This shit is bananas
There is perhaps no fruit more endowed with political symbolism than the humble banana. Their return to our shores in 1945 symbolised the end of World War Two. The political career of David Miliband was brought down by merely holding one, and Boris Johnson wanted the UK to leave because he thinks you can only buy them in bunches of three.
For most of my years in Britain I have eaten a wide variety of the fruit-stuff. From those as rounded as a crescent moon to those as straight as pin. I’ve eaten tiny ones- small and sweet -and some so massive they could be chopped up and eaten for days. I’ve eaten them cooked, fried, raw, and much like our country, split.
My wide and varied banana experience should never have been possible. I have lived my whole live in the European Union and those unelected Eurocrats banned ‘wonky’ varieties in 1994 in an attempt to impose single, standardised food upon us all. Its bureaucracy gone mad! It’s crazy! It’s absolutely bananas! It couldn’t possibly be true.
It isn’t, of course.
This euro-myth is one of many, but now that the leave campaign has won the referendum on our membership it is wholly clear that as a country that only produces around 54% of the food we eat there is more at stake for British food than our birth given right to misshapen fruit.
Indeed in its nascent form the EU was established — aside from to promote peace and insult Europe from the centuries of continuous and ravaging war- to ensure that there would be a plentiful food supply for the population of the entire continent. The first commissioner for Agriculture-Sicco Mansholt- introduced the derided Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 1985. The policy has its roots in the many European societies where war had crippled communities and food supplies for their citizens could not be guaranteed. By encouraging a better production chain and ensuring a fair standard of living for the agricultural community the policy has been successful in ensuring the availability of reasonably priced and plentiful food supplies to EU citizens could be guaranteed.
Admittedly some E.U. food policy has been admittedly Kafkaesque, such as the Common Fishing Policy, yet two generations of EU citizens have grown up without knowing hunger, without starving. All thanks to the consequences of the CAP. This is something to celebrate.
This culinary insurgency has not only nourished British people for over half a century, but it has revolutionised our dinner plates. Food from across Europe poured into our island, and in particular from the sunnier climates of Southern Europe. Tomatoes, garlic, peaches and peppers. We developed a perchance for fine French cheeses, olive oil became a foodstuff not a pharmaceutical product, whole aisles of supermarkets are devoted to Mediterranean herbs.
That is not to say that the European Union is the sole reason we know our pesto from our salsa Verde. Food revolutions have occurred in places such as Australia and South America without such institutional interventions, but Brexit highlights the extent to which we may be a proud nation, ready to go it alone. But we are not a food island.
More than a quarter of those who work in the food manufacturing industry in Britian are immigrants from within the EU, and you would be hard pressed to find fresh produce anywhere in the Uk untouched by immigrant hands. Polish fruit pickers, French farm hands and Spanish seed sowers; without them we simply could not eat.
Indeed, it took this influx of foreign food and this multinational institution to make us realise how special some of our native foodstuff are. The EUs ‘product- designated-origin’ (PDO) system gives protected status to special regional foods- 74 in the UK alone. Our Cornish clotted cream, Yorkshire rhubarb and the humble Melton Mobray pork pie sit alongside Perigord walnuts and the Brocciu cheese of Corisa in our cultural exchange on this massive level.
In 2015 27% of all food consumed in the UK was imported from the EU. This figure is even starker when compared to Africa and North America who imported just 4% in the same period. When it comes to fruit, vegetables and our bananas we are even more dependant, importing 40% from mainland Europe. This is a question of our national health as much as economics. As it stands on 30% of the UK population eat the recommended 5 portions a day, and only a tiny proportion of the UKs farmland is devoted to horticulture (164,000 hectares compared to the 4.7m hectares of crop growing land). Remove the multiple EU subsides the free market and tariff exemptions those odd few plants that we do grow will become more expensive and thus inevitably consumed less.
A vast array of agreements, policies and standards underpin UK food. There are literally thousands of exceedingly complex E.U. regulations, many of which concern not only the food itself, but the entire food system. E.U. law extends from environmental law and farm subsidies to food safety and nutrition.
Brexiteers would say that it is precisely this complexity that Britain could do without, but what is forgotten when we grumble about the sizes and shapes of E.U food policy is that many of these laws were set up to make Europeans healthier, safer, and far better fed than we otherwise would be, going it alone. Most of the time, they have worked.
Food policy is one of the unequivocal successes of the European Union. Since its inception there has not been one incident of famine or even shortages, the worst we had to fear was a bureaucrat messing with the curve of our bananas. Now we are in an alarming and unknown landscape. How we eat, our very ways of feeding ourselves, like almost everything else, looks so uncertain.