizabeth. we have periods of eating a lot of fish though less now than we used to. It insences me that I live in Cornwall - a county surrounded by sea on three sides - and yet the fish from one of our main industries travels all the way up country before returning for us to buy; adds both food miles and cost while also compromising on that all important freshnesh. We are lucky in that we can go fishing but the rate of our success on this front wouldn't even feed our cat!!! Definite room for improvement there. I know I need to improve on my here and there attitude to meat buying...too inconsistant and kid myself the odd lapse is ok (snacks, sarnies, etc). Fortunately a need to watch the pennies like a hawk always brings out the better shopper in me and makes me pay more attention to the veg/fruit gardening as well. Gollly, sorry I went on a bit there! xx

  9. Oh thank you for this - a well thought through blog on a very complicated issue.

    Sadly our local butcher had to close down - he said he couldn't buy the meat in for the price that Tesco was retailing it at . He was very depressed that he had to close up. I use the local shops - they might be dearer, but once you add on the petrol for the two hour round trip to the nearest town is balances out. We do have a mobile meat van - but I can' always get to the village when he is there - I keep my miles down by doing everything on the day I go to the village for the mobile bank - different day to the meat van . . .sigh . . but we do what we can.

  10. Good post. I wanted to keep pigs and we could find the room but my husband said I would get too attached, and not want our pig/s killed.... and even writing the word I know that is true. Illogical as I eat pork, but there you go.

  11. I so wish I could be as disciplined as you. Our local butcher is an excellent supplier of all meats and the green grocer in the next village is also to be congratulated. But it is convenient to buy at the supermarket. I am guilty of it and I often wish I had bought locally produced food. All our hens are completely free range, they have total run of the farm and we often watch them pecking in the fields. My late mil bought from the butcher's van each week as well as the grocer's van. Unfortunately, times have changed as local businesses have been closed down due to the ever demanded supermarkets.

    Crystal xx

  12. Well said, Elizm, I'm sure you speak for many of us.

  13. I think you've summed it up beautifully; your post reflects many of my buying habits and thoughts.

  14. Excellent blog, as ever, Elizabeth. The food industry is a very complex beast. Agree with almost everything you say, although I do buy fairtrade bananas and Kenyan beans despite the airmiles - partly because of the (largely British) colonial legacy and the fact that trading conditions are already very stacked against third-world producers... Difficult one.

    As for fish, I'm torn between wanting my Omega-3 oils and worrying desperately about the terrible mess that is a fishing industry that throws dead fish by the tonne back into the ocean.

    Think it's great that people like HFW are bringing this kind of debate into the limelight.

  15. I read this through agreeing with practically everything you have written.

  16. I agree with it all in principle, but on a food budget of about 15 quid a week, with no car, and b-all buses, and only one small shop in the village, I find it impossible to live up to the high standards that Jamie and his well-off friends want us to live up to. I simply want to make sure we have a balanced diet on what I can afford, and unfortunately for me, and many other people in this country struggling to get by, that sometimes means buying a battery chicken. (Unless the poor are supposed to live on baked beans...) and many people living on sink estates don't even have a shop where they can buy basic fruit and veg, let alone be able to afford to make decisions of conscience about their groceries. Just my h'apporth.

  17. This is really tricky isnt it PG? I have in the past been so short of money that I felt I couldn't afford to think of anything but thet cost of food. I still think that shopping locally rather than at supermarkets can make sense. I for one tend to find I buy only exactly what I need when I shop locally and come back with more shopping just by virtue of having been inside a supermarket. Might just be poor willpower!

  18. I tend to swing wildly between what i should do, and what i can grab with a toddler in tow. I'm not the best person to comment on meat and fish; i've been vegetarian for 15 years. When all the BSE/bird flu/ whatever scandals hit the fan I always feel relieved that I don't eat meat. however, I then stress heartily about pesticides in fruit and veg...
    You are right to call it a minefield. i think you deserve many brownie points for producing so much of your own food!

  19. We get most of our eggs from a farm a few miles down the road and they taste (and look, once cracked open) a lot nicer than other eggs. Our fruit & veg mainly comes from a market stall in town (as we no longer have the ground to grow veg since we moved). Unfortunately, I'm lactose intolerant, so I haven't a clue where my rice milk or soya milk actually comes from.

    There's a local foods "market" (it's really a shop) just over the border in Shropshire and we go there every now and then as the produce is all from Shropshire or it's surrounding counties. Beautiful tasty food (also no preservatives)... though slightly expensive, but I think I'd rather pay a bit more (when I can afford to) for food that tastes better and was treated better. However, I have to admit we do have various things in the freezer/cupboard that aren't local/organic/etc, but they don't taste as good.

  20. You're right - trying to 'do food ethically' is a minefield. But it sounds to me like you're making a pretty good job of picking your way through it. Great post!

  21. I'm afraid we talk a better game than we deliver, sucumbing to the convenience of the supermarket. I am relatively comfortable that most domestically (in which context I mean the areas I know - Scotland and the north of England) beef and lamb is well produced. I fret more about pigs and chickens. You have inspired me to head for Edinburgh's "farmers' market of the year" this morning and try and do better.

  22. No need for any guilt by the sound of it, Elizabeth! It's a total minefield and I think we have to muddle through as well as we can, in whatever way we can, doing the best possible. Pigs would be great....according to friends who have them, they are not hard at all - in fact, quite the opposite, providing you can house them adequately. Though you do have to try not to get attached. They say it's good to have a sow to get attached to, but never name your piglets!
    I would SO love to come and visit..... and it WILL happen....just not sure exactly when.
    Do you use your log burners for heating hot water/radiators as well as general heat?
    lots of love, Janexxx

  23. Just catching up and what a delight to find you have been blogging away and there was loads to read. Can totally relate to the headaches of Christmas shopping, especially the bit about buying presents that you really like and then being stumped when it comes to buying for the men.
    Pigs.... we have kept weaners and it wasn't difficult at all, you need a good space for them, they will completely root and churn it all up. They love vegetable peelings, but you must not feed them scraps.We brought feed for them also, pellets which they had daily. They need shelter, some sort of sty and plenty of fresh water. If you go away you will need someone to feed them and keep an eye on them. They are real characters, very clever and ours managed to get out a few times and we found them foraging in places they shouldn't be, but quickly got them back in their enclosure. The difference in the flavour of the meat is unmistakable.

  24. Lovely blog, Elizabeth. I think you probably speak for most of us. For a long time I wouldn't eat pork - still don't in fact unless it's outdoor and traceable and all that. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, if not more so. What's more you can actually talk to a pig and it will respond in a way that you can't to a dog. And mostly they are treated in most inhumane and harsh ways. Gone are the days when they were the only way to recycle precious waste food into something valuable;
    now we just eat them for greed.

    You are so right about fruit. I bought some pears (I love pears) from Waitrose at the weekend. Why ever did I do so. memories of the lovely pears we enjoy on our tree here. The Waitrose ones having been kept in cold storage tasted of sawdust!

  25. Agree totally, my god intentions waver now and then, especially when hungry and faced with rotisserie chicken. But I will do better! Our butcher is great - everything's local and we know he buys the best beasts at market, but the chickens are not free range and everything is very expensive. However, there's always a queue so people are prepared to pay.
    I noticed in Sainsbury's on Monday morning there were no free range chickens left - a shelf full of standards and all the FR or organic were gone. A good sign??

  26. Only just found a moment to read your post properly and it sounds to me like you are doing just fine. Food politics is a minefield and all we can do is try to make a tiny difference, especially those of us with a bit of land.

    The fishing thing is a real thorn of a problem. The bureaucrats and the scientists have got themselves into such a mess over it. Fishing boats have to discard so many dead fish because they have risk being fined for going over their quota for certain species. But they can't help it if they catch cod when they are fishing for haddock or mackerel.

    Despite the waste (one Orkney boat had to discard 17 boxes of fish just before Christmas), evidence is that cod is slowly recovering in the North Sea, although it still needs careful monitoring.

  27. You've clearly thought long/hard and no doubt developed your strong philosophy over many years: I admire your decisions. I am now going to read all this again as I have learned SO much from your words...Thanks.


Post a Comment

Comments are the best thing and the conversations they produce are the whole purpose of blogging for me. Do tell me what you think!