Comsuming Issues: 'Ledge veg' could solve food crisis

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The Independent Online

Growing some herbs on a window ledge could solve Britain's food crisis. I am aware how ludicrous those words look. Yet the blossoming "grow you own" movement illustrated by record demand for allotments and plant seeds could make our food system greener and healthier.

This week the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, backed the United Nations' call for a 70 per cent jump in food production by 2050 to feed the booming global population. The Government hopes science will foment this "new green revolution" in the UK.

Environmentalists suspect the Government's food security assessment is softening public opinion for the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. Intriguingly, a draft document stated the Food Standards Agency would carry out a "consumer engagement exercise" on GM later this year.

Last week an FSA study suggested that organic food was no healthier than conventional produce, at least in terms of nutrition. Cue much gnashing of teeth from the organic lobby about the influence of big farms and grumbles that the study excluded pesticide residues.

I don't dispute the findings of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health within its terms of reference. But officialdom does seem bent on pushing the public towards conventional big business food on the basis that it is necessary to feed the world and rivals anything produced on a smaller scale.

And this is where both Government and the FSA ignore the root cause of the problem – the poverty of our food culture. As a nation, we don't know enough about where our food comes from or its impact on our health, environment, climate, and politics. If we took more interest, we might stop stuffing ourselves and our bins with so much fatty trash.

As Tristram Stuart's book Waste shows, 40 per cent of British food is wasted somewhere between farm and fork. Absurdly high cosmetic standards set by supermarkets for fresh produce are partly to blame; so are householders who throw out 30 per cent of the shopping.

At a stroke, ending food waste would obviate the need for a 40 per cent rise in production.

Ignorance of food causes massive ill-health. Britons eat a daily average of 2.7 portions of fruit and vegetables, half the recommended amount. The national diet relies too heavy on meat, which takes 10 times more resources to produce than plant-based food. We all pay for the cost of cheap, fatty, sugary food. Obesity alone costs the NHS £8bn a year.

As for the environment, the transformation of the countryside into large, chemical-drenched prairies has been a disaster for wildlife, killing off farmland birds and wild flowers. Small, hedgerow-rich mixed farms (many organic) are better for wildlife. If promoted properly, they might even help the majority of Britons – city-dwellers – develop a connection with the source of their sustenance.

And this is where allotments, gardens and window sills come in. Demand for allotments has never been higher, with a 40-year waiting list at some councils, according to research published this week for National Allotments Week.

Some of the 80,000 waiting for a plot may be able to produce a tasty crop of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, strawberries and blackcurrants in a back garden. For the UK's five million flats without gardens, the National Trust recommends "ledge veg". It estimates there are 600 acres of growing space on window sills and recommends planting lettuce, beetroot, rainbow chard and rosemary.

For gardeners who know the toil required to grow vegetables and the pleasure in their eating are likely to take more care of food. Likewise, people who receive organic boxes are more likely to move with the seasons and be enthused about fresh fruit and vegetables.

Growing rosemary on a window ledge may just spark an interest in horticulture and taste that lasts a lifetime.

Heroes & Villians

Hero: Ofgem

What a difference a fortnight makes. On 18 July, I named Ofgem as Britain's worst regulator, worse even than the witless Financial Services Authority. Last week, on 6 August, Ofgem's chief executive, Alistair Buchanan, alerted energy suppliers to the fact that wholesale prices have plunged. "In a strong competitive market, we would expect prices to respond to such falls," he wrote in a blunt, open letter to the Big Six, adding: "You will be familiar with these trends and also aware of some public dissatisfaction with suppliers' response so far to wholesale price reductions." Mr Buchanan says he will look foward to hearing their plans by 1 September. Perhaps Ofgem noticed that the Conservatives announced last month they would abolish the FSA and Ofcom. Or perhaps this mighty column made the mouse roar? A ridiculous notion.

Villains: High street banks

It seems unfair to single out one bank for ripping us off when they are all at it. The margin on fixed-rate mortgages has risen to an all-time high of 2 percentage points, according to Citigroup this week. It is barely worth pointing out that the banks, including publicly-owned RBS and HBOS, have insisted on challenging two earlier court rulings against excessive bank charges made in the House of Lords. Perversely, taxpayers will win whatever the verdict...

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