Week 9: 6 November 2011
River Cottage Head Gardener, owner of Otter Farm and writer
Plant that lettuce
I’d like to invite my fellow inhabitants of NowhereIsland to each grow a little of what we eat. Even just a lettuce. I can think of no better shortcut to many of the qualities we hope for from this new nation.
Growing food is the simplest of beautiful things. We forget how miraculous it is, how unbelievably convenient that green plants turn sunlight into food with the addition of just a few elements from the soil. With a few simple interventions to replenish the soil, this gentle process would keep us going indefinitely.
We have been too impatient to let it do so. The endless 'current' sunlight energy that drives plant growth is now fueled with 'old' energy in the form of fossil fuels. A tonne of nitrogen fertiliser (used by most non-organic farms), consumes a tonne of oil and 108 tonnes of water in the making, while releasing 7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases. As the fertiliser breaks down, it releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It is a similar story with phosphate, another key nutrient - rather than restore levels ‘naturally’ with green and animals manures, we import a quarter of a million tonnes of it every year, even though we know there to be 30 years supply left at best.
Building our food supply around ingredients we know to be running out is not overly bright. So dependent have we become on fossil fuels that what we eat now accounts for around 30% of our carbon footprint - and for every unit of energy our food gives us, we use 10 units to get it to our plate.
Our use of water is equally shortsighted. 70% of world’s portable water goes to agriculture, much of it diverted to grow food where the climate wouldn’t otherwise be suitable. Every tonne of grain grown in the US takes around 1000 tonnes of portable water to get it to harvest. Most of it then goes to feeding animals, which we then eat. It is estimated that the typical beefburger ‘contains’ 2400 litres of embedded water.
Before Paul McCartney gets over-excited, it’s not just a meat issue. In the UK, we import 12% of our fruit and veg from Africa, a continent not famous for over-production. Such is the volume of water required to grow it, that we ‘import’ 189 million cubic metres of virtual water in green beans alone: every time we buy Kenyan green beans we are importing water and, in effect, exporting drought.
Perversely, the nature of this dimness makes me quietly optimistic: it is reasonably simple to challenge. Adopting a primarily locally grown, organic, seasonal outlook on what we eat can wipe out almost a third of our carbon footprint and make our consumption of water more equitable.
It sounds faintly ridiculous to suggest that a shift so personal and seemingly small can make such a change, but small repeated actions are usually the most powerful. Shopping every few days at the supermarket, where the lidless freezers battle with blazing lights and heaters, where we can buy the same items week in week out, where even naturally packaged foods such as bananas are wrapped in plastic, has given us the food system we have; growing some of what you’d otherwise buy is a similarly powerful step in the opposite direction.
More importantly it's a small change of mindset and we won't get anywhere without one of those. As Michael Pollan so beautifully put it, ‘Growing even a little of your own food is one of those solutions (to climate change) that, instead of begetting a new set of problems – the way “solutions” such as ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do – actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon.’
The rewards and pleasures compound. Growing attaches you to the seasons and to the flavours of the seasonal harvests. It also gives you a shared perspective with those that grow the rest of what we eat - the richness and diversity of our countryside largely reflects our attitude to the food they produce, so the benefits are obvious.
These new habits also dilute our reliance on big business and reconnect with our ability (and need) to provide for ourselves. They strike a blow for independence, as well as fairer interdependence. They say ‘I’m here and I care about those that follow’.
All of these are perfectly worthwhile, important reasons for growing some of what you eat, but if you do it for one reason let it be pleasure. Sitting in your garden in May with people you love, your just-cut asparagus cooking on a camping stove and almost ready to eat with a little butter, salt, pepper and Parmesan, perhaps with a glass of something dry made from grapes or apples and you’ll be entitled to feel happy.
If you have children, take time to involve them; if they see sweetcorn pop up in a pot having sown it a few days earlier, they’re almost certain to follow it along its journey until they are eating their own popcorn.
Grow and you become a better cook. When you have played a part in its growth, you understand why this tomato tastes so special or why that one’s only okay, and why waiting to pick your parsnips until after the frosts makes them taste so sweet. It makes food become something you do rather than just what you eat. It turns feeding into eating, and function into pleasure. It takes you into the outside world and brings it into your home; it roots you in your landscape, and acts as the seasonal clock around which family, friends – and the soil that supports them – come together.
It also reminds us of one of the fundamentals of life itself: we depend on plants. For all our evolutionary advances, they can do something we can’t: create food for themselves from little more than sunlight and air. That many of them give us vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as we need them – in frequent, small, combined doses - is a miracle. We were made to eat them.
So, please plant that lettuce. If the citizens of NowhereIsland grow and raise what we eat well, celebrate it and share it, food will sit at the heart of what we as individuals, families and communities do. I can’t think of a better measure of a healthy, sound society than that.
Mark runs Otter Farm, home to orchards of pecans, quince, almonds, szechuan pepper, apricots and a vineyard. Mark also leads the Garden Team at River Cottage, running the growing courses, giving talks and hosts events at RCHQ, and appearing in the River Cottage series. He also writes for a variety of national newspapers and magazines and he has published three books including: Veg Patch: River Cottage Handbook No 4; A Taste of the Unexpected; and Fruit: River Cottage Handbook No.9.