Whether herbivore or omnivore, most would agree that consuming fresh produce is essential to good health. In Western countries, we find small sticker labels on produce to distinguish conventional from organic, but how do you know the difference in the rest of the world? Are the “dirty dozen”and “clean fifteen” lists relevant outside of the United States? Because fresh fruits and vegetables make up the majority of my diet, this issue is critical for me. I don’t want pesticides circulating in my bloodstream nor that of my family’s, so here’s my strategy for securing that my produce is organic (or near organic) when traveling abroad.
Before you touch ground read up about agriculture in your new destination. There are some countries that have made legal commitments to only grow organic, non-genetically modified produce, while other countries do the same because they cannot afford otherwise. Take Ethiopia as an example. When I arrived, a fellow vegan informed me that all of Ethiopia’s produce is organic. Why? Because farmers cannot afford to purchase the herbicides and pesticides made popular by corporatized farm factories in the developed world. Even if I doubted his assertion, all of the food I ate had a rich, sweetness to it, unlike the flavorless conventional counterparts I grew up eating in New York City.
Supporting local farmers is not only good for the local economy but also your health. Whether organized farmer’s markets, traditional markets, or a friendly farmer in the neighborhood, all are great options for knowing the source of your food, allowing you to eat in good confidence. While living in Algeria, I had a memorable experience visiting a co-worker’s family farm in the outskirts of Algiers in Sidi Abdullah. After three bus rides to reach her home, each subsequent bus became smaller and the air progressively became clearer. Walking across the open fields, I inhaled crisp, clean air only impeded by the occasional scent of livestock. After meeting her family and eating a meal prepared from their very own harvest, we walked around their land, identifying vegetable crops and local herbs along with their medicinal purposes. Knowing the hands behind the labor that farming requires not only connects you to the land but the people inhabiting it.
Conformity is not cool, not even for fruits and veggies. Organically grown produce has character and variety and should not appear homogenous. Look for varied sizes, shades, and shapes in your produce. Though I usually ask a merchant if their produce is local or imported, I often know the answer based on their appearance. Use your senses by smelling the sweetness of tree-ripened fruits, feeling the smooth texture of your vegetables, and seeing small holes in your leafy greens, made by ladybugs savoring their meal before it becomes yours. In Yemen, I vividly remember buying okra, cutting one open and finding a little worm inside. Initially, I was disturbed but came to realize that if this bug can safely eat it, so can I.
When the abovementioned efforts elude you, it’s time to be your own scientist and trust your taste buds. While in Algeria, my former director explained that some of the agricultural development agreements being forged in the country stipulated the use of herbicides and pesticides, which many farmers were unaccustomed to and some were using improperly without adequate training. She warned us to be mindful of the produce we purchase and we heeded her advice diligently. In most cases, we enjoyed the produce we bought, preferring the unattractive yet tasty local fruits over the uniformly shiny, waxy imports. However, on several occasions our locally sourced beets had a distinct synthetic aftertaste, much like medicine, and we thought it best to leave them alone.
If all other efforts prove to be fruitless, it’s time to take matters into your own hand, on your own land. Raised garden beds, potted plants, or upcycled water jugs are all great options for growing your own produce. In the middle of Sana’a, Yemen, my Arabic teacher had a rooftop garden where he grew flowers, strawberries, and tomatoes in recycled tin cans and paint buckets. Whether outdoors or indoors, even the palest shade of green thumbs can start growing low maintenance plants like peppermint, aloe vera, strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers. And, if you don’t have earth of your own to till, you can practice guerilla gardening or urban reclamation, by finding a vacant lot of public space and building your own garden. In some countries, cultivating formerly barren land would be a welcomed act of beauty and kindness. Establishing community gardens can even be a means of conflict resolution and peacemaking. The possibilities are endless.
Important Note: No matter how organic your produce may be, bacterial contamination is a possibility in many developing countries. Wash your produce with safe potable water and peel the skin or have it peeled in your presence. Eat your veggies with wisdom and gratitude! :)