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Organic geography: German bio-carrots & buying ugly in Spain

Organic can be cultural.

The last time I flew into Heathrow airport I was organic-shocked. On our descent I was offered- by the British Air flight attendant- organic water: a concept that so baffled me I was forced to explore online. Apparently: “Every drop of Highland Spring falls on protected land. We keep this land completely free from pesticides and pollution, so the water that filters through it is as pure as can be.”

Once inside the terminal and looking for a meal during my layover, I was confronted with a fast food franchise offering organic milk, juices, coffee, tea, eggs, chocolate and popcorn. The Pret a Manger promised “handmade natural food” free from “obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market today.” 

In contrast, upon landing in Barcelona’s Prat airport a few hours later, the sandwiches seemed just as fresh and natural (the majority of Spaniards still buy their baguettes daily instead of the more British/American habit of storing packaged sliced bread which survives thanks to preservatives), but there was no sign of any “ecológico” (organic) label in any of the food vendors. And I wasn’t expecting it.

Organic nations

After a few years in Europe, I definitely organic stereotype. You get lumped into the pesticide-phobic if you’re from a nation with one of Europe’s largest organic markets- Germany, the U.K., Italy- or from a country with high levels of organic sales (as a % of total food sales)- Denmark, Switzerland, Austria-.

While Spain beats Greece, Hungary and the Czech Republic, it doesn’t rank high on the lists of organic consumer nations. The irony is, Spain is one of Europe’s largest producers of organic produce, but somehow this just doesn’t reach national supermarkets in great quantity (80-90% of their organic harvests are exported).

In the supermarkets nearest me, the Carrefour (a gigantic French chain) has no organic fruits and veggies; the department store El Corte Inglés has a small organic ghetto; and the natural food store Veritas has what amounts to a New York deli’s worth of produce, but it’s often double or triple the price of conventional.

The only organic item I have found in the Carrefour (the cheapest of the 3 markets) is organic milk and I found it by chance after a few years as a customer. Along their wall of milk- whole, non-fat, low-fat, Omega-3-enriched, low-lactose, high calcium, cooperative-sourced (my previous choice)- those 6 or 7 cartons of “ecológica, semi-desnatada” (all low-fat) were buried.

Given this reality, when I left Spain for a week in Scotland this summer for my brother-in-law’s wedding, the organic-shock kicked in with one step inside Tesco. On my first day in the country, I ran out for sugar for our tea and somehow lost 15 minutes just staring at my choices: organic granulated sugar, organic raw cane sugar, organic caster sugar, organic demerara sugar, organic fair trade granulated sugar, etc.

Scared into organics

Now it would be easy to think that residents of places like the UK or Germany- with their more than 40,000 food products with the official state organic seal (even gummy bears)- have a more enlightened attitude regarding the environment. But that’s just too simplistic.

Firstly, what helped push organic into the mainstream was not so much love for the environment as fear of tainted foods. While what helped it go mainstream. When Mad-Cow (BSE), and foot-and-mouth, scares hit the country in 2000/2001, organic sales jumped.

Today in Germany about 80% of the population buys some organic food and they no longer need to go to a natural food store to do so, but have access to hundreds of organic supermarkets across the country.

Avoiding mold and childhoods in a Dutch greenhouse

Germans have also turned to organics because they believe they are “fresher and taste better“. According to Spiegel magazine, organic shops are a type of guarantee of greens and fruits that taste like they should.

“Supermarket vegetables here tend only to come in three varieties: bruised and battered after long journeys from southern Europe or northern Africa; old and moldy after a few days too many on display; or perfectly tasteless after a childhood in a Dutch greenhouse.”

In contrast, in Spain, finding fresh and tasty produce- all year round- is not such a challenge. While Germans experience, on average, just 1,528 hours of sunshine per year, in Spain it’s about double that and the fields here are very productive.

So perhaps there are less moldy and tasteless vegetables to help motivate demand for organic here, but simply looking at what’s on offer in the supermarkets- as I’m often inclined to do- doesn’t tell the whole story.

Clues to pesticide-free “autoconsumo”

I haven’t quite figured out why here in Barcelona where people will protest for any cause, there is not more of a pesticide-free movement, but I’m quite sure that one of the answers lies in the definition of “autoconsumo”.

While trying to research this post I came across a study of Spain’s organic market, which concluded that while the market for organic fruits and vegetables are limited in this country- 8.6% and 13.7%, respectively – “in the case of organic vegetables, a very important part come from ‘autoconsumo'”.

It wasn’t in my Spanish-English dictionary and as always when I really want to know a word, my Spanish husband claimed he didn’t know the definition either. Though he did point me to his article, for faircompanies, in which he discussed the growth in organic food cooperatives. It’s significant that he would point me to an article on local food when I ask about organics. I’m beginning to realize one of the great things about most Spaniards is they haven’t taken organic out of context of the bigger picture of food production/consumption (more on that later.)

A bit more searching… and I just found a definition of “autoconsumo”. It’s not from a dictionary, but rather in context of an article and they define it as “families produce what they are going to consume“.

There’s definitely a tradition of growing your own here in Spain. This is what my in-laws do for much of the year with their extensive vegetable garden. Well, it would be difficult to categorize them as organic gardeners since they do use pesticides at times (thereby infecting the soil). But when my mother-in-law fills up our weekly bag of vegetables from her garden, she loves to point out what is organic.

My husband argues this connection to the land that he saw with his grandparents, and parents, is disappearing. But by plugging “ecológico” and “autoconsumo” into a google search, it seems there are plenty of communities all over Spain attempting to revive what was once a reality here not so long ago: growing your own food without the help of pesticides.

With just a few minutes searching I found these villages offering access to organic plots and tools:

  • For 78 euros every 6 months, residents of the Valencian town of Benifaió have access to a parcel of land, water, native seeds, tools and technical supervision for cultivating their own organic garden.
  • In the small town of Abetxuko in Spanish Basque country, the city hall began offering land and classes to senior citizens in 2006. It became so popular that last year they opened it to all ages and they plan to expand from 57 to 230 plots by 2010.

Hip Barcelona gardens

I find it interesting that on the webpage of the farm in Valencia, they emphasize their maritime Mediterranean climate where the average low temperatures don’t drop below 13.8 ºC (57 ºF) and the average highs don’t go above 25.9 ºC (79 ºF). I do think the climate here makes it easy for those truly concerned about what they eat to grow their own. Like my in-laws. And many of their neighbors in their Barcelona suburb.

My upstairs neighbors have just a tiny city terrace, but they’re growing their own spices and a few vegetables. And they’re part of a trend of urban gardeners, many doing so to avoid pesticides.

I shot a video last year with the company Horturbà (Urban Garden) that helps novice gardeners get started growing their own food and on their website they emphasize organics. “Do you want to enjoy the pleasure of eating a salad of lettuce, tomatoes peppers and onions… seconds after harvesting them and with the assurance that they don’t have any residues from chemical products?”

I know other kind-of-organic gardeners. Some of the farmers who set up daily stands at the local outdoor produce market will tell me, when asked, for which products they’ve had to use pesticides any given season.

I would doubt any researcher would include these farmers’, and my in-laws’, mostly-pesticide-free in their organic tallies. “Almost organic” may seem like “almost pregnant” to purists, but I remember when I asked Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute a couple years ago if there was any evidence that buying local could translate to less pesticides and he was encouraging.

“I mean there’s a lot of evidence that small farmers are more efficient with everything that they use from fuel to seeds to pesticides and fertilizers. Because they’re dealing on a smaller scale, they don’t have to be as blunt with how they use all their implements.”

Spaniards who buy ugly and Germans who don’t buy organic

I don’t think the Spaniards have a perfect system by any means, but neither do I think the industrial organic solutions of Tesco and many British, German and American shoppers is perfect either.

I asked my mother-in-law this weekend what she thought of buying organic and she said it’s probably better, but it’s so expensive. Instead she buys a lot of the vegetables that she doesn’t grow at the weekend market and to ensure she buys local, she’s careful to pick out the ugly produce (those that aren’t packaged to travel nor grown to be totally bug-free).

I asked my friend from Munich the same question. She surprised me- given that she’s an educated, upper-middle-class liberal- and said she doesn’t really trust organic. I’m guessing she means Big Organic since she had just explained to me that in her neighborhood there are 2 all-organic supermarkets. I asked her why and she mentioned an incident in a German supermarket where they tested the supposedly organic carrots and found high pesticide levels.

So I asked where she shopped and her response sounded a lot like that of many of the Spaniards I know: the local farmers market. I’m going to have to pass along my mother-in-law’s ugly vegetable trick.