Time to think about where our food comes from…

The piece below was first published on our sister blog, Grassroots Alternatives. It’s being re-posted on The Stirrer because it relates to issues we’ve discussed here on this blog.

One issue being the complexity of contemporary society which few appear to fully grasp, hence the increasing risk of things going wrong. One of those being disruptions to overly long and complex food supply chains. All of this and more was discussed in this piece: Complexity, collapse and radical change 23.1.23.

Another issue is that of food deserts. For those who don’t drive and can’t easily reach the supermarket on the edge of town, they have to rely on small convenience stores in the immediate locality with a more limited range of stock. All too often, the bias in that stock line will be towards less healthy processed food. So two people living side by side could have very different experiences if one drives and the other doesn’t. The person who drives can access a plentiful supply and choice of food. The one who doesn’t drive finds themselves in a food desert. All of this and more was discussed in this piece: Food deserts, food supply and taking back control 1.2.22.

There are other issues such as decades of planning policy assuming near universal car ownership, the sprawling suburbs that approach fostered and the rise of out of town and edge of town shopping. All factors which oblige people to drive in order to buy their food. A situation that to put it bluntly, is unsustainable as was argued in this piece: The future of movement on a finite planet 20.2.23.

So, that’s why the decision has been made to re-publish the post below here on this blog. As ever, constructive criticism and comradely debate are always welcome.

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There’s a shortage of tomatoes and other salad items in the shops. There’s been a lot of speculation as to what has caused that shortage. Speculation with a liberal dose of axe grinding added to the mix. Axe grinding which does nothing but muddy the waters as to the reasons for the shortage. This is just one of the many news reports looking at the issue: Europeans mock UK shoppers over tomato shortage – but is Brexit to blame? We could link to a lot more news reports but as far as we’re concerned, that would only serve as a distraction from the issues that need to be discussed.

Tomatoes and a number of other salad vegetables are grown commercially in the UK in glasshouses but only in a few concentrated areas such as the Lea Valley to the north east of London and the coastal area of West Sussex near Chichester. Growing tomatoes in glasshouses in the UK requires a lot of energy. You don’t need us to tell you that energy costs have rocketed and show no sign of coming down. With the big supermarkets forcing glasshouse growers to offer their produce at the lowest possible cost on the one hand and on the other, rising energy costs meaning that growers end up operating at a loss, there was always going to be a crunch point. The crunch point was a lot of the glasshouse growers not growing a crop this winter because it simply wasn’t worth their while.

In a bid to make up the shortfall, the supermarkets increased their reliance on imported tomatoes, mainly from Spain and Morocco. Bad weather in those two countries has led to a reduced harvest. Bad weather in the Channel has led to a number of ferry sailing being cancelled and this has hit the transport of what produce was able to be sourced. Basically, it’s a clusterf**k of things going wrong that has led to the current situation. The longer and more complex a supply chain is, the greater the likelihood that things will screw up. That’s a lesson those who demand a year round supply of tomatoes without paying any thought as to how or where they’re sourced from are now learning.

First world problems. With the growing number of people having to rely on foodbanks because of the cost of living crisis and a low pay crisis, a shortage of tomatoes for middle class consumers is a bit of a storm in a tea cup. However, it’s situations like the one we have now that really should make people stop and think about the food they eat and how it’s produced and transported. It should also make them think about the growing number of people who are finding decent food prohibitively expensive and are forced to rely on cheaper, processed, less healthy and less nutritious food. Well, we can all live in hope that there will be a pause for thought, can’t we?

The food production and procurement system we have here in the UK is not fit for purpose. We’re having to increasingly rely on imported food. Imported food has a bigger environmental cost because of the distances it has to be transported over. As well as the environmental cost, the more food we import, the more vulnerable we are to serious disruptions to supply. Disruptions that could be caused by anything from bad weather through to war. From a security point of view alone, we need to be thinking about how we can produce more of our own food closer to home.

As a brief aside, we’ve got into a bad habit of expecting a wide variety of foods to be available all year round. We’ve lost the art of eating seasonally. When you lose the art of eating seasonally, you lose touch with the rhythm of the seasons and with nature. Eating seasonally doesn’t mean going without, it just means eating differently. For example, it’s possible to eat salad in the middle of winter. The difference will be that in winter, your salad will be preserved in a jar. Visit any international store selling Eastern European food and you’ll find a wide range of preserved vegetables in jars to get you through the winter months. Eating seasonally means changing our mindsets and expectations but the pay off is that it puts us back in touch with the rhythm of the seasons.

At the end of the day, food production has to be re-localised. A major part of the project of re-localisation should be looking at ways of distributing food that bypasses the monopoly of the supermarkets. In the Avon region we now operate in, there are a number of projects whose objective is the re-localisation of food production. They’re listed under the Community gardens, city farms, organic gardening & food heading on this page of the Grassroots Alternatives blog: Avon: Projects & campaigns. It’s early days but an initiative is underway to increase the number of small scale localised producers in the region and to coordinate how they get food to the customers. An important part of the ethos of this initiative is to help people re-connect with the land that supports us.

As well as the re-localisation of food production by small scale producers, regular readers of this blog will know that we’ve always been big fans of people growing more of their own food. This ranges from allotments, turning back gardens over to growing food and using spaces such as balconies through to finding a suitable plot of land to start a community garden and last but by no means least, guerilla gardening. It’s all about re-gaining control over our food supply at a neighbourhood level as well as a regional one. It’s been said that whoever controls the food supply controls the people. Let’s make sure we’re the ones in charge of producing and sourcing our food!

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