Thursday, 25 March 2010

mind the gap

I bought a cucumber and a bunch of grapes from the supermarket yesterday. The only odd thing about that is that I’d not done that since last September when they were in season. Nowadays, eating fruit and veg mainly from veg boxes and my allotment, such things are a rare treat, in this case an attempt to get my son to eat cheese sandwiches for lunch and a treat for my daughter who craves grapes when she’s ill. In terms of British eating season, we’re entering the hungry gap, when the roots all go floppy and start to sprout. I’m finding it hard to muster enthusiasm for cooking up, again, the swede, celeriac and parsnip in my fridge drawer. Yet, just in time, the greens are starting to come into their own and now every meal is green, rotating between chards, sprouting broccolis, various kales (this year I’ve grown Pentland Brig, Borecole and Red Russian) and the early pungent salads, a mix of rocket, lamb’s lettuce, dandelions, fennel leaves, various herbs, chives and young cleavers and brassica leaves, all coated with a honey and tahini dressing to offset the bitterness. The hungry gap means that the apple season is over, oranges from Europe have nearly finished and bananas are now a rare occasion in our fruit bowl. For the next two months, rhubarb is our main fruit and when strawberries arrive we will so very much enjoy them.

Am I a joyless self-flaggelating purist? No, on the whole – apart from, ahem, the roots - eating locally in season is pure pleasure, and the range of vitamins and minerals soaked up from our local, natural, unpolluted soil, water and sun are perfect after a long winter without sun, fresh local veg and exercise. Mankind has been finely, intuitively, tuned to nature for 80,000 generations, and just because one generation of Brits has bought the marketing message that supermarkets mean progress, doesn’t mean that it is so.

taking the 'ate' out of corporate

I’m still buzzing from a talk by Patrick Holden, chair of the Soil Association, at Pelham House last night, during which he described the mad vulnerability of our food chain to the complex man-made crises ahead. He reminded us of the collapse of other civilisations, usually because they ran out of food or fuel, often precipitously, because they continued apace until the final collapse. And because we globalised in the 20th century, the crisis in the 21st century is likely to be global, he said. Factors contributing to this include fossil fuel depletion, resource depletion (including phosphates we use for fertilisers), climate change, a rapidly growing population, diminishing growing land, the industrialisation of agriculture and a complete failure by our leaders to ensure we have a resilient plan B.

In our lifetime, in one generation, we’ve used up half of the world’s resources, laid down over hundreds of millions of years, including topsoil, fossil fuels and fish. Pause a minute to let that sink in; it’s deep. We’ve lived way beyond our means and we’ll pass down a severely depleted planet to our children. We’ve all been responsible, he said, even organic growers, so now it’s time to reverse the trend and start to take personal and collective responsibility. He said he sat next to Professor John Beddingham, the government’s chief scientist, at a lunch recently, and asked him about his thoughts on our resilience. Beddingham replied he thought that things would get very challenging in 15 years.
Holden’s main concern is that our food systems are far too concentrated in the hands of a few corporations and physically dangerously centralised, making them vulnerable to fuel price rises when peak oil hits. In the US 80% of arable land is planted with only two varieties of crops: maize and wheat, both genetically modified, so the seeds cannot be saved. A lot of that is used to feed animals in feedlots covering as far as the eye can see. It’s getting that way in the UK, he said. If you buy own-label milk in supermarkets, it comes from one of five milk processing plants. All of Sainsbury’s meat comes from one abbatoir. Even in Waitrose, if you buy carrots they are likely to come from one of 10 carrot producers, who produce 80% of all carrots.

Some of my best friends still shop in supermarkets, even though they admit that they don’t really want to. It’s almost addictive, the rut of supposed convenience and supposed savings that supermarkets tie you in to. They say they are too busy or can't afford to do otherwise. Yet I notice that cost isn’t such an issue when it comes to other expenses such as holidays and entertainment. But this isn’t about making people feel guilty or stupid; it’s about trying to raise awareness and talk about the issues. I’m wondering if we might need a sort of Supermarkets Anonymous – a 12 step programme to help us get off shopping and hand ourselves back to nature to feed us – any takers? Though a simpler start could be to simply join one of Lewes’s vegetable box schemes listed here.

And as I’ve said before, we shouldn’t demonise the supermarkets; they are doing what it says on the packet - maximising profit mainly through economies of scale and externalising costs (that means using our common natural capital as though it’s interest and exporting the pollution/cheap labour to somewhere invisible). And apart from being unsustainable and abhorrent, this practice is not resilient. The great thing about resilience – the ability to withstand shock – is that it’s about self-preservation – whereas the response to climate change is essentially a moral one. My hope is that once the penny drops and we all – from individuals, communities and governments, realise that the corporate food system, including Tesco, is not only unhealthy and immoral but also makes us dangerously vulnerable to shock - we will come to our senses and start to treat food as though our lives depend on it.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

the convenient truth

The proposed Tesco expansion fascinates me. I keep wondering why so many people seem so unconcerned about giving their power and money to a global corporation that doesn’t have our welfare at heart. Far from being true to its strapline – Every Little Helps – Tesco cares mainly for profit. That’s what corporations do. Recent research from the Guardian revealed that in the week before Christmas last year, Tesco raised prices on a large number of items by over 10p average, when people really could have done with a little help but didn’t have time to shop around, while hyping price cuts, the majority of which were under 1p and 10p.

Many of us have a gut feeling that shopping at supermarkets isn’t great for anyone. But, the perceived benefits are price and convenience. Supermarkets are supposedly more convenient for two main reasons.

1. Because you can buy everything under one roof. I remember that smug feeling of loading a week’s shopping in the car after half an hour in the convenience store. But I believe that with a little creativity and willpower, it’s even possible to shop locally mainly from the sofa - ordering deliveries from Infinity Food/Just Trade, a veg box and the milkman, with the odd delivery from Bills to top it up, as I described here, here and here (ooo-er! I have got a bee in my bonnet!)

2. Because food from supermarkets is easier to prepare. I also believe it’s possible to cook, fairly quickly from scratch using the palette of amazing pulses, vegetables, cheeses and other goodies available from local shops. Just take for example the humble baked potato, which can be the basis at least once a week for a sumptuous feast.

And what’s the fuss about convenience anyway? How have we managed to turn the values in our lives upside down so that we’ve relegated what’s essentially a deeply pleasurable and nourishing experience to a drudgery to be rushed through? During my encounter with cancer last year I had time to question our notions of how we spend our time. I realised that once you reconnect time with pleasure, absolutely everything can be a deeply pleasing adventure, whether it’s shopping in local shops or cooking fresh food for family. And the more I honour time, by living simply, locally, slowly, the more juice I get out of life.

Lastly, convenience is the opposite of resilience. The more we vest ourselves in Tesco and the likes the less resilient we are in food, individually, as a community, and nationally. In 2000 during the fuel protests, the chair of Sainsbury had to ask Tony Blair to concede to the truckers because the supermarkets were running out of food. We’re not resilient to sudden food shocks, nor the ‘perfect storm’ predicted of food shortages caused by climate change, energy price hikes and the likes. Basically, we need to move away from convenience and towards local resilience. Transition Town Lewes has invited Patrick Holden, chair of the Soil Association to talk about Food Security in the 21st Century next Wednesday (7.30, £4, Pelham House). It should be fascinating. Meanwhile, let’s fall in love with real food, like chef Dan Barber did in this powerful, humorous short video.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

every little hurts

I joined in the Whirl at Tesco last Saturday along with a disparate group of local concerned citizens and un-consumers, to try to raise awareness about Tesco’s proposed expansion. It started at 2. We filtered through the line of policemen - who were tipped off - at the entrance and past the rows of arms-crossed managers at each aisle and started our non-shopping, initially nervously and then playfully, eventually ending in a delightful conga line of empty trolleys. At which point we were politely asked to leave. I hoped the red-faced manager would add, ‘For not shopping,’ but he said he didn’t need to give us a reason. We certainly were not, as he claimed, being disruptive. So we decamped to the entrance, where the younger ones started playing music and dancing and gave out leaflets to the shoppers, who seemed on the whole very open and a little alarmed to hear that Tesco wants to expand. Later that day, May’s General Store reported pre-Christmas levels of shopping and another long time Tesco-shopper friend told me he’d stop buying at Tesco if it expanded: ‘Enough is enough,’ he said.

Of course, many Lewesians support Tesco’s expansion but I suspect they don’t have the full facts, and if they did I believe many people would refuse to shop at Tesco and the likes, thus bringing on their demise. The negative impacts of Tesco are well documented and include destroying the local retail networks, local employment, they suck money from the local economy, their food production creates massive amounts of CO2 and waste, they depend on cheap imports and degrade biodiversity, land and water supplies in poor countries. Yet they’re not, nutrient-for-nutrient, calorie-for-calorie, cheaper than local shops. The inconvenient truth about supermarkets is that convenience is their only selling point.

I remembered the words of Joanna Macy, the Buddhist deep ecologist, who says that the Great Turning (from an industrial growth to a life-sustaining civilisation), which is happening now, is taking place concurrently on three dimensions. One is Holding Actions, which slow down the rate of social and ecological damage – such as boycotting, blockages (such as the Tesco whirl) , regulations (let’s hope Lewes District Council planning department has done its research well). The second is Shifts of Consciousness in which old materialist ways of thinking give way to understanding the interconnectedness , interdependence, of all things, such as we see in systems thinking; at that point, shopping at Tescos (and, probably, any supermarket) will be understood to be deeply damaging to the whole. The third dimension of the Great Turning is Structural Changes – which include new economic and social formations – new ways of owning land, sharing housing, measuring prosperity, an example of which is Transition Towns, local currencies and Community Land Trusts.

It seems that people sense we’re in the Great Turning but don’t feel empowered or inclined to do anything. That powerlessness is part of the old paragidm, and some would say, the ‘plan’ to have us all be consumers. Yet, there’s plenty we can be doing, including changing the way we do everything – work, eat, travel, spend our leisure time, relate – to reflect our deep human values. And the very best thing to do now, the most radical action, would be to move away from the global corporate-owned supermarket system that feeds us and start buying food locally, supporting local farmers and shops. Start now, even if it takes a year. Food will become fresher, tastier, more nutritious and simpler - and possibly cheaper. And while you're at it, why not join the Facebook campaign ‘We’ll do Whatever it takes to Stop Tesco Expansion in Lewes’.