Going the extra mile – whether you like it or not

‘Freshly clicked’. The advertisement on the back of the Tesco delivery truck promised efficiency, convenience and fresh produce delivered to right outside my door. Sounds great, right? Online shopping has saved people time for years now, bar the occasional “Oh no, I tried to order 1kg of apples but I accidentally just ordered 1 apple instead” (true story).

The play on the common phrase ‘freshly picked’ shows just how far we have come from a tangible relationship with the harvest we consume. Food can be ordered online and delivered to our door the next day with contact between farmer and consumer non-existent. It is not surprising, then, in a situation where the food we eat is so divorced from any knowledge of the soil in which it was grown, that the food system has grown ever more international and complex.

Knowledge of the impact of food miles on greenhouse gas emissions, and an understanding that consuming local food encourages local farmers which in turn builds resilience against any coming shocks to the international food system, is certainly increasing. The rise in interest in, and success of, local food shops, farmers’ markets, community gardens, and veg box schemes demonstrates this – albeit confined primarily to a particular social demographic. However, progress remains limited: in 2015, the UK imported £9.1 billion worth of vegetables and fruit, and only exported £1 billion worth. That’s a pretty large trade deficit.

Supermarkets continue to dominate the grocery sector in the UK, which means cheap and unseasonal produce remains the name of the game. Consumers have become used to food availability that simply is not possible without huge levels of international imports to get around the fact that the UK climate does not produce all the food all year round. Eating seasonally is inconvenient for us, now, and not just a necessary way of life as it used to be.

One October morning, in prime UK harvest season, I decided to see how many different countries I could order fruit and vegetables from on the Tesco online delivery website, and how many I could find in store. In the local Tesco Express, I wrote down the origins of those fruit and vegetables that had countries of origin labelled (some, such as pre-packaged stir fry vegetables, and loose avocados, contained no such information). I found country-of-origin information on 29 different fruits and vegetables. Number of countries apparently needed to stock the shelves of this small supermarket? 11. To put this into perspective, the shop down the road only sells produce from Yorkshire and it often has a similar number of varieties. I partake in a veg box scheme which is primarily Sheffield-grown produce and regularly get over ten different kinds of vegetables.

To give Tesco its due, 13 of the 29 fruits and vegetables were from the UK. However, in harvest season, less than half of fresh food coming from within the UK doesn’t really seem that impressive. Needing 11 countries to produce 29 vegetables seems a bit much. But it gets worse.

The most baffling part of the food miles issue isn’t so much the importation of food. Especially in regards to fruit, it is easy to see why, for example, papayas are imported. Some things just don’t grow well in the UK, and we have become accustomed to eating exotic produce, so supermarkets, to please their customers, will stock it. And some international produce is not as environmentally damaging as you may first assume – bananas, freighted by boat, for example are relatively low on the emissions scale. Food miles alone is a reductive way of looking at the climate impact of agriculture and diet.

However, some things do seem bizarre. For example, British whole broccolis were readily available when I visited this Tesco store. Also on offer, though, were broccoli heads. From Kenya. Two questions immediately sprang to mind: firstly, if we can stock British broccoli, why on earth are we importing it from Kenya? And secondly, what has happened to the rest of the broccoli that produced the pre-cut florets?

Things became much more striking when I went home and investigated the online shopping market. I decided to fill my virtual shopping cart with all the fresh fruit and vegetables available on the Tesco website. That is, all that had country of origin information – again, this was missing on numerous items. Here is the resulting map of my shopping cart. 56 countries were involved. The map below shows where the food in your ‘Freshly clicked’ delivery comes from – click on the pins to discover which produce comes from where.

The information above points not so much to a big reveal about the environmental impact of the international fruit and vegetable trade. Emissions and sustainability are far more complicated than that. What it does, however, demonstrate, is our reliance on the international economy to produce cheap and easy food all year round, without any regards to seasonality or country of origin. It demonstrates a reliance on a capitalist trade system that keeps farmers across the world in poverty, contributes to deforestation to fuel our dietary preferences, and pays little regard to the long term resilience of the UK’s food stocks. It creates a complacency about the availability of food and the existence of a food surplus which is simply a lie. If the international trade system were to collapse tomorrow, and supermarkets to stop stocking imported goods that had previously been staples (not as farfetched as you might think – think of the Tesco Marmite controversy following the Brexit vote), we would fast be on the way to a food crisis in the United Kingdom. Building resilience against the coming shocks of climate change involves building our food system to be more local, more sustainable, and above all better supported by both businesses and policy makers. There is no need to rely on 56 countries to supply your weekly groceries.

How Should My Garden Grow?

How can you most effectively reduce your carbon footprint through your choice of what food you grow yourself?

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Growing your own food is often, and justifiably, talked about as an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding the environmental impact of food miles and out-of-season veg from the supermarket. In the UK, between 20 and 30 per cent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture – from pesticide use to refrigeration and transportation.

Over half the world’s population now reside in urban areas, and urban food production is becoming increasingly popular as a way to mitigate climate change, improve food quality and reduce personal carbon footprints.

The variety of herbs, fruit and vegetables grown by allotment holders, community farms and the like are endless – just take a wander around the town of Todmorden for example, where peppers grow outside the police station in homage to the Beatles, and the hospital boasts an apothecary garden with herbal remedies galore.

However, for those just starting to venture into the world of grow-your-own, especially those doing so from a concern to reduce their impact on our planet’s delicate climate, choosing what to grow can be an overwhelming experience. This is especially true if you, like the vast majority of us that live in urban areas, suffer from limited growing space. What on earth should you choose – what is the most effective way to grow food and save the planet?

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See no people, hear no people, speak no people: the uncomfortable histories of your favourite national parks

Image licensed under Creative Commons, used with permission

Yosemite, 1869. John Muir, father of the modern conservation movement, writes with rapture of what he sees:

…the blue arctic daisy and purple-flowered  bryanthus, the mountain’s own darlings, gentle mountaineers face to face with the sky, kept safe by a thousand miracles, seeming always finer and purer the wilder and stormier their homes…

John Muir is credited by many as having begun the movement towards environmental conservation of some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Following his rapturous writings on Yosemite, in 1872 the area became the world’s first dedicated National Park. Many others have since followed globally, conservation stemming from a similar belief that places of “outstanding natural beauty”, biodiversity and spiritual value should be protected from the rampaging progression of industrial capitalism, saved by legal designation from becoming another high-rise or industrial estate. Muir’s environmentalism has influenced conservation and environmental ethics for centuries now, elevating values beyond profit and production, and cementing ideas of wild and wilderness in the psyche of modern-day Western civilisation.

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the bush is not dying – it is being killed

the bush is not dying – it is being killed

In a dark alcove of the Te Papa national museum in Wellington, a lament plays on. Across
the walls of this semi-hidden corner runs a list of unfamiliar names: huia; moa; kairuku. As you sound out the words in your head, the lament music builds and fills the alcove. This is the tribute to the extinct animals of New Zealand – and the list goes on.

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Divestment: From South Africa to Fossil Fuels

Originally published in Post Magazine, ‘Potential Energy: The Politics of Energy in Scotland’ which is available to order here.

The global fossil fuel divestment movement has seen some important achievements over the past year. Universities in the USA, Sweden, New Zealand , the Marshall Islands and the United Kingdom have all committed to divestment; thirty-five cities across the world are divesting (in reality, this means the investments and pensions funds of public sector workers); over fifty religious institutions, including the World Council of Churches. have announced their divestment; and many other institutions have joined them – most notably, perhaps, the Rockefeller Foundation, whose very wealth was built upon the oil industry. The movement, comprised of local pressure groups but brought together globally under 350.org’s “Fossil Free” umbrella campaign, has successfully garnered the attention of big energy companies, with Exxon Mobil mobilising in October last year to publicly and strongly decry the campaign. The above, taken together, suggests that Fossil Free campaigners are not only making progress on the ground, but creating enough global attention that their hugely powerful targets have begun to twitch. All in all, the divestment movement enters 2015 looking stronger than ever.

But where can it go from here?

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Five environmental issues that will make headlines in 2015

(Originally published at Clarity News)

1. Fracking

Over the last year, fracking politics have entered mainstream political discourse in the UK. The Infrastructure Bill currently making its way through parliament has the potential to legally oblige the Government to extract all available oil and gas reserves in the country, which would necessarily include fracking. This has prompted widespread public outcry and the creation of numerous community groups to oppose widespread fracking across the country. A list of licenses for unconventional gas exploration given by the government is due to be released this year, and decisions from planning authorities, the UK and Scottish governments regarding the extent to which fracking and unconventional gas exploration will be allowed, will also be announced. This will shape the direction of energy politics in Britain for better or worse, and is worth keeping a close eye on.

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Allotments, land rights and affordable food

This has also been published on Scottish Land Action Movement.

The law condemns the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

xxx

Recent news that Edinburgh City Council are planning to increase the rental prices of allotments by an average of 105% – and up to 500% for some renters – has caused serious backlash from the city’s allotment owners. This news comes at the same time that new research has shown city allotment soils are far healthier and more productive than much of the United Kingdom’s depleted farmland. Globally, around 30% of the world’s arable land has now been abandoned as poor farming practices leave soils depleted of nutrients and exposed to the risk of erosion.

Food security is one of the most serious concerns we currently face: from depleted soils, to the threat of climate change, to corporate agricultural practices that force small farmers from their land and leave the global food system vulnerable to market fluctuations. With over half of the world’s population now residing in urban areas, food production in cities is an increasingly essential development if a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 is to be sufficiently nourished.

Continue reading “Allotments, land rights and affordable food”