Sunday, July 21, 2013
A Farmer's Lament
I think that, at some level, most progressives "get" what this Brit farmer is saying.
Food, especially cheap food, is on the mind of many Britons this week after the head of supermarket giant, Tesco, warned that the days of cheap food are over. Around the world there is more and more money chasing the limited and endangered supply of foodstocks and for Britain, which imports the bulk of its food, that means higher prices.
Which led farmer, Tobias Jones, to respond by urging his fellow Brits to break their addiction to cheap food.
"...we've become so hooked on cheap food that we ignore the hidden costs: the poisoning of our land by pesticides; the consequent collapse of bee colonies, thus declining rates of pollination; the destruction of ancient woodlands and hedgerows; the mass slaughter of cattle because of ludicrous feeding practices that led to BSE – and, lest we forget, 176 people have died in the UK of the resultant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. And the drugs metaphor is entirely appropriate since, like a dodgy dealer, many people have been cutting beef with horse to make it go further.
...In the town near where I farm in Somerset, there's no butcher, greengrocer or fishmonger thanks to the cathedral-like Tesco in the ghastly retail park. But in a way, supermarkets are only giving us what we want, and some of us need: food that's cheap as chips. Why else would every supermarket advert be about price?
With independent retailers decimated, small-scale producers don't know where to place their crops. At this time of year you regularly see someone walking from door to door with bulging bags of courgettes, chard or plums. They simply don't know what to do with them all. The advent of farmers markets helps a bit, but there's still no cheap, accessible marketplace for smallholders.
...where farming used to be communal, an activity that united the whole village at key times in the calendar, it's now a sad and isolated profession. The typical farmer is likely to be a lonely, often overweight tractor-driver who barely touches the soil. He or she might as well be an HGV driver. If farming has one of the highest suicide rates of all careers, it's because of a combination of soul-destroying solitude and frightening debts racked up through idolising costly machinery.
The other problem is that globalisation, rock-star chefs and endless foodie TV have given us a taste for exotic foodstuffs: our palates are suddenly so sophisticated that we want pomegranates and figs and za'atar and everything else. The countries that supply such delicacies don't, of course, care much for our spuds and parsnips. The result is that we're importing ever more food.
Don't get me wrong, I love cosmopolitan cuisine. But we've so lost touch with our culinary roots that we no longer know how to source food that's staring us in the face. For some reason, this year has been spectacular for elderflowers. Its creamy flowers have been everywhere this summer, even in towns and cities, so we made gallons of cordial: the pearly stuff, but also pink cordial from "black lace". Years ago I used to meet dozens of people when picking elderflowers, but this year I didn't meet one person. It's the same when we go blackberrying in early autumn. The reason, I guess, is that most of us are now too busy, or lazy, or perhaps just too ignorant. It's so much easier to go to Tesco.
I suspect that the future is a little brighter for farmer Tobias due to the end of dirt cheap food. Higher prices, especially for imported foodstuffs, can't help but fuel demand for locally-grown and raised food.
Still, when we go to a Loblaws or a Sobeys or Costco, we are making choices that impact local agriculture. It probably wouldn't hurt to keep that in mind when we're going for that shopping cart.