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Sep 11

Chillian nationalism

FT • 986 views

Ironically, this produce is actually trying to leave the EU

Naturally, this image had to be alligned to the right.

As Freakytrigger’s vegetable correspondent I find myself often forced into action that seems… well, hippie-ish. This goes against my warlike critical nature and leads to apoplexy about salad packaging but nevertheless, I find myself deeply impassioned about Food Miles.

I don’t really want my lettuce to have more frequent flier miles than me* and I’m not going to endorse slave labour on Spanish tomato farms. I think apples don’t necessarily need the Andean climate to develop and I don’t want them picked unripe and shipped from Peru. I don’t want mange tout cash crops in famine-stricken regions of Africa and I’m ok with paying a little bit more to not have the creeping feeling that my stir fry has already killed several people and may strike again. I don’t want my leeks to have a carbon footprint greater than Ceredigion’s, is what I’m saying.

I’m not the only one and like any idea with enough worried middle class people getting in on it (gluten, organic milk, effective tampons) supermarkets have identified a sales opportunity. Yes, along with the satsumas for kids (‘it has comic sans on this tag! They’ll love that’) and Finest Chilean Walnut Oil (thanks, Gordon Ramsey) there is now British Produce in supermarkets.

I approve of this- we have fields, we have farms, we shouldn’t be importing food from abroad when we could get it from Kent for crying out loud. And yet (and here is the nub of it) even saying that makes me feel a little.. UKIP.

Thing is, right, that I don’t necessarily think that British food is better than food that can be grown in Peru- it will have travelled less distance, thus been picked later and so possibly have more flavour but is a tomato from a giant greenhouse in Devon really that different from one from France? No and the latter might be 50p cheaper but I’ve got a principle here; I’m saving the environment with potatoes and TRYING NOT TO LOOK LIKE A MASSIVE RACIST.

As I potter around Sainsburys, finding tomatoes from Essex and chillis** from Hertfordshire and perhaps a misshapen “heritage carrot”*** from Yorkshire I find myself hiding them in my trolley and making loud comments about where the fenugreek is because my basket full of union jacks is making me feel like I’m canvassing for Nick Griffin.

“Why do you oppose visas for Turkish vegetables, Hazel?”
“I don’t! It’s fine! I’m just a bit worried about the environment! Turkish vegetables are more than welcome, I’ve done nothing but whinge since I moved away from a Damas Gate store!”
“Then why have you got a floppy round lettuce covered in union jacks? I suppose you hate Polish turnips, too?”
“No no! I love dill mustard! I actually hate English cuisine- look, I’m making Tom Yum”
“Well at least your Oyster Mushrooms are proud to be British”

I approach the till, the charming Australian gap year student boredly ringing through my haul doesn’t make eye contact- perhaps because she’s escaped a country with inhumane immigration laws only to discover that Britons are so racist they won’t even eat food from abroad. This feels like the sort of thing my more extremist grandparents would have approved of, decades of Littlejohn having convinced them that halal meat will make them speak in tongues.

Surely we could get a scheme for this that doesn’t involve flags?

Wait, does the colour scheme make me look like a white rasta?

Hippie bullshit

Ok, maybe also a scheme that doesn’t appeal exclusively to readers of the Guardian’s Ethical Living section and actually displays information in a useful format.

if you tolerate this then Pret a Manger will be next

Unpalatable nationalism

Perhaps we could just call it ‘low-travel food’ and have a logo, like Simply The Best but less smugly stadium-rock. I don’t care what country it comes from, so long as it’s reasonably local to where I’m eating it, other nations can have their own version without us all walking round constantly tripping over plastic wrapping emblazoned with a flag, like some post-apocalyptic street party, sandwiches suddenly turned into pin-ups for a war they never wanted. I just want to be able to eat an aubergine without suspecting I’m endorsing the BNP, is that too middle class to ask for?

*In all fairness, everyone has more frequent flier miles than me.
**I don’t know why you can get British chillis and pak choi but not leeks because every time I think about it I worry that this is the first step on the intention-paved road to Melanie Phillips.
***”Here are your vintage potatoes, they’re what’s used in the cantine of The Hour for total accuracy of digestive discomfort.”

Comments

  1. 1
    thefatgit on 2 Sep 2011 #

    Practical solutions to invented problems:

    1. Get friendly with someone who has an allotment. Plenty of seasonal fruit & veg. No carbon footprint. Happy days!

    2. Learn to embrace the Union flag, not in a jingoistic, nationalistic right-wing American way, but in a Swiss way (this little white cross on a square red flag means excellence in watchmaking, cheesemaking and managing your money). This mishmash of many red, white and blue crosses means we are wealthy tourists from the country that invented mass production, and we have so much leisure time and post-imperialist angst to use up, we have to find cruel and unusual new neuroses to beat ourselves up with.

  2. 2
    Mark M on 2 Sep 2011 #

    Q: What if you live in the south-east of England and food grown near Lille, say, would have travelled rather less than food grown near, say, Preston?

  3. 3
    Tommy on 2 Sep 2011 #

    Nothing will grow near Preston. It’s a barren hostile place, like the farm in HP Lovecraft’s Colour from out of Space.

  4. 4
    Pete on 3 Sep 2011 #

    Whilst I get the jingoistic, nationalistic bastard arse-faced appropriation of our national symbols to be a bit of a pain, it is them that is appropriating it, its still OUR flag. The flag that has welcomed mass immigration, multi-culturalism and – well – sweet potatoes forever. But you have to ask yourself, why is that flag there? There is as much of an economic imperative to source food in-country than an environmental or indeed a political one. The moment you let the right wing claim the flag is the moment you lose that identity. I am a global citizen, but I am also a British one, and one who is quite proud of much that Britain has given me (and admittedly has been slowly taken away from the next generation). I see, say the Red Tractor mark, which is only 30% Union Flag, and see they are trying to say that this is from a local, well managed farm, proud of its own standards and hoping to keep the money you are spending on stuff in the UK (with them). Obv just the word KENT would also do the job, but just gcos you might be tricking the chuckleheaded jingoists into buying local, doesn’t mean anyone really thinks you are buying local cos you hate the foreign.

  5. 5
    swanstep on 3 Sep 2011 #

    But, hang on, setting aside the nationalist/jingoism worries, that something was produced locally doesn’t mean that it’s been produced at all efficiently, carbon- or any other -wise. There’s absolutely no way to produce large quantities of food at high latitudes without artificial stimulants and supplements of various kinds, all of which require lots of energy so at the very least one has to look very carefully at energy supplies before assessing carbon intensity: ‘food-miles’ labeling doesn’t do any of that deeper analysis hence it’s a scam/implicit subsidy for/rent-seeking by inefficient European farmers (who, yes, tend to get indulged in that for partly nationalistic/jingoistic reasons – well at least I *tried* to set that aside!).

    For example, there’s absolutely no chance that UK farmers will ever be able to produce as carbon-efficiently as farmers in southern France with nuclear energy for their electricity supply (or future farmers in a hydro-working, on-its-feet-again Zimbabwe) notwithstanding their extra distance to the UK market.

    ‘Eat locally’ if you want, but the case that you’re doing anything especially good for the environment by doing do is incredibly weak, and economically it’s mostly just a waste of money propping up inefficient local producers for political reasons. Don’t ‘Eat natively’ (i.e., only foods grown in and native to your region), that way madness lies!

  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 3 Sep 2011 #

    I do object to what I see as British over-branding as it does indeed look and feel heavy-handed and un-necessarily political.

    On a purely aesthetic level I also find the UF a bit of an eyesore, the colour combo has always jarred for me and it can be a real pain to work with. Similarly I’d much prefer the English flag to be a white cross on red but what can you do (well also I’d replace the cross with a charming sketch of a horse but that’s me…).

  7. 7
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Sep 2011 #

    does swanstep’s term “efficient” take care of the quality of the produce properly? the cheapest tomatos to grow may not be the best to eat (in fact we pretty much know they aren’t: tomatoes are redder, more rubbery and much more tasteless); where they’re grown presumably has some bearing on this, as does how they’re grown

    the visible-airmiles idea is manifesting an external cost — separating out an element that’s hidden what you pay — but it’s true of course that ceteris paribus a tomato you grow in your own garden (airmiles=zero, presumably; hidden cost yr hot-house bills) is highly unlikely to be identical to a tomato grown anywhere else… so which do you prefer?

    (an element of preference injected into in all western consumption — which i think it is worth naming if not shaming somewhat — is the aspect that’s “conspicuous consumption”: as in “i eat expensively because it makes me look and feel fancy”; everyone does this now and then, but someone who eats tomatoes grown at and flown from the south pole SIMPLY BECAUSE this is expensive and they can, and they like being seen to be able to, is a bit of a c0ck… except maybe Polar Tomatos taste unbelievably amazing on a blindfold test etc… )

    there was a fashion in the 70s — ignited iirc by richard mabey — for “hedgerow cuisine”, meaning basically an awareness of all the interesting, tasty and beneficial plants (it was all plants) (sadly: mmm mole) that have been overlooked or squeezed out of the retail economy

    but of course there’s an immediate economic consequence of any shift of preference: mabey’s cuisine ended up pretty much a rural middleclass fad because no one else had the leisuretime to identify gather and prepare these nice roots and grasses (i think a taste for sorrel is the one thing that’s come down to me from my mum and dad’s brief interest in this: my dad being a botanist who specialised in grasses, we had a better-than-most reason to explore, i suppose)

    for it to spread beyond quirky experiment, there has to be an economy of scale, which means growing stuff other than where it “naturally” occurs: and yes, as soon as you do this, there are add-ons (cost of transport; cost of technics of cultivation, small or largescale; EFFECTS — ie on taste consistency etc — transport and technics of cultivation) (and of course effects on taste and consistency may be beneficial: i pretty much guarantee that no one reading would prefer the potatoes that grew naturally in the mountaintops of peru: plant husbandry is often a GOOD THING, and mankind learned to cultivate hundreds of different types of potato, in many climes, to many tastes)

    britain can’t support itself agriculturally: has HAD to import since i think the 18th century — seems to me there’s a metric for “efficiency” re the support of the island as a whole, which would surely not just be the aggregate of all the individual farming “efficiencies”; and there’s also a very complex preference curve, wherein, for example, all manner of locally grown, now-forgotten apples and such, distinct to the region, would offset (excluding conspicuous consumption excesses) the scaled-up economies of vast orchards in far-flung places… lots of vegetables and fruits grown very deliciously in the UK, and some of their value is surely that these types and flavours are somewhat unavaiable elsewhere

    on the other rather less rambly hand, when i’m actually in a shop, i’m very often there to make snap decisions based on someone else’s expertise: the “free market” embeds some streams of this expertise, and to the degree it hides and disguises all kinds of information this is a time-saving (=money-saving) shortcut for many… essentially the problem with any re-emergence of this information, in any form, is that it’s going to be partial and political, unless there’s a way for it ALL to re-emerge (so that every bean comes with its own complete provenance-book/DVD/app) (haha and reviews of the book/DVD/app saying where it was wrong, skewed, had rubbish themetune etc…)

    ^^^thinking this out as i was writing in case you couldn’t tell!

  8. 8
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Sep 2011 #

    just to focus the above a little:

    seems to me the union jack and the airmiles into are both — distinct but related — interjections of partial information: which

    a) may be helpful, should you choose it to be, in calibrating your enjoyment, balancing cost and sensual pleasure and sustenance against a sense of your own “social footprint”

    but
    b) certainly — simply by being an extremely selective redux of the totality of relevant info re yr social footprint — doesn’t offer, except occasionally by chance, much of a chance to effect CONCRETE changes in the direction you’d like (not least because of unintended effects in the still-obscured info-zone); so it operates, if it all, primarily at the symbolic (“conspicuous anti-comsumption”!) and the random level (it creates unbiddable turbulence which muddies things for everyone, including the countless bad actors in the game)

    c) “free market” theory claims that all relevant information — translated into price at some point — is processed most efficiently precisely because “partial knowledge”, as an irrelevant distorting drag at the “wrong” point, is screened out (assumed contained in the price but the consumer can’t see how) — but of course this theory notoriously depends for its argument on a pure and idealised model of the market which (i) can’t ever exist in its ideal form IRL, and (ii) a model which (by virtue if its deployment of information transformed invisibly into costs) allows various “clumped” actors (mega-corporations; nation-states) huge scope for invisible manipulation, which they are never slow to take

    d) the provenance-book-for-every-bean is the alternative “solution”, of course, except instead of a book it would be more like the whole-internet-for-every-bean, the totality of relevant info changing with every new post…

    ^^^is why i turn my brane off in the supermarket these days, the whole-internet-for-every-bean is a kind of utopian critical-theory madness

  9. 9
    Pete on 3 Sep 2011 #

    The internet for every bean thing is important in a weighing your stats way in the supermarket. Particularly with fresh produce the things to weigh up when buying are
    a) quality of produce (based on history / trust of supermarket / how it looks)
    b) provenance
    c) cost
    d) how much you want it.
    e) nutritional information
    f) the inertia of habit

    The only one of these which can be absolutely measured in the shop is cost. Flags, sourcing, whatever nutrition scheme is being used can only be measured up to a point. Whilst we don’t live in a fantastically numerate age, weighing all of these aspects against each other to make a decision is mainly based against f) – buy what I bought list time.

  10. 10
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 3 Sep 2011 #

    suppose you could slip it in in several places on yr list — quality? provenance? — but the social nexus of the transformation into produce is also a thing to be weighed: viz “did a million slaves die in torment to bring me my milky bar? then i shall have a yorkie!” <– is part of informed judgment

    and it's actually the evolvng political input of the elements of that social nexus that would make it more like an internet than a book — because there'd have to be scope for back-and-forth communication

    (viz if the million slaves posted to say "we don't mind the death in torment really", then milky bar is back on again…)

  11. 11
    Mark M on 4 Sep 2011 #

    Minor point, really, but I’ll make a case for local foods in local places by saying I don’t agree with “pretty much guarantee that no one reading would prefer the potatoes that grew naturally in the mountaintops of peru”.
    Not been to Peru, but eating potatoes in Colombia* ( mmmm, papas criollas ) really did make me feel I’d previously been denied the whole point of them – they’re not a side food, they’re something with an intense, delicious flavour of their own.

    *Apologies for sounding a bit like one of those smug travelling idiots who says “If you haven’t dived the Great Barrier Reef, what’s the point in ever having swum?”

  12. 12
    Pete on 4 Sep 2011 #

    I would put it in provenance, but it still all spirals around the money issue. Once you have the money to not just survive, the other factors come in more, but the moment the social nexus can even start to challenge the monetary one has put you in a position where if you are concerned about any or all issues about food sourcing, distribution and funding, there are considerably more constructive things you can be doing about it than buying anything with a Union Jack on it.

    This certainly is the case in point around the, say, the chicken issue. The relentless drive towards the cheaper chicken in the sixties was consumer led. But now it becomes hard for a generation to contemplate paying twice as much for a chicken even if it tastes better because it only tastes a little bit better (particularly if you also grew up cooking in a way which destroyed much of the taste). Pricing is also a matter of inertia, though one that can be subtly massaged (if the price rises of the last twelve months had all happened at once there would have been riots).

    Mark, Lindsey Bareham’s “In Praise Of The Potato” is my favourite cookbook for a reason!

  13. 13
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 4 Sep 2011 #

    ok totally busted on the peruvian potato, i have never of course et one — but vegetables growing in the actual wild are often not that interesting since their prior purpose is feeding themselves not people

  14. 14
    Mark M on 4 Sep 2011 #

    Obviously, modern South American potatoes are the product of thousands of years of cultivation, but there is something about them that suggests that weirdly, despite potatoes becoming a staple throughout the world, there’s an element to what makes them taste so good that doesn’t travel well.

  15. 15
    lonepilgrim on 4 Sep 2011 #

    top Danish chef René Redzepi touched on some of these points in an article in The Observer recently:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/aug/14/rene-redzepi-chefs-better-food

    The vintage carrot sounds intriguing and the restaurant also serves ‘vintage’ potatoes.

    @Mark M: have you ever had potatoes dug up and cooked fresh? I have to say that the flavour is much more intense than shop bought ones, partly (I suspect) because they don’t require so much cooking.

    Gardenorganic holds a Potato day each year in early February at their Ryton gardens near Coventry where you can buy a wide variety of different types of seed potatoes which vary in size, flavour and colour.

  16. 16
    unlogged mog on 4 Sep 2011 #

    I have had a minor ambition for some time to do a ‘food that is purple but tastes exactly the same as when it is not purple; a synaesthetic challenge’ dinner (purple potatoes, purple cauliflower, purple carrot) but for some arse-about-tit reason my pitch to Come Dine The Rainbow With Me has not been accepted.

    (I will come back to the rest of this in due course)

  17. 17
    Ed on 7 Sep 2011 #

    Oxfam did a pretty good report on this issue in 2009, called ‘Fair Miles’, available as a free download here:

    http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/download?Id=365276&dl=http://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/oxfam/bitstream/10546/115389/1/bk-fair-food-miles-101209-en.pdf

    It reviews the available evidence on the environmental and economic impacts of buying globally or locally, and tries to answer lord sukrat’s “internet for every bean” problem with a few usable rules of thumb. One of which is “buy from developing countries”.

    (The internet for every bean problem is real, of course. One of the problems often cited in this area is the debate between dried and tinned chick peas, where the verdict depends on whether you cook your dried peas with gas or electricity, and whether that electricity comes from a wind farm or a 1960s-vintage coal plant.)

    And if you are REALLY interested, you can go along to the Excel Centre on November 17, to watch a debate titled ‘Can Counting Food Miles Do More Harm Than Good?’

    More details on that here:

    http://www.internationalsupermarketnews.com/news/4693

  18. 18
    swanstep on 7 Sep 2011 #

    @Ed. Thanks for those links. By my lights the Oxfam paper jumps too quickly from the big point – that transportation (which distance measures are a proxy for) is only a small component of the carbon-load that food represents (esp. in high latitude countries like the UK) – to their own rather different point about the ethics of in any way restricting/burdening trade with developing/impoverished countries perhaps esp. in agricultural goods. I think Oxfam’s right on both points but the linkage between them isn’t especially tight (the latter point’s a good reason to remove subsidies and other protections for US and EU farmers independently of any Carbon/GHG issues). This matter really is so vexed – a world carbon price imposed at every level of every economy would allow other product prices overall to embody the information that’s important to us, but failing that, things do seem likely to be a bit of a shambles.

  19. 19
    Ed on 8 Sep 2011 #

    You’re right that Oxfam makes the leap from “long-distance food is not necessarily worse in terms of its carbon footprint” to “we should all buy African beans” without really filling in the gaps. But I think that given their purpose, which is to fight against poverty, it’s fair enough for them to do that.

    If we are trying to save the world – which we should be – it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that we should not do it by screwing some of the world’s poorest people.

    On a lighter note, The Onion has pretty much the definitive take on what to think about climate change:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/we-need-to-do-more-when-it-comes-to-having-brief-p,21295/

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