stainFor people looking to live a more sustainable life through their eating habits
Why we should all make eating locally and seasonally our default status
It’s always five o’clock somewhere. It’s a concept that can be applied to seasonal food. But, says Sarah Juggins, there are many reasons why we should look closer to home for our ingredients.
Over the past month I have discovered a million and one things to do with courgettes.
No, this isn’t a prelude to some veggie-focused sex column, it is all about the case for growing your own fruit and vegetables. And if that is not possible or practical, you can try to make eating locally reared or grown seasonal produce your default status
A growing population of gardeners
It is certainly an approach that is growing. In 2017, the National Gardening Association in the USA reported that 35 per cent of households in the USA grow food either at home or in a community garden. That is a 200 per cent increase on the equivalent figure released in 2008.
In the UK, gardening and growing vegetables is no longer the preserve of retirees. More than 40 per cent of people under 40 now grow their own fruit, herbs and vegetables, compared to 32 per cent of over 60s.
However, while the trend towards ‘growing your own’ is gaining in popularity, that doesn’t hide the fact that we face two different kinds of food crises. There are 16 million people in America who are struggling with hunger, while conversely, obesity is at an all time high in most western societies.
It also doesn’t hide the fact that we are still drawn towards buying products that have been flown thousands of miles at huge expense to the environment. In a local supermarket just the other day I picked up a packet of prawns that had been imported from Nicaragua. I live on the east coast of England where we have some of the best shellfish in the world and yet, our super market shelves are groaning under the weight of prawns that have more air miles to their credit than I do.
A global food market
Since the 1970s our tastebuds and our diets have been changing to reflect increasing globalisation. Speed and ease of transportation; multi-national food producers; a more mobile population and increased culinary sophistication are some of the factors that have influenced what we like to eat.
Take as an example a popular fruit from New Zealand — the kiwi fruit. It is beloved of people who care about their nutritional input because it is high in vitamin C. Demand is such that the kiwi fruit is available in most supermarkets all year round.
According to research published by Land Care Research New Zealand, a kiwi fruit picked in New Zealand and eaten in mainland Europe travels approximately 20,700km. It takes 26 days to travel that distance.
A 3.3kg tray of green kiwi fruit produced in New Zealand and consumed in Europe produces 5.326kg CO2. That is broken down into orchard operations (13%), packhorse (10%), New Zealand port operations (1%), shipping (44%), repackaging at European port (3%), retail and consumer operations (23%).
If one tray produces green house emissions of 5.326kg, then it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that a ship carrying 5,250 pallets — with each pallet carrying 174 trays — is producing one helluva lot of CO2.
Long distance meat
An area that is receiving a lot of attention right now is the transport of animals. The sight of large trucks with slatted sides tearing along motorways as hundreds of animals packed inside as they are transported from one area of the country to another, or onto ships to be transported to another country, is one of the scourges of the meat trade.
Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) cites examples of livestock — sheep, cattle and pigs — being transported live thousands of miles from Europe to the Middle East, often in cramped, hot conditions.
The same organisations reports that more than four million sheep are transported annually from Australia to Africa undertaking journeys of more than 50 hours. Canada transports animals thousands of miles within its borders as well as to the USA, often in harsh conditions that range from bitter cold to scorching sun.
CIWF is calling for a maximum of eight hours travel to be imposed on all livestock transport.
All of which brings me neatly back to the idea of home grown, seasonal or locally produced foodstuffs.
In New Zealand the concept of home-kill is a traditional and popular means of ensuring you know exactly where your meat is coming from. Home kill is the slaughter and butchering of your own animal, either by the animal’s owner or by a licensed home kill service provider. The bonus of this system is that you know exactly where your meat has come from, you have total control over the animal’s living conditions and you can give it as stress-free end to its life as possible.
If the idea of killing and eating the family’s pet pig seems horrific, it is worth comparing the process with the end of life endured by many commercially reared livestock.
An animal that goes to a meat processing plant will have endured fasting for several hours; a journey — sometimes spending many hours in a truck with hundreds of other beasts; then a wait in a yard before being cleaned — often using a jet wash or similar; and then herded through into the abattoir. The stress levels are huge and the animals endure many hours of uncertainty before the end.
With home kill, the animal is in its own environment until its death. It is not surrounded by other stressed creatures and the end, when it comes, is quick. The level of trauma and awareness is minimal.
Of course, the large majority of people are not in a position or have the disposition to rear and slaughter their own livestock. But there are other alternatives which allow consumers a more ethical and humane approach to eating meat. Buying your meat from the local butcher’s store allows you to vote with your wallet. By choosing the animals that have been reared and fattened on a local farm, you are buying something that has not undergone a long, arduous journey. By insisting on grass-fed animals, you are ensuring that stock that is allowed to live and eat naturally is given a premium, thus encouraging more farmers to rear their animals this way.
When limited availability is a good thing
When it comes to where your food comes from, one of the joys, and sometimes burdens, of eating locally is that not everything is available all year round.
Going to the supermarket opens up a whole world of food, regardless of the time of year. Oranges, strawberries, tomatoes, asparagus, crab, oysters, spring lamb — you name it and you can buy it. The year-round availability of everything from Peruvian asparagus to Dutch tomatoes is ubiquitous in our supermarkets and that has been welcomed by many foodies because it makes food preparation so much more exciting. Or does it?
When you are faced with the challenge of only using food that is in season, you may find yourself discovering new and exciting recipes or ways to use food. One of my great recent discoveries is courgette cake — like carrot cake only better because the courgettes came from my garden. Likewise with pickling vegetables and preserving fruit — I had no idea you could pickle or preserve just about everything and that pickles taste so good in the middle of winter with cheese and cold meat.
Delving into my own sensory memory bank I remember picking a peach while travelling in Australia. As I sank my teeth into its slightly warm, slightly furry skin and then into the delicious yellow flesh, my salivary glands went into overdrive. I have never found a peach to match it and when I buy a punnet of rock hard, slightly green peaches now, a little part of me mourns that I will never relive that exact moment.
I have heard similar stories from people who have discovered the ‘perfect tomato while in Italy’; ‘a beautifully tasting egg from my own chooks’; ‘samphire plucked from the seabed when the tide what out’.
Thane Prince is author of Perfect Preserves and she believes we have: “a natural body clock to food that makes seasonal food taste better.”
It is perhaps being too much of a food fundamentalist to say we should never buy food that is out of season. Sometimes you just need that orange from South Africa to add a citrus burst to a dish. The answer is to buy seasonally as far as possible, making seasonality one of the things you prioritise but not being ridden by guilt if you purchase a pomegranate to add a dash of the exotic to your lamb tagine.
A solid argument for local and seasonal
Many dismiss the concept of local and seasonal as yet another attempt by the liberal middle classes to impose their values but I don’t think that is the case. To me, it just makes sense — economically, health-wise and socially. It is what our ancestors did for hundreds of years. But for the modern person, here’s a few basic reasons why local and seasonal has to be best.
By eating locally, you minimise the time it takes for fresh produce to get from the ground to your plate.
By eating seasonally, you are eating food that is in a state of glut, making it cheaper to produce and hence lighter on your wallet.
Fresh food tastes better than food that has been packaged and transported across the world, sometimes arriving on your plate many days or weeks after it was ready to harvest.
Fresh food, with limited wrapping, is better for you. Being locked in cargo holds and shipping containers; being wrapped in layers of plastic; being treated with chemicals to keep food artificially fresh, does nothing for the nutritional state of the food. The rule of thumb; the fresher the better.
Buying locally supports the local community. Buying food out of season and from miles away involves many middle persons — there is the processor, the transporter, the storage provider, the retailer.By the time these people have all taken a cut from the profits, there is very little going back to the person who put in all the hard work.
Think about the dairy industry where the dairy owner spends 365 days a year tending the cattle that produce the milk. He or she feeds, nurtures, cleans, medicates and generally looks after the cows at great cost. The prize is to see large corporate supermarkets knocking down the price to the barest minimum.
This is the same with all food being sold through national and international companies. Buying food produced locally supports the grower in a way that the big corporate supermarkets just don’t. Turning up at your local farm to buy milk and cheese direct from the producer is the best support you can give.
Buying seasonally and locally is kinder to the planet. Food that travels any distance comes with a carbon footprint. But an apple that is grown within a 20 mile radius has far less of an impact on the environment than an apple that has flown miles or spent days in a container.
How can I eat locally and seasonally?
Grow your own — even if it is one small window box with some micro salad leaves, you will get immense pleasure and joy from eating something you have planted, nurtured and harvested.
Rent space on an allotment or join a community project. There are more and more communal gardening spaces popping up. From the traditional allotment, where you pay a small amount to tend a plot of gardening space to communal areas that have been ‘taken over’ by local residents — these are all areas where you can grow some fruit and vegetables.
Find free food. At certain times of the year fruit trees and hedgerows are abundant with plums, cherries, nuts and berries. Take a walk around your neighbourhood and see what you can find.
Forage for food. For this one it is worth seeking advice first but woodlands and meadows often have treasure troves of food within them. Mushrooms of all varieties, herbs and vegetables can be found growing in abundance. But do ask an expert before you pick and eat anything and remember to only take what you need, leave some for everyone else.
Visit local farms and farmers markets. These are great places to buy local produce. More and more farmers are selling eggs, cheese and ‘raw milk’ from the farm itself. You can also buy meat direct from the farmer so long as it has been slaughtered at a certified abattoir.
Sign up to a vegetable box scheme. Many growers are now running vegetable box schemes. The customer pays a price and is rewarded by a box full of whatever is on season. These often come with recipe suggestions too.
Not for a second am I saying never buy goods out of season. As a keen cook myself I know that is not realistic. The hungry months when little grows puts paid to that idea. All I am saying is that we can all do a little bit more to support local growers, to help the environment and to reconnect with our local food-producing community.