In various cities, such as Almeria, we had gotten quite excited chasing around the various herbalarios we found listed on the internet. Herbalarios are what you might initially call ‘health food stores’ and tend to be quite small, and while a small number had a small selection of fresh fruit on offer, most were focused on vitamin pills, supplements and a few non-perishables food items. We still found some fun products in them, and for a while searching for stores to explore became a bit of a hobby, but only in a few places did we find anything we’d call an organic food store. The best we found, among these small stores was one in Garrucha, close to Mojacar, which had a small fresh item selection. There was another one called Ecocentro in Almeria which we frequented for a couple of winters while we stayed in nearby Cabo de Gata, although it was changing owners a year ago and we’re not sure if they are back up and running? We also stood outside of one in Barcelona which looked nice, but it was closed on the day we were in the city. There was just one exception, a chain of stores called Ecorganics near to Valencia which was large, well-stocked and as good as the French ones. I’ll come back to that one in a moment.
In short, there was organic food available in Spain and some of it could be very good, albeit varying markedly from place to place. But now it feels to us that it is becoming more available.
We first noticed a change when we were staying south of Valencia in December. In previous years we had gratefully become aware of the small chain of magnificent organic food stores called Ecorganics, with three outlets in Valencia and one about an hour south in Alcoi. Well, in the past twelve months they’ve opened 3 new stores, adding ones close to Denia, Benidorm and Bilbao. This is exciting because it shows that there must be enough consumer demand to justify opening them. Plus, all the stores we’ve been to have been incredible, bursting with fresh food, meat and dairy counters etc. and countless other non-perishables, not to mention everything for pets and household items.
It’s a wonderful shop, also well stocked with non-perishables and household items (not quite as well stocked as the bigger chain ecorganics/the French ones but by far the best independent we’ve found in Spain), but for us the main draw is the daily replenished local and seasonal fresh food. The cooperative are also now starting to run classes for schoolchildren talking about growing ‘real’ food and cooking from scratch, working not only with local schools but also further afield such as in Madrid. Amazing.
Naturally, and happily, this increase in dedicated organic stores also seems to be being mirrored in the major chains. In almost all of the Lidl’s, Aldi’s, Consum’s and Carrefour’s we’ve visited during our last 2 months in Spain, we’ve noticed a much greater choice of fresh organic food options on the shelves (including meat/dairy etc.), which is great. The food is also often very fresh, implying enough turnover to keep it that way, so even better. If you want organic food and can only get to a major supermarket, the fact that it is more and more of an option is brilliant. Personally, we still try and support the dedicated chains and independents where possible, partly because in a major non-organic store any organic food has to be heavily packaged to distinguish it from the non-organic, which isn’t the case in an organic-only store. Less packaging in the world is something we think is important. Also, the focus is less about local and seasonal produce but more on providing the same foods year-round at the same price with all of the major supermarket logistics and practices that entails. (If you’re interested, books like ‘Shopped’ by Joanna Blythman document supermarket procurement practices and their effect on producers very well, highlighting how hard it can be to meet their rapidly changing demands, driving down prices and pushing growers to the limit).
For example, while a small independent store can (and in our experience often is) supplied with locally grown fresh produce, a more major supermarket can bring food across the world which still qualifies as organic. This raises various questions. For example, we know that some organic certification still allows some pesticides and grow-tent use, which is how they can produce enough volume to supply major stores. Small farmers, on the other hand, don’t have the output to win those contracts so look for smaller stores who, similarly, aren’t able to deal with the big producers. In short, a small store often has a closer connection to who is supplying the food. Ask in a Tesco’s store, for instance, who grew the organic kale and you’re unlikely to get a fast answer. We asked in Planeta Eco and the grower just so happened to be working on the till. In Almeria a couple of years we occasionally bumped into the farmer dropping off his produce at Ecocentro.
Supermarket logistics also raises questions about carbon footprint and the importance of freshness. Is organic food picked three days ago and flown to Europe from South America as nutrient dense as something grown non-organically by a local farmer but picked that very morning? And how does the carbon footprint of the transport compare to the environmental cost attached to an individual piece of non-organic fruit grown locally? I don’t know the answers by the way, it’s just the kind of questions we ask ourselves from time to time when locally grown organic food isn’t available, none of which reduces our commitment to choosing organic whenever we can.
The reason organic food has become so important to us, especially since we worked on an organic farm a few years ago, is that it offers a shift away from pesticide and chemical based mono-agriculture methods and a swing back towards more traditional methods of planting. In terms of personal benefit, based on the research we’ve done and our own experience, the food is both more nutrient dense and definitely tastes better.
In my last job as a Business Development Manager at Newcastle University one of my bosses was a Professor of Organic Agriculture (Carlo Leifert). He gave us various talks about the comparative farming studies he was undertaking, work which demonstrated very clearly that the organic produce they were growing was richer in certain vitamins and minerals compared to the non-organic they were growing. We even went out to see the farms the research was being undertaken at. It was fascinating. Google it or read more here: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/articles/archive/2015/10/organicvsnon-organicfood/
Besides, choosing organic isn’t all about personal benefit either.
Having seen the grow-tents here in Spain first hand, where migrant workers are paid a pittance to work in a chemical environment in the name of cheap tomatoes; some villages have no drinking water because it is all directed to grow tents; or the countless derelict farmhouses and terraces in the hills, it’s also important to us to remember organic farming represents a completely different way of growing food (or at least it can). Mass produced, chemical dependent agriculture harms the environment, pollutes water sources and drives traditional farming communities off the land where they are forced to buy the cheap, mass-produced food which put them out of business in the first place. It’s a vicious trap.
Which is why, although we live on a low budget ourselves and although it does cost us more money, we made a personal commitment a few years ago to buy organic wherever possible. We see it as an investment in ourselves, the environment and the lives of the low-paid workers who support the food industry. We know it isn’t a perfect system, that (like any system involving money) it is open to abuse and that standards still vary from place to place, but that doesn’t mean choosing organic is any less of a statement. As consumers, where we spend our money is the best way we have to endorse the way things are done (or not). The more people who choose organic and/or support local farmers, the more companies will shift away from mono-culture and pesticides eventually.
Of course, some people will always be cynical, just like I used to be. They will continue to think it’s the same stuff at a higher price, or that what they buy doesn’t matter anyway, and in that case I’d simply ask “try it”. I did. Go to an organic store, wherever you are. Talk to the staff and ask who grows the food. Taste it. Or get down to a farmers’ market and speak to the people who grow the food. The fact we so often seem to find stores full of smiling faces, staffed by people who genuinely care about the way food is produced and then get to meet the producers themselves has only underlined our commitment over the years.
Mostly though we’re just grateful, grateful that the supply of organic food is increasing because so many other people are also choosing to support it. Grateful that shops like Planeta Eco here in Xalo are opening because, in their words, “they had an idea and knew they couldn’t rest until they’d tried it”. And grateful that more and more people are waking up to the fact their buying choices make a tangible difference every day. It’s a cycle. By supporting a system, that system grows, which provides ever more opportunities to support it further, and so it continues.