If you’ve been into Sainsbury’s or Tesco in the last few weeks, you’ll have seen something that you may have never experienced in the UK before – empty shelves. We’ve all become too used to being able to eat strawberries in December and choosing between eight different varieties of apple. Unlike most of the world, we have in normal circumstances overflowing supermarket shelves and naturally assume that food supplies are plentiful and reliable – until they aren’t that is.
A lot of what is happening in the retail food market now is a combination of factors brought on by the spread of coronavirus: panic-buying and hoarding exasperated by a national lockdown; disruptions in physical logistics, with ports being closed due to the virus and sickness; and the structural failure of a just-in-time supply-chain, where a handful of retailers dominate the grocery market.
Low-price, readily available food does come at a cost, and less than half of what we eat in the UK is grown in the UK. As the year progresses, in a worst-case scenario, food shortages might intensify as countries that import commodities to us might stop exporting staples to feed their own populations, and restrictions on the national and international movement of people might mean that UK-based producers don’t have a reservoir of cheap, mobile labour to harvest their crops, or to transport them to where they are needed in the country.
Now I don’t want this to become another moralising blog about Covid-19, or the economics of global commodity supply and demand, but at this time we should think about where our food comes from. We have the opportunity now, and in the future, to change our consumer choices: including eating seasonally, buying local produce, choosing organic. Eating fruits and vegetables in season means that you can rely on their freshness as they are being harvested when nature intended, and they’ve taken a season to grow.
A Christmas strawberry to be fair has probably not seen much natural light, hasn’t been outdoors and is grown in a shed – often hydroponically, or without soil with chemicals and nutrients pumped into it from an ever moving flow of water – under LED lights to trick it into flowering. It’s probably hand-pollinated, doused in fungicide and the Frankenstrawberry that results is a bland and mushy imitation of one that’s ripened in the sun.
Alternatively, your Christmas strawberry might be grown in East Africa, on land that could be used to feed the local population, driven by a diesel-powered refrigerated truck to the airport, flown to the UK and then driven to the supermarket to sit sadly at the back of a shelf. That’s a lot of travel miles for a trifle-topper and isn’t really winning global warming brownie points.
I was still enjoying my strawberries from last year until last week, which I grew organically in a small raised bed. We had plenty to go around for a family of five throughout the summer and was able to give punnets to neighbours and still have enough left over in the freezer at home to make several pots of jam – which doubled as handy Christmas presents!
All of us can do that, even if you have a small apartment, you are likely to have a windowsill in the kitchen, where you can grow your favourite herbs, and have them available at all times. You can buy wall-mounted strawberry pots which will add a splash of colour to your front porch and give you juicy fruits throughout the summer to watch Wimbledon re-runs with. If you have a balcony, you can buy a hanging basket or planter, and grow salad leaves on your doorstep. And if you have access to a garden, you have the opportunity to grow all manner of brassicas, root vegetables, salads, squash, legumes and berries. In the past few years from my little bed, a few containers and a plastic dustbin, I’ve grown peas, beans, more pumpkins than you can shake at a Trick or Treating zombie, kale, Swiss chard, onions, rhubarb, potatoes, strawberries, garlic, spring onions, herbs, carrots, beetroot and flowers.
By joining the Home (Grown) Brigade you can do your bit to diminish the pressure on the supermarket shelves and food producers in the UK; reduce the air miles that some of your food racks up getting to your fridge; reduce your waste (literally by recycling your food scraps and old till receipts into compost and not having to buy that grabber bag of salad to decompose in the bottom tray of your refrigerator). Moreover, you’ll be growing some real, authentic, tasty produce for you and your family, packed full of vitamins, minerals and flavour. Sure, your carrot might be a bit wonky, but I can vouch it will taste better and last longer that the insipid, homogeneous off-orange stick you can get from your favourite retailer.
On top of that, you’d have learned some new skills and gained an appreciation of what it takes to get the food on your plate. To steal a phrase from a WWII public campaign ‘Dig for Victory’ and enjoy it while you are doing it.
I tried to create a table of vegetables that you can Home Grow. In the end my efforts looked a bit like an accountancy spreadsheet. Then I found this handy cheat sheet produced by Anglian Homes on what vegetables you can consider growing at home, and with their kind permission have reproduced it below.