Time to go back to our roots
The vegetables in your Sunday lunch should worry you as much as the beef, says Rose Prince
Wednesday 25 March 1998
Those of us concerned about our health are eating our greens. Lots of them. We are quite hooked on them now - and anyone who picks up a modern cookbook or eats out regularly is discovering that there are hundreds of varieties out there. Retailers are bending over backwards to supply them - all year round and cheaply of course, because we hate paying for vegetables and feel affronted if our produce bill comes near that for meat or fish.
But look closer at the industry that is making sure that we feel good about ourselves and the way we are treating our bodies and there is an uncomfortable feeling that our good intentions are harmful - to our health, our land and the industry itself. Visit any supermarket and you will find a huge and eclectic range of produce. One Waitrose store boasted 17 species of potato, ten of mushrooms and every conceivable type of edible root; squashes and onions, mange tout and courgettes, dozens of lettuces - or salad leaves as they are now known - and the exotic pak choi, seaweed and water chestnuts. In total 125 varieties; very few of them in season and most are imports.
Alan Wilson, Waitrose's agronomist says: "Now the consumer is more city based they have come to expect things like asparagus to be available all year round." While he feels Waitrose are obliged to offer choice to the better-travelled customer, he admits that doing so increased the store's profitability.
The trouble is that if the consumer chooses to eat certain vegetables out of season, the produce must be chemically altered in some way to encourage growth outside that season. If it cannot be done, those vegetables have to be imported. Many of the pesticides and fertilisers used on crops are not safe if the clearance period, (that is the time between spraying and being put on a shop shelf) is not long enough. There is no enforced regulation in the business to ensure that this is not the case.
Intensive farming and its use of chemicals has long been suspected as being at the heart of many allergy-related and some neurological diseases. Heavy use of chemicals in agriculture has led to soil becoming merely a holding material for seedlings and whatever growth-enhancers the farmer uses. Intensive farming also has a weak reputation in business ethics. Use of gang work forces is not unusual in Kent and East Anglia. Teams of workers - many of them immigrants - working for below the minimum wage set by the Agriculture Wages Board are brought in for harvesting.
Alan Wilson does not believe the practice is widespread. All of Waitrose's farm workers are full-time and they have a history of clean employee-employer practice. He says that British vegetable farming "is a little too intensive", and, recognising the public's loss of confidence, the supermarket has added organic vegetables to their shelves. Not many - out of the 125 vegetables previously mentioned, only 16 were organically grown.
Before all the blame is laid at the feet of the growers, note that it is the supermarkets who are the main, sometimes sole, client of the big firms. One farmer, who did not want to be named, said: "If the client want their spring greens a week early, the grower is unlikely to mention that they were only sprayed with a pesticide last week and that there ought to be a long abatement period before cutting. He cuts and sells rather than losing business."
Many consumers, particularly those who are town and city-based, are ignorant of growing seasons and never stop to wonder where their beloved tough little french beans are growing in the winter.
So it is us well-meaning veg lovers who are putting the whole industry under intense pressure to satisfy, at all costs, our desire to cook and eat whatever and as much as we desire. It is quite common in restaurants as well as in British home cooking to find half a dozen different vegetables accompanying the roast meat, regardless of whether they are a happy composition for that dish. Restaurants often serve them in a separate little dish as if to say "look - we tried hard with the vegetables," confusing the diner who wonders if they should transfer the lukewarm mange touts, broccoli and two types of potato to their plate or eat them straight off the serving dish. "Meat and two veg" is a thing of the past, now we have "meat with six out-of-season imports." One man with a different approach to growing and eating his greens is the organic farmer Ian Nelson. Sunnyfield's, his farm on the south coast near Southampton, has had Soil Association approval for 11 years. Eight years ago Nelson took it over. He was initially trained in agriculture and horticulture. He took his knowledge to Malawi in Africa on a Voluntary Services Overseas project, showing the farmers there how to increase yields and lessen the probability of losing crops through pest invasion. The VSO project was successful, but returning home was Nelson's 'road to Damascus'; he was appalled that here similar methods of growing should be employed when the British people were in no way hungry.
He is anxious to get across that he is "not a hippy". He says: "If you to try to dominate nature rather than stay within its confines it will have fatal consequences." Over the year 150 varieties of produce are grown at Sunnyfields - everything from
roots and onions to the more exotic red chard.
He believes that where possible we should seek out superior tasting naturally grown vegetables, eat them discriminately and pay more. Nelson's customers are happy to shell out for organic, believing a superior product can stand alone as a dish. "We put the finest oil in our cars, why not a similar grade fuel for our bodies?" he asks.
"We have to learn from the disaster in beef farming. Mass-production stresses and strains an industry often with catastrophic consequences realised too late. A tempered, less ardent course in buying and eating our food could be preventative without a change of quality in our lives."
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