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Sunday, 27 May 2007

Difficulties one can have when purchasing apples

In an effort to do as little harm to the environment as possible, I have started looking at where my fruit and vegetables come from. Ideally, I thought, I should buy fruit and veg from Britain, or at least from Europe. That would save all the costs of moving the fruit round the world, because we all know that transport causes loads of problems when it comes to pollution, greenhouse gases, and forming vapour trails which have been shown to be another factor in global warming.

So I looked. And looked. And found strawberries. But it occurred to me that there isn't really any fruit which is in season in Britain at the moment. I found some beans and some lettuce and other vegetables, but very little fruit. There were some pears from Holland (and also from Germany last week), and some apples from France. That cheered me a little, but then I remembered that pears and apples grow in Autumn, so they should not be ripe yet either.

I had put this curious fact to the back of my mind until I got home and realised that some of the apples I had bought (all of them Pink Lady apples, all the same price, on neighbouring parts of the same shelf) were from France, and some were from South Africa!! I felt betrayed, tricked, and also BAD.

How could this be? The supermarket has chosen to source their fruit from both places, so presumably the quality and price are similar. On the one hand the South African apples are expensive because they need carrying over here across the world. But they may be cheaper in other ways. Maybe the labour there is cheaper and they run their farms better. Maybe apples are in season there, so they need less fertiliser and need no heating or greenhouses. Maybe the trees are more productive, so they take up less land. Some of these reasons are environmental as well as economic. And we don't know which reasons apply. How can we save the environment when we don't have enough information to make an informed decision?

What we do know is that it is important to look at the impacts and prioritise:

Maybe you don't care about the amount of fertiliser that is being used. In most parts of the world it is causing no problems yet in the Gulf of Mexico there are thousands of square kilometers of "dead" ocean, where all of the life has been killed off because of the chemicals put on the crops in the farmland around the Mississippi and Missouri rivers (see "The Skeptical Environmentalist" for arguments showing that this is actually necessary, otherwise we couldn't feed people).

Maybe you don't worry about global warming. Personally I think that the consequences of global warming could be severe and cause problems to humans, animals and plants alike. Global warming happened on Venus. It is the hottest planet in the solar system even though it is much further from the Sun than Mercury. Greenhouse gases caused this to happen at some point in history. Yes, I know, Venus is not the same as Earth, and it is closer to the Sun as well. But this shows that greenhouse gases are important at some level. Anyway, I don't claim that I have any proof that we need to worry about global warming, but nobody in the world knows whether the consequences will be insignificant, problematic, serious or catastrophic, and any of these are possible.

Maybe you don't worry about running out of land to grow food on. I haven't read extensively on this but I can say that we have been making decisions for many years about whether to use more fertiliser and grow more intensively (or use GM crops) or whether we flatten some wilderness and use that instead. Both of these options bother me, and I think I'd prefer to keep some wilderness. What do you think?

In any case, we must choose where we stand on these issues, because your choice of apples has impacts in all of these areas and probably others. As to our lack of knowledge on the subject and lack of guidance on apples in particular, I'll look into this a bit more when my exams are finished, and I'll let you know if I find out anything important.

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