Thursday, 30 October 2008

Local food costs less

‘Only the wealthy can afford to eat local food; us locals on a budget have to do with Tesco and the likes.’ In Lewes that’s the easy reposte that trumps so many attempts at progress. ‘Down From Londoners’ are painted with a broad brush as poncy and spoiled, whether us incomers like me have lived here for 10,20 or even 50 years. But in my newfound spirit of action in the face of scorn and apathy, I decided to don my scientist’s hat and do my own analysis of whether it really does cost more to eat local food.

Our family has recently taken over being one of the drop off points for Ashurst Organic’s vegetable boxes. You can buy £10, £13 or £17 weekly boxes, and the £13 amply does our family of six. Last week I carefully weighed each of the 10 vegetable varieties in my box and set off with clipboard to Waitrose and Tesco to do a price comparison, veg for veg. You can see the answers here. My finding was that the Tesco box cost a wee bit more than the local box, and Waitrose cost about 20% more. QED – I have now proven it is that it is cheaper to buy vegetables locally than from supermarkets – organic at least. To make sure I have a good sample I will repeat the test every three months over the coming year.

Interestingly, whereas Ashurst gave me a half kilo bag full of the sweetest small tomatoes that burst in our mouth like edible fireworks, Waitrose was selling a plastic-wrapped flat pack of eight such tomatoes on the vine for a whopping (sorry, love that word) £2.17; according to their labeling that was 27p per cherry tomato. I had to discount that item to £2 to be fair to Waitrose…

Price aside, there is nothing to beat the freshness and pure life zing of veggies that were mostly picked that day, on rich green-sand soil up the road in Plumpton. Ashurst Organic Farm is an incredible place, where workers are paid decent wages and volunteers are given a hearty lunch. All the local organic farms are legally bound to be based on old-fashioned values such as respect for the soil and all parts of the growing system: crop rotation, no industrial pesticides, fertilizers and so on. And all this for little if any profit as supermarket competition screws their prices down. So cheapness is not an issue to the eater, NOT buying locally means deliberately favouring corporate food above local food – is this what we really want?

Study of vegetable price supplies to Lewes, East Sussex, in week beginning 13 October 2008



Waitrose per kg

Waitrose (£)

Tesco £ per kg

Tesco cost (£)



Mixed salad

9.90 (not org)


10.00 (not org)









Red pepper



1.58 for 450g


513g (30)

Cherry toms

27p per tom

8.10 (£2*)











1.99 (not org)























Chilli pepper

£11 (not org)


£20 (not org)






Given that 2-3 items in both supermarkets were not available organically, both Tesco and Waitrose total would be higher if all organic.

*note: at 27p per tomato, the cherry tomatoes would have totaled £8.10 for 30 tomatoes; I’ve reduced that to £2.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Sewing the seeds of a new future

As my friend Mike often reminds me, everybody on the planet is already making the transition to a world without oil; it’s just that most people don’t realise it. For someone like me who enjoys tracking process, the signs are plentiful. Gardeners’ World and Gardeners’ Question time are all about vegetables and allotments: Mussleburgh leeks are the new Viburnums.

And this spring, even before credit started to get crunchy, Argos announced that sales of sewing machines had gone up by half over the previous year and Woolies reported a similar trend, with sales growing by 258% in the same period. Dirk bought a hand sewing machine today for £20 from the Lewes Flea Market. Tis a wonder to behold, a sturdy, cast-iron Singer, with swirly, gilded decorations and a wooden compartment revealing special parts such as feet for hemming, braiding and ruffling. The musty manual explains how to set up the bobbin and maintain the machine. Tucked in the pages is a prescient advert from a pre-mechanised domestic world: ‘Do you know that little Singer motor? One screw attaches it to your machine. Cuts out fatigue! Makes sewing a pleasure! Better work done in half the time!’
Perhaps Singer today should be advertising manual add-ons. In a post-oil world most of our domestic motorised tools will no longer run on electricity. We’ll probably be generating some electricity renewably for essential things like tractors, transport and lighting, but most tools are likely to evolve to manual. I imagine a combination of the new – solar powered food preservers and laptop chargers, pressure cookers, motor bikes with trailers. And a (version of) the old – which includes Singer hand sewing machines, whetstones, hoes, larders, hammers and tidemills.
Dirk has been using a manual sewing machine for many years, but his old one broke recently when it fell out of its carrying box. He uses his hand Singer for creating his instrument cases out of leather and canvas, making basic clothes, fancy dress and even a duvet cover once when we got hold of some organic cotton. Although musicians like him are always in demand, regardless of the state of the economy, Dirk would be quite happy to be a tailor in a post-growth world.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Deeds, not words

There’s something hugely therapeutic about storming Parliament. I can personally recommend it for anyone suffering from frustration or depression. Al Gore recently called for civil disobedience on behalf of the planet, and it’s even legal - recently a jury in Britain ruled that it is acceptable to break the law if you are protesting against climate change. So on Monday I found myself dressed as a suffragette to mark the 100 years to the hour of the suffrages storming of parliament to demand the vote. With me were my daughter Anna (17) and my friend Jan (70). Rosie Boycott, one of the speakers in Parliament Square, told us the suffragettes laid themselves – and even their lives - on the line to get the vote. This time, she said, we are demanding a future, for our daughters and grand-daughters.

Caroline Lucas, who increasingly inspires me, said that our government is still saying one thing about the climate imperative and doing another, like approving a new runway at Stansted. When billions are found to shore up banks, why was there no serious money going into renewables? She reminded us of the suffragettes’ slogan – Deeds, not Words - and called for us to take direct action in response to the crimes against humanity being created by climate chaos. And with that, we swarmed over the barricades and stormed Parliament, at least creating merry mayhem.

These extraordinary times - 98 months to go before irreversible tipping points - require us all to take extraordinary actions. OK, so you might not be a front-liner like Marina Pepper, or a cheerer-on like me. And there are millions of excuses, I know. But our whole life is an opportunity for direct action and every act is political. Everything we do and buy contributes to the planet’s recovery or demise. So let’s all switch off the telly and intensify the direct actions we can still take, from this moment.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Fuel's gold

It's an extraordinary privilege to be alive today at the cusp of such great change. This week saw the dramatic end of our world's unbridled rush towards ever increasing consumption and debt levels. We've got there, as I have been writing, because money is debt and economic growth has depended on increasingly dodgy leveraged layers of debt. In this moment of realisation that the Emperor has No Clothes, I hope enough intelligent people such as those behind Green New Deal can push through permanent change that will utterly replace the suicidal story of our time of economic growth based on gobbling up our planet. I also hope that the people who've been screwed, such as pensioners, express their anger and take to the streets.

And this week sees two other absolutely pivotal reports. First the government's new independent climate change watchdog, the Climate Change Committee, reported to government that Britain must abandon using almost all fossil fuels to produce power in 20 years' time. The news was welcomed by several sectors of government, including Ed Milliband, the new energy and climate secretary, and could signal its change of heart away from nasty new coal and support real investment in renewable energy and 'green collar jobs' as a way to kick start the economy on a real life-sustaining footing.

Second, Hilary Benn, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, replied to a Chatham House study reporting that a food crisis was on its way, by saying, 'With rising prices and increasing demand across the globe, we can't take our food supply for granted.' Again, this signals a radical shift in policy away from supporting a free-market globalised approach to food sourcing to a more localised one. In case anyone needs to be reminded about the most pressing issue facing our planet, far greater than the threat to our global banking system, see this inspiring video and pass it on: Wake up, freak out, then get a grip.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Freedom food

I had a horrible flash-forward this morning in the netherworld of sleep/wake. In this nightmare it was the supermarkets, not the banks, experiencing a run on their food stocks as their fragile infrastructure, based on cheap, plentiful oil, water and labour, and a healthy soil and climate, came tumbling down.

In the cold light of day, that’s not so hard to imagine, as we have literally handed over the power to feed ourselves to these giants and their suppliers, Monsanto, Cargill and the likes, who are, technically, interested in profit, not us (Tesco profit up 10% globally during this year’s world food shortage). This week, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University and government advisor said that Britons should dig up their gardens and start growing their own fruit and vegetables in the face of a looming world food crisis. ‘Ultimately people have to take more control of their food systems...If you depend on Tesco or Sainsbury's or Waitrose, you are a consumer. In other words your food supply is under their control. But if you garden and can grow at least some food to eat, however little, then you are injecting a little food democracy into your food supplies and asserting your food citizenship.’

If you are reading this you are almost certainly one of the 98% of ecologically aware people identified in a recent survey of Lewes District residents who still shop primarily at supermarkets. I am still recovering from the shock of hearing this from the friend who carried out the survey. There was never a more urgent time to radicalise your eating; and you can do it cheaply too; check out May’s bulk food: oats, rice and beans, cheap, organic and delicious. Bills is supplying budget options these days, with 5 avos or huge bag of local apples for a pound. Get a veg box, go to the Farmers Market, in fact, go to every independent food shop in Lewes, and you will find that giving up supermarkets is one of the best, most liberating things you will ever do.