In the Friend, 19th October 2018, Clíodhna Mulhern remembers living in a market town in Ireland in the 1950s: “We shopped in small independent shops and our food was local: our vegetables came from neighbouring farms, always seasonal, and there was no other kind”.
Butter, milk and cheese arrived at our garden gate on flatbed lorries from the local creamery. We bought meat from our butcher at the bottom of the street. Fish was supplied by the lough or by the herring man on a Friday afternoon. Eggs arrived in large trays on the doorstep on a Tuesday, carried in enormous baskets by the sun-and-wind-baked ‘chicken woman’, who reared a large family of her own on the proceeds from her door-to-door sales.
It was mostly organic, only we did not use that word because organic was ‘normal’ in those days; meals were modest, served on what I now know to be breakfast plates and not dinner plates – modest helpings always looked more abundant that way.
In the same town a half-lifetime later there is a very different food story: large supermarkets dominate the local food market.
This being Ireland, some of the small independent food stores remain. They never fled the high street in Ireland in the same way they have done in England. However, gone are the small door-to -door local vendors, gone is any idea of ‘local produce’, and ‘organic’ is now exceptional, meaning ‘weird and expensive’ and certainly not ‘normal’.
A smart new ‘Your Local Foodbank’ collection van is parked in my old street and levels of obesity and diabetes type 2 are rising all the time.
‘Choice’. Somewhere along the road the big food retailers sold us the idea that what we were really after was choice, convenience and cheapness. This was what we wanted:
• whatever the damage to small famers;
• whatever the damage to soil and water sources from herbicides and intensive farming;
• whatever the cost to fragile agricultural economies in far away places where people are poor and go to bed hungry;
• whatever the suffering and degradation caused to our fellow creatures – intensively farmed cattle, sheep, pigs and fish;
• whatever the completely avoidable world hunger caused by eating meat; whatever the carbon costs of shipping food thousands of miles to feed our appetite for seasonal food, all year around;
• whatever the cost to the resilience of local communities or the food security of countries;
• whatever the destruction of rainforests to grow soya to feed cattle and palm oil to put in everything from shampoos to biscuits;
• whatever the plundering of wells to make soft drinks, leaving local farmers in drought;
• and whatever the eye-watering costs to our health and the health of our children from industrial foods.
The ‘strategic alternative’ set out on this site last year is a localised and labour-intensive system of food production, consistent with the government’s commitment to the principle of food security
Some years ago, Russ Grayson, in an excellent overview of the subject, republished in Resilience, wrote: “For farmers within reasonably close proximity to towns and cities, the growing preference for local food represents new markets and farm viability, especially for the smaller farmer and especially for the organic farmer whose sector is the fastest growing. This is true for the Sydney region market gardeners who supply the city with 90% of its fresh vegetables and almost 100% of its Asian vegetables and who, with the associated marketing and distribution sectors of the local food industry, generate an estimated $4.5 billion annually (Sydney Basin Industry Details, Gillespie, P, Mason, David NSW Agriculture, Orange 2003) . . .”
However, as Dr Howard Lee (Hadlow College) notes in the 2017 LWM post: DEFRA is committed to food security in principle but not to food self-sufficiency. The strategic contradiction is that succeeding governments have preferred to promote the export of agricultural and horticultural commodities.