Since January I have been on a Jersey path to zero-waste, trying to avoid plastic and unnecessary packaging of any kind. I’m now in the habit of buying fish and seafood direct from the Fish Market in Beresford Street, fruit and vegetables from the Central Market or farmers markets and meat direct from a selection of butchers – all using my own containers and bags.
I try and avoid supermarkets because that way leads only to frustration, and last weekend was a prime example. I was trying to buy a selection of vegetables both locally produced (to support the local economy) and zero-waste. There were a few options available, but the majority of local produce had no zero-waste options. Shrink wrapped swede; carrots in non-recyclable plastic bags; broccoli and cauliflowers wrapped in cling film; parsnips, carrots, courgette and potatoes on non-recyclable polystyrene trays and smothered in non-recyclable plastic film. Locally produced food, with only a few miles to travel from farmer to supermarket, was covered in unnecessary plastic. Why????? I took to Facebook to voice my concerns and it looks like I’m not alone in being concerned about this on the island, as hundreds of like-minded people responded!
So, rather than just complaining, I decided to try and find out more. I wanted to try and find out who had determined that the consumers needed all this packaging, and what choices we have to get out of the plastic habit.
This week I made a visit to father and son team Paul and JP Blake of La Chase Produce, at their vast greenhouses near to Maufant Village. Paul has been working in the industry for over 30 years, with JP hot on his trail for the last 17 years. La Chase Produce are members of Genuine Jersey and produce tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers and chillies for the Channel Island market.
I was kindly shown around by JP, his wife Jacquie and four month old daughter Tilda, the real boss around here! There were two things that really surprised me; the sheer vastness of the greenhouses and just how big the tomato plants are already. I have a field where I grow my own tomatoes in the summer, but I haven’t even planted the tomato seeds yet, and here JP is already harvesting tomatoes, ready to go on sale locally. The season is lengthened by the use of greenhouses, with the cost of heating them through the cold winter and spring months, to ensure that we can get local produce into our shops as quickly as possible.
I realised, as I talked to JP, that I have lots of pre-conceived ideas about how traditional farming works, and most of those ideas are wide of the mark. I have always advocated eating organic food where possible, so that I wasn’t opening myself up to toxic pollution through the food that I eat – without actually understanding the specifics. At La Chasse Produce the tomato plants are farmed in coir (a natural product derived from coconut husks, making a product from the waste of the coconut/coconut milk industry). Biological controls are used extensively, introducing predatory insects to help eliminate pests which attack the growing plants.
Bees are released in the greenhouse to roam around and pollinate the tomato plants. And finally, if absolutely needed, JP has the option to spray the tomatoes to control pests and disease – but the spray that he uses is also the same spray which is certified for use by organic tomato growers.
In the second greenhouse the sweet peppers are already heavily cropping. Some will be picked now as green peppers, others left to ripen and sweeten to red peppers before being picked. Again, in this greenhouse, natural biological controls are also used to good effect.
Aubergines, courgettes, cucumbers and chilies are also grown in this greenhouse. La Chasse Produce supply mainly to Waitrose in the Channel Islands, but when there are sufficient supplies their produce can also be found at Sandpiper stores, Homefield growers, The Classic Farm shop, Molloy’s in the Central Market and Lucas Brothers Farm shop.
So far, so good. But what about all that packaging? From speaking to several local supermarkets and producers it’s clear that the drive for packaging is customer choice, it really is driven by the belief that it is the customers preference to have the food conveniently packaged and ready to grab and go. There are huge strides being made in the background to reduce excess packaging and shipping wastes in getting the products moved from wholesalers all over the UK to the shop floor, and the majority of the supermarkets now use sturdy, re-usable crates instead of tons and tons of cardboard. It’s just that the same thought process hasn’t made the jump to the end products for the consumer yet.
From what I can see, the producers don’t really have much of a choice – they supply how and what the supermarkets requests and the supermarkets are following customer demand. But is this really what the consumer wants? I don’t agree! Perhaps it was, but the tide has turned and I think that people are becoming more and more aware of environmental impacts that they are personally responsible for. Perhaps the supermarkets just aren’t keeping pace of what the customer actually does want.
JP has looked into alternative packaging, but they are not practical when compared to the plastic options. Cardboard cartons take up four times the space for the same number of cartons, because they are bulkier in form and heavier, meaning that they are more expensive to buy in the first place and four times more expensive to ship to Jersey. And JP would still have to cover the tops of the cartons with film. The packaging costs are met by the producers, not the supermarkets, so this has a direct impact on the costs of production. It is already extremely difficult to compete on price with imported produce as European growers receive huge government subsidies to produce the crops, compared to minimal subsidies available from the States of Jersey.
There are however benefits to having packaging. Smaller items such as cherry tomatoes would be difficult to sell loosely in crates, the tomatoes in the bottom of the crate getting crushed and bruised, causing unnecessary food waste. Cucumbers have a longer shelf life if they are wrapped in cling film, again reducing food waste. JP also tells me that with the labelling on the packaging he can also track back to the actual picking dates of the produce, and the use-by dates can be printed on the labels. But more than that, they are vital with regards to traceability for food safety reasons. Local producers maintain daily records which monitor various aspects such as hygiene, accidents, illness, pest control etc so that if there is a food safety incident the producer can trace the potentially affected product back to harvest and packing day and prove that fault is unconnected to the producer.
But these are not insurmountable – there are no use-by dates on the produce supplied unpackaged to the supermarkets, these are marked on the crates themselves. I think there would still have to be exceptions, such as cherry tomatoes and soft fruit like raspberries and strawberries. But at least we would have zero-waste options, and the producers wouldn’t have to pay for excess packaging (although I’m sure the supermarkets would soon ensure any cost benefits were handed over to them).
I’m in the process of contacting the local supermarket chains. I think it’s pretty awesome that they are supporting local producers and allow us that choice (when they don’t have to), but I am trying to find out where the data analysis came from that tells them that the customer wants to have their produce in convenient, plastic-wrapped packaging, and when that analysis was last carried out. For me its very inconvenient to pay more for a product as a result of these excess packaging costs, its very inconvenient to carry a heavier load home, it’s very inconvenient to have to unpack the produce from all those wrappings in order to store them correctly at home. And finally, it’s frustrating to be left with a mountain of packaging that I can do absolutely nothing with except send to the energy from waste plant. Watch this space and I’ll get back to you when I know more.
I did also speak to to Woodside Farms, another local producer who said “As I am sure you understand, the way in which we supply produce to retailers is driven by the consumer – if the supermarkets were to find from sales and research that there was a bigger call for more loose produce, then this is how we would supply it. Shoppers habits are driven by convenience, however if there was a change in how people like to shop, we would of course respond to this. You will have no doubt noticed that the prepared vegetable section is an ever increasing sector – again this is driven by demand from customers”. My argument to that is that we are not always given a choice, especially in the smaller supermarkets and shops.
In the meantime – please do continue to support local producers. Make your voice heard – if you can’t find local produce in a zero-waste format speak to the Manager where you shop. You may not get a reaction initially, but the more people who ask, the more likelihood we have of being listened to in the long term. As an island, food security is vitally important and and we need to ensure that we use local producers as much as possible to make sure that we continue to have a local supply chain.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to JP and Jacquie of La Chasse Produce who took a large part out of their day in order that I could understand the processes and needs for packaging from the producers point of view, and to Woodside Farms for responding to my query.