About Me

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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The ethics of cheap food

A volunteer from Japan learning more about organic food production on PEI, Canada
"Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality." -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."  -Albert Einstein
Working in the organic food industry, people are constantly telling me why they do not eat organically grown food. They say "it is too expensive" to eat organically, or "I bought organic fruit/vegetables once, but they were rotting within a week," or "organic food is a luxury for the wealthy..."

I have heard a lot of arguments about why people are not eating organically. This blog entry is for those who are open to hearing the other side of the story.

I grew up on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. When I moved there, as a six year old, agriculture was still a major source of income for Cypriots. Cypriots are, from most perspectives, wealthy people. They may not all have huge savings accounts and be living in mansions, but most families own agricultural land. Unlike much of North America, agricultural land in Cyprus has traditionally been divided into relatively small parcels. The most common crops are grapes, olives, carob, citrus fruit, nuts, and bananas. When I was growing up, many of my friends would spend part of their weekends in the family village taking care of their vineyards, orchards, or plantations. Many of the family plots are located near the village that the family originally came from, and have been passed down from parents to children for generations. Cyprus was a rather poor country in its not too distant past, and having land meant being able to support and sustain one's family.

As a child, I occasionally accompanied my friends and their parents to their family villages on the weekend to help them with their fieldwork. I experienced how much hard physical work goes into producing and harvesting a healthy, plentiful crop, and watched people I love farm using very little other than their hands, hoes and shovels, and a donkey to carry their harvest back to their truck. I also watched them engage in activities like spraying their crops. In Cyprus, both then and, in many cases still now, this meant standing beneath a tree or a trellis, gathering handfulls of white powder from a burlap bag labeled with a skull and crossbones, and hurling this powder at the tree or vine. Some of my friends' parents had hand-held pumps filled with the mixture, and would aim a sprayer at the plant and then pump white clouds of chemicals out into the air. There were, at the time, no masks involved in this process. No gloves. Sometimes they would wear their own glasses to shield their eyes, but often they would not. I would stand and watch as they disappeared in a thick cloud of dust. At the end of the day, they would get back in the truck covered from head to toe in white powder. White hair. White faces. I remember even as a child wondering whether this was healthy.

When my mother and I would go to the supermarket to buy fruit, everything was always covered in a fine layer of this toxic smelling "white dust" as I used to call it. I wondered why everything had to be so thickly covered in it, and asked my friends' parents a number of times, hoping to understand better why our food looked so sick. I was told, over and over, that if we did not apply fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to our crops, they would be attacked by insects or crowded out by weeds. I even asked whether it was necessary to use so much of it. I was told that because we live on a poor island, we are given the poorest quality chemicals that nobody else wants, so we have to apply more than it says to apply for it to be effective. These were the actual words that my friends' parents used. I do not know who told them this, but they believed it, and at seven, eight, nine years old, I was not going to try to argue with them. Still, it bothered me that we had to peel all of our fruit and vegetables growing up, and it bothered me that our cucumbers smelled so intensely of chemicals that even after peeling them and soaking them, I often had to pick them out of my salad because I just could not bring myself to eat them.

In 2000, I spent time in Costa Rica, and visited multinational banana and pineapple plantations to learn more about where some of the food I was eating was being grown. I saw workers out in fields harvesting while airplanes were spraying the very same fields from above. I saw bags being placed around bananas so that they grew in the particular shape that had been deemed most pleasing to North American and European consumers (these were different, just in case you are wondering. Europeans and North Americans prefer bananas that are completely different dimensions). I saw bananas that had even the slightest mark on their skins being removed to be sold on the local market, bunches of bananas being doused in a preservatives to keep them from ripening too fast, and bananas being shipped in huge refrigerated ships headed north. I saw enormous areas of rain forest being clear cut in order to establish miles and miles of a single crop. People moving into previously unsettled land to work at these plantations earning salaries so low that it made me cringe. I spoke to field workers who told me, again and again, about the number of children being born with severe birth defects, which they thought were the result of all of the chemicals that they were having to work around every day. And I learned that the wealth of the soil in rain forests is contained in the roots of the trees, which means that after clear-cutting the forest, the crops use up all of the initially released nutrients, and within a few years the soil is exhausted, productivity drops, and eventually companies pull out and go elsewhere, where the process begins again, leaving people jobless, and having to either clear cut more forest to subsist, or move and follow the company to its new location. All of this so that I could eat a banana that cost me not even a dollar, or a pineapple that came with the marketing line "Golden on the outside. Golden on the inside. Tastes like pina colada."

In my twenties, I finally took an organic farming class in university, and experienced a different way of farming. The soil was not seen as a vessel into which treated seeds and synthetic chemicals were placed, but a living organism that, if treated with care, worked with farmers to help crops grow healthy and strong, year after year. I learned that by growing smaller amounts of a diversity of crops, the impact of diseases or infestations could be minimized, because a disease that impacted potatoes might not influence strawberries, and an insect that loved squash would often have no influence of broccoli. In other words, diseases and insect damage was minimized, and if one crop was completely wiped out, there were other crops that the farmer could still sell and make an income off of. Diversity meant greater security. The other thing that I found amazing was that by growing different crops in different plots, they could be rotated from year to year, and a crop that generated a particular soil nutrient could be grown in a plot that, the year before, had been used to grow a crop that had a heavy demand for that same nutrient. This meant that land could remain productive year after year. These were, of course, practices that had been in place for thousands of years, having been used by Native Peoples in North America and elsewhere long before people re-introduced it as "organic farming." Having been raised to think that insects were detrimental to farming, I was surprised to learn that some insects, like ladybugs, actually protect plants from aphids, and that worms aerate and enrich the soil, creating a healthier crop. I was also interested to learn that there were other ways to keep unwanted insects off of a crop, such as planting a row of another plant that could potentially attract the insects that might otherwise have attacked the main crop. I also noticed that there were more birds flying around organic fields, more wildlife passing through them, and that the farmers using organic methods seemed to be in good health, and often living a quality of life was is comparable with their non-farming neighbours.

Springwillow Farms, where most of the food I have eaten over the last 6 years was grown
Over the last twenty-five years, I have watched more and more Cypriots move into the urban centres, travel abroad to get their education, and take jobs working for banks, government offices, and schools. Most of my friends consider farming a poor man's profession, and few of them still accompany their parents to the villages to maintain the family land. With changes in agricultural policy, fruit and vegetables are now being imported from Europe. We actually have so many bananas coming from Latin America into Cyprus at such a cheap price that my friends' parents are either leaving their crop on the trees or burying the fruit because they cannot compete. In 2006 I spent time interviewing a number of these farmers, and they told me that their children (my friends) were urging them to sell the land to developers, but that they could not bear to lose their orchards/vineyards/plantations. A few of them told me that they still go water their trees and vines even though they are not harvesting the fruit. That they are paying out money that they are not earning back to pay for the water. When I asked them why, they told me that it made them sad to watch their trees die. I was moved. The idea that one generation ago, people were so connected to their land that they are still willing to give hard earned income away that they will not get back just to make sure that land stays green is amazing to me given the state of agriculture in Cyprus today. Don't get me wrong. I understand why my friends want to sell their family land. I wouldn't do it, because like their parents, I love the natural world far too much to part with it for extra income, but given the urban nature of life today, I can see how my friends do not see it being of any value any longer.

When I was home in 2006, another thing I asked these farmers was whether they had experienced any health problems from handling and inhaling all those chemicals they have been around all their lives. Their response was "the company we bought them from told us that they were safe. Wouldn't they have told us if they were harmful?" Apparently they had not had any noticeable adverse reactions. Yet. A few of the other farmers I interviewed had experienced health problems which they attributed to a lifetime of exposure to pesticides and herbicides. One of the farmers had lost his father to chemically induced cancer. Another had cancer when I interviewed him. I realized, as a result of having these conversations, the level of trust that these people, who I love deeply, and have known most of my life, have in the fertilizer and pesticide companies. I also realized, after spending my whole life around these amazing people, that many of them could barely read or write, and could therefore not understand the instructions on the labels all those years.

Today there are thousands of vineyards and orchards that are sitting abandoned in Cyprus. The older members of families have either passed away, or are simply not able to maintain them, and there is not enough profit in it anymore for the younger generations to take time away from their busy careers and families in the cities and drive to the villages to farm. Who knows -- maybe they wouldn't be interested even if there were a reasonable livelihood to be made. We may never know, because competing with international corporations is not something that many young adults are going to take on in today's economic climate. The numbers of those farming today is getting smaller and smaller, and the amount of land that these people is farming is getting larger and larger -- Cyprus is walking in the footsteps of so many other countries who are investing in chemical intensive, large scale agriculture. It may be developing slower, but it is happening. Parallel to this, more and more is imported from large farms in the EU and Latin America at less than half the price. So we are paying less for our food. We are also losing those beautifully maintained terraced grape vineyards, and along with them the birds that nest in grape-vineyards and the diversity in the types of grapes that we grow, and the ultimately, the hard-earned knowledge of how to grow grapes that has been passed down from generation to generation. Just thinking about grapes, I can think of a handful of traditional desserts made using their juice, and then there are all the wines and vinegars, the festivals and the stories and even the potential income from tourists who enjoy the agricultural landscapes, the fruit, the festivities centered around that fruit. So we are paying less for our food. Is that really all that important in the long term scheme of things? What do we value about our islands and communities? What makes Cyprus a place that is different and unique? What do we love about our island? What kind of a relationship do we have with the natural environment when we rarely find time to interact with it? 

Over the last six years I have been living and working on another island where agriculture is part of the daily life. A part of the culture and history and identity. PEI used to be a patchwork of small family farms. Over time, intensive, industrial agriculture has taken over, farms have gotten bigger and bigger to compete, and today when you drive down country roads it is rare to not see at least one for sale sign outside a farm gate -- on many roads there are many such signs. Many of the farmers I have spoken to on PEI have had at least one person in their family get cancer, and many people feel strongly that this was the direct result of all the synthetic chemicals used to try to pump up production and continue competing with the giant farms that dominate the market. PEI also has a vibrant fishing community, but in the last ten to fifteen years fish kills have become more and more frequent. Heavy rains wash chemicals into waterways and out into the ocean. Fish wash up on the shore dead. People get cancer. Communities suffer. Most farms go under despite all attempts to increase productivity. Communities suffer more. We buy cheap food from the Superstore. Our farmers drive trucks that bring us cheap food grown on giant farms in other provinces. Our farmers go to the food bank to get food because they cannot feed their families.

Stephen Cousins and his son harvesting organic strawberries on Shepherd's Farm, PEI

You may be wondering when I am going to get to the point. Here it is. Yes. Organic food is slightly more expensive than conventional crops. But how much are you spending on health care? Our medical bills get higher and higher every year, parallel with our air getting more and more polluted and more and more chemicals turning up in our water. There is a reason why an organic potato starts sprouting if you wait too long to eat it and a conventional potato can sit there endlessly without sprouting -- the organic potato is still alive. If you cut it up, you could re-plant it, and it still has the capacity to grow new potatoes. Your conventional potato has lost the ability to do that. Yes, it is cheaper. It is also doused in chemicals that are harming our families, our soil, our water, and our wildlife. And I am not even talking about flavour here. Have you tasted the vegetables and fruit that we are getting for such a great price at the grocery store lately? Neither have I. There is, I find, very little to taste.

I don't know. You tell me. Is it not worth a little extra to know that our food is not undermining our own happiness and health? It is not worth a little extra to know that the farming methods that were used to grow our food did not result in women giving birth to children with birth defects? I know that times are tough right now, but I do not see them getting any easier by our continuing to exhaust our soils, cut down our forests, kill off our wildlife and make our families sick by ingesting synthetic chemicals.

The last time I was home in Cyprus, a few organic farmers were sprouting up here and there. They are not thriving, but they are succeeding, and their markets are growing. Standing at an organic winery in the hills outside Limassol with the owner, I looked out over a valley of abandoned vineyards. The owner of the winery told me that they wanted to increase production, but were having trouble finding enough grapes. Not enough grapes? On a Mediterranean island? I was saddened, but not surprised. Still, I do find it heartening to meet farmers that are trying a different approach. One that is economically viable and good for the environment and human health. It is a complex story, but one worth reflecting on. Every choice we make when we enter a grocery store has an impact somewhere in the world. On islands these choices have immediate, visible results because we only have so much land. The choices we make with our purchasing power are ethical choices. They will fuel land zoning policy and development practices. In Cyprus, when I buy local produce, I know I am supporting the preservation, on however small a scale, of local agriculture. It is part of what I value most about my home. In PEI, when I buy potatoes from the farmer's market, I know I am helping to keep a family farm in business. Community is part of what I value about PEI. Sure I eat a banana every now and then, but I do try to find organic bananas before I go out and buy Chiquita. And when I do eat a Chiquita, I try to be conscious of what my choice to do so is supporting.

I had an interview this morning with an organic chocolate company, Green & Black's. Their motto is: "created without compromise." They believe that when you treat the earth well, the earth gives back something of quality and value. Their farmers are in Belize and the Dominican Republic. They are assured a minimum price on their cocoa so that they have a certain degree of economic security. They are also given a premium because their beans are organic. The premium is used by local cooperatives to invest in infrastructure, education and community development. Their chocolate is divine.There are many other companies out there doing innovative things that result in delicious, healthy products that do not compromise our health, the health of our children or our environment.

What kinds of choices do you make when it comes to your food? Have you thought about how your purchasing power influences your environment, health, and community, or the environment, health and community of someone who lives on the other side of the world?


  1. Way to go Ariana. You have articulately and passionately argued for something that you, and I fully believe in.

    I have been buying and eating organic food for over 18 years. It has been a conscious choice to support organic agriculture, and my own ecology. Since moving to Salt Spring Island, on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada over 11 years ago, I have been eating locally as much as possible and that further supports the people and land in my community.

    Three years ago I moved to a farm with dear friends and now I grow organic food, something that takes a lot of effort and hard work. It also requires many hands and hearts and minds to do well. I am in awe of the flavours and colours of the food I pick and eat from the garden. It is a miraculous thing to prepare this food. I am grateful to my gardening teachers and mentors for their encouragement and support. I feel I have so much to learn.

    During all these years of shopping and eating organically, I have not had a lot of money However I have made a choice and would make the same choice again. I am a healthy woman with a lot of passion, joy and nurturing relationships in my life, enough that it spills over in the work I do with youth and adults. I believe I owe some of my health and well-being to the food I eat and the earth that is treated ethically and sustainably to grow that food.

    All that said, I understand that cheap food is something we have been raised on. It takes a willingness to change our habits and our perceptions in order to do what is best not only for the organic farmers and the earth, but for ourselves, and the health of our communities.

    Thanks for telling us your story, Ariana. You continue to inspire me and others as you teach us so much about ourselves and the world.


  2. Thank you for your response to this entry, Ahava! It is great to share the stories that are behind the choices each of us makes in how we live our lives, and the kind of relationships we have with the land, with our food and with our communities. I think that sharing the details of lives lead in more intimate relationship with our food really helps to create a clearer, stronger vision of where we want to be headed as individuals, communities and a society. The personal and collective articulation of experience opens the way to a common vision. So thank you for adding your experience to the dialogue!! :-)