By Tim Lawrence
I recently helped a friend source and cook food for a catering job for a weekend residential training course. Most of the ingredients were vegetables and we tried to source as much as we could organically and as locally as possible (in that order). I came away thinking that if I want to eat organic and local all year round I would be better off moving to Spain.
The simple reason for this is that the vast majority of the veg available at the two Bristol organic wholesalers we went to were from Spain, with precious little British veg on offer and even less that was from the southwest.
Maybe my conclusion is too simplistic, maybe not. The realities behind this experience are more complex, they include:
· I am acutely aware that the diversity of local organic veg on offer in the third week of June after a spring that has lots of cold nights and little rain (in local terms) is limited. It is in effect the hungry gap between overwintered and stored vegetables and this year’s early crops. The cold nights delay germination. Warm and dry days with cold nights stress plants causing them to ‘bolt’ to flower-seed rather than putting on the green leafy growth we need for a good yield.
· At a local level, most of the countryside round Bristol is ‘chalk and cheese’ country giving us plentiful dairy products and cider. There just aren’t that many organic veg farms round here.
· Nationally, the stores of organic veg are limited and run out across the board when the hungry gap is extended or the winter hasn’t been great, and again relatively speaking there isn’t that much organic veg out there….it is now when this is most apparent.
· It is also worth noting that the level of infrastructure, particularly heated growing, seems to be lower in the organic veg sector (smaller farms with a less industrial approach?) than in chemical agriculture, so the seasons for produce such as cucumbers and tomatoes etc., is shorter and kicks in later.
· More broadly, cheap imports have undermined the scale and diversity of vegetable growing in this country and with current prices it is cheaper to import from hotter climes.
· It is true that this year may not be typical but what is typical these days when it comes to the weather and growing vegetables. Has the increased industrialisation of agriculture lead to less resilience and reliability, even reduced yield, in this country? My sense is that it has as we can longer afford to give the plants the care they need in trying circumstances.
So what to do at this time of year?
Eat less veg?
erm, no thanks
Resign one’s self to the fact the local veg is only a seasonal option?
Grumble, I don’t accept that this is how it has to be
Grow one’s own veg for specifically the hungry gap?
Maybe, but I don’t have an allotment…. or the smallholding I yearn for
I reckon but still have a lot to learn and have concerns about risks of over harvesting
Or at a more strategic level…..
Could we convert more land to veg growing?
Invest more in horticultural infrastructure, particularly protected and heated growing?
who is going to invest?
how much (both land and investment)? And...
how is the veg going to be made accessible (convenient and affordable)?
How realistic is this though, really?
The current planning system, ownership of land, policies and priorities of both local and national government, and political will make these strategic options seem unlikely, even if worthwhile pursuing
move to Spain!?!
Maybe this is a good move given our context and the current meteorological, economic and political climate….
On a more upbeat note,
· the food at the weekend was amazing, so nourishing and tasty (and that is not just my opinion), so big up green beans!
· the localest produce, salad from Edible Futures, was fantastic
· it felt good to be supporting organic farmers, even if most of them were from a neighbouring country, rather than neighbouring ward or county.