1 Oct 2009

The Reckoning

The excellent Future of Food (BBC2 series with George Alagiah, Aug 2009) was one of those rare food-for-thought programmes that delivered a punch. The documentary may have come as an epiphany to some of the viewers, but to me its alarming contents confirmed what had been bothering me over the last decade as a consumer living in a fast-food, fast-fashion, fast-trend society.

The programme raised a plethora of inter-linked burning issues set against a background of over-population and climate change: over-fishing, over-cultivation, soil erosion, depleted stocks, stretched resources, changing consumer habits, pollution, ethics… Add to this explosive mix the proposed solutions to some existing ecological problems, which in turn create other predicaments (ex: bio-fuel crops grown in India at the expense of their hungry farmers; the paradox of traditionally UK-grown beans being cultivated in Kenya then flown over to the UK; rich countries sending their fishing vessels to dredge fish stocks from poor African coastal countries)…

As much as possible I, as a consumer, have always supported local trade, suppliers and seasonal produce. Nature is clever and each season brings its own delights when seasonal fruit and veg are at their peak in terms of taste and ripeness. In the UK, the excitement of Spring is heralded with delicate offerings: asparagus, artichoke, peas, rhubarb. Summer brings an explosion of colour and vitamins: red fruit, lettuce, etc. Late Summer/ early Autumn is harvest time (not just for wheat, oats and barley!): think apples, pumpkins, plums, walnuts, sweetcorn. Winter brings us root vegetables that satisfy our appetite for a more stodgy calorie-warming diet.

Undoubtedly some fruit and veg need to be imported because they cannot grow in this climate: citrus fruit, apricots, coconuts, bananas, pineapples, etc. The crunch though, in my simplistic view, arises when a historically UK-grown produce (ex: the humble apple) is now flown off from the antipodes to guarantee round-the-year availability, because it is either out of season in the UK or purely for the supermarket’s bottom line (under the cover of healthy competition). Both the ecological and economic implications trouble me.

Collectively as consumers, we need to act more responsibly, and only by leading the way can we influence the supermarkets about our needs and wants, for the long-term viability of both the planet and our local farmers. Do we need to shun seasonality - a component of sustainability (let’s not forget) - in favour of a passing fancy cleverly flaunted off the shelves by supermarkets who have a knack for creating a need and a want?

Do we really fancy that punnet of raspberries in the midst of December with their heavy carbon footprint stamped all over our conscience (that is, if we do have a conscience)? Or what is the appeal of asparagus flown all the way from Peru, when the best asparagus you will ever taste is the home-grown variety – whose brief seasonal spell should be seen as the beauty of it.

UK producers face another dilemma. As documented in Future of Food, when some of the home-grown produce started being imported by supermarket chains conjunctively, this was done to complement local UK production (as a back-up). Now those imports are in direct competition with the local producers’ offering. And then irrevocably the imports will be cheaper than the local productions, yielding the supermarkets a fatter profit margin, and imports will be favoured. And that’s when that Golden Delicious from Argentina or New Zealand is starting to leave a bitter taste in your mouth!

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