While organic food still only makes up a small amount of the food sold each day, almost half of all consumers in Ireland have purchased an organic food in the last month. If your organic-curious, but don't know where to start, here are some tips.
1: Combine your curiosity for organic food with a new approach to cooking. Why not start to try some organic foods along with some new recipes? Recipes are more available than ever before these days - from magazines like Food and Wine to smart phone apps, blogs and cookbooks. Probably best to focus on a source of recipes that reflects your interests and skills levels, but recipes that revolve around fruits and vegetables that are in season make sense for a whole load of reasons, including price, supporting local producers, freshness, taste and environment. A classic cookbook in this style is Denis Cotter's Paradiso Seasons. Though vegetarian only, this gem of a book will introduce you to a whole new way to cook based on what nature provides and when it provides it.. (His first book, The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook, has a lot of very simple recipes to get started.) Closer to home, chef Rozanne Stevens is a big organic fan and offers a wealth of advice and recipes on her website.
2: Get more from your food. This follows nicely on from the recipe point above. Having gone a little out of your way, having possibly spent a little more than the cheapest budget price option available, you do not want to waste that organic food you just bought. Shoppers who choose organic have a tendency to waste less for a variety of reasons – they seem to 'value' the food differently. So partly because of cost, and partly because of the food means to them, shoppers who make organic purchases have invested in the food. To this end, there are many many uses to which your organic food can be put, beyond and above the basic meal. “3 meals from one Chicken” by Hugh Fernley Whittingstall is a classic in this regard. There are many of the “three from one chicken” ideas, like Roast Chicken then Chicken Risotto and then chicken soup.
3: Visit your local farmers market and get to know local organic producer in your area. There are a disproportionate number of organic producers at farmers' markets, and many are passionate about the food they produce. Be it a veg grower or pie maker, your local organic producers will be delighted to tell you about what they do, why they do it and how. You'll also bump into foodie characters over time and find out about the best places to get the best foods. Finally, you'll experience shopping at a different pace: it may take a little longer, but it will be more enjoyable. And it's good for the local economy too: money spent in smaller local outlets tends to circulate locally.
4: Shop around. These days, all main retailers have some organic produce. But not all offer the same organic foods and drinks at the same prices. Health Food Stores can be suprizingly affordable for some organic products they sell a lot of. I'm always amazed at how a box of 50 organic teabags seems to cost the same in the health food store as a box of 25 in a supermarket. At another side of the food spectrum, the discounters can be very affordable too for the range they sell. Sometimes some products at farmers' markets are competitive: what stallholders loose in scale they gain in selling direct to the consumer, which allows some profitability. Every shop, to stay competitive, offers something worthwhile. If you can make the time, shop around for organic and find some new routes and routines in your shopping week. And don’t assume that organic food is always more expensive – there are many examples where this simply isn’t the case – organic yogurt is a good example.
5: Pop along to an organic themed event. This week, National Organic Week, is a great one to start with. There are events all over the country, from boat trips to tastings and biodiversity walks and organic food talks. If you are especially curious and want to know why choose organic, some of the more formal talks are obviously for you, but then, you will learn through a different, more meandering route by attending some of the other events also. Your call. Full listing is here on the Bord Bia website.
6: Start to replace some staples with organic alternatives. Organic meat, milk and the basic seasonal vegetables are very competitively priced these days. This is especially the case if you compare like with like. For example, specialised meats from the premium supermarket brands can be more costly per KG than organic meat, which often has the same traits – longer aged, from a specific British or Irish breed like Aberdeen Angus.
7: Consider choosing organic for specific fruits and vegetables.
The “Dirty Dozen” and The “Clean 15” are lists of fruits and vegetables compiled by the US's Environmental Working Group. These shoppers' guides to pesticides are used by consumers in the US to determine which fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residues. The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide does not assess risks of individual pesticides but “overall pesticide loads (i.e. quantities) of common fruits and vegetables”. It is worth pointing out that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks associated with pesticides. Also growing conditions in Ireland differ to the US, and the relative uses of pesticides may vary because of this. However fruits and vegetables available on the shelves come from all over the world – for both organic and conventional. The Dirty Dozen lists, in order of 'Dirtiest' : Apples, Celery, Peaches, Strawberries, Spinach, Nectarines (imported), grapes (imported) Sweet Bell Peppers, Potatoes, Blueberries (domestic) Lettuce, Kale in that order. The Clean 15 include, in order, Onions, Sweetcorn, Pineapples, Avocado, Asparagus, Sweet Peas, Mango, Egg Plant (i.e. Aubergines) Cantaloupe (domestic) (i.e. melons) Kiwi, Cabbage, Watermelon, Sweet Potato, Grapefruit, Mushroom.
Another word of warning: the EWG's Shoppers Guide is more a consumer guide than a peer-reviewed publication. It is possible to research relative levels of pesticide residues yourself and make your own decisions. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/
8: Be realistic: Are you into convenience or cooking? Will you work from scratch with base ingredients, or will you choose a microwave option after a long hard day? Will your midweek food differ from your weekend food? What will the rest of the household eat? While bringing new recipes in will make it more likely for the new organic foods to become part of your diet (see point 1) you need to be honest with yourself about the levels of change you would be willing to make in your eating habits, and how that changes throughout the week.
9: Values: Why do you want to choose organic? Is it a desire for higher animal welfare standards? Are you opposed to GM in food? Do you want fewer additives or pesticide residues in your food? Are you concerned about environmental pollutants or lack of regulations 3rd world labourers face? The list of reasons people buy organic is long and varied. Everyone will have a different emphasis. A former vegetarian might, for example, still retain vegetarian-like values with regard to organic foods of animal origin. If this is the case for you, then choose organic meats and milks as no other farming system has higher animal welfare standards.
10: The Kids. Many people who start to buy organic food have young children. There are numerous reasons for this. Parents of new borns tend to worry about all kinds of things, and are naturally cautious. This stems from a mix of both their new responsibilities and the fact that young children are still growing and developing, and are thus, objectively, more vulnerable.
11: Read/watch all about it! Along with the organic week events and the trip to the local farmers' market, there are plenty of media options for better understanding the world of organic farming and food. You could google some of Vandana Shiva's youtube clips; watch the documentaries Food Inc, the Future of Food, or The Real Dirt on Farmer John; read some of Michael Pollan or Graham Harvey's books, or if you really want to delve deep, try Philip Conford's histories of the Organic Movement books; find interesting magazines (like Organic Matters) blogs and websites ( many are on the links on my own blog, such as www.organicfoodee.com).
12: Save money in other parts of your food bill. Consider off-cuts of meats, freezer filling from a direct farmer delivery (go to www.yourfieldmyfork.com for a great listing of these farmers), bulk purchases, group purchasing with friends or any other cost saving option you can think of. Consider also growing your own of anything you can or could possibly learn to do: from a window box of herbs to back garden hens for eggs. Consider making jams, pickles, preserves and other ways to save the food you have or will pick. That way, you'll keep your overall food spend down while upgrading to organic in key places.
13. Go Fish. It may slightly strange, but eating many wild fish can be considered less sustainable than eating organic farmed fish. Many wild fish reserves are running dangerously low. Imported seafood like prawns from Vietnam, come from extremely intensive systems that have being reported by writers Felicity Lawerence (Guardian) and Alex Renton (Mail) as being very drug intensive and cramped (e.g. dosing with various drugs such as antibiotics and hormones, as well as with chemicals to control colour and skin). Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight website and smart phone app are very easy to use to find out more about this, while also having recipes for the lesser known types of fish.
Read more on Ollie's Blog: http://olivermoore.blogspot.com