Keen but ignorant

I worked in the shop yesterday morning. A man came in and asked where the bananas came from. “Colombia” I said. “A long way to travel” he pointed out. I agreed, but said that they come by boat not plane. Besides, bananas can’t be grown commercially here – they have to cross the ocean, whether from the Americas, Africa or India. He then asked about avocados. And lemons.

As you know, I’m all in favour of eating food in season and grown locally. But really, if you want to eat citrus fruit, you have to accept that it will not be grown here. It is technically possible, but not on a commercial scale and only by using generated heat. What would be green about erecting vast hothouses to grow banana trees, when they can be easily grown in vast quantities in their native (or suitable adopted) environment?

After the man had left (having bought his bananas, as well as English fruit and veg), Al said that most people have little idea about the practicalities of food production. Not long ago, he had a young couple asking for English apples – “why do your apples come from New Zealand, the USA, Chile, South Africa?” Al had to explain that there are no ripe English apples yet and the stored ones have all finished except for the cookers. Another month and the new season apples will be coming in; the Spartan, Discovery and all the other crisp, fresh summer apples – though customers will still not want to wait for October for the Cox’s Orange Pippins to start to ripen and so he will still buy New Zealand Cox’s until then, as well as South African Granny Smith’s and French Golden Delicious.

People still want infinite choice, but they want it locally grown and do not understand about seasons. Nor do they understand about farming.

There has been renewed discussion about the amount of methane produced by cows, and a suggestion that if alternative fodder crops were grown, they might burp and fart less (excuse this rare descent into vulgarity). On the Today programme they had a keen vegetarian in to suggest that we should stop eating beef instead, so that the cattle need not exist to produce all this methane. As usual, the interviewer was hopeless and did not point out any of the flaws in the argument.

I’m not, of course, knocking vegetarianism, nor am I saying one word in favour of intensive animal farming. I’m not saying we need to eat meat. But she was not talking about the ethics of the matter, so that is not the relevant factor here.

She said that you need more land to graze animals than you do to grow crops. This is true, but she was not asked about the land that is not suitable for cultivation. What about the Yorkshire Dales, the Welsh hill farms, the Sussex Downs, Romney Marsh? – all grassland that needs to be grazed and are ideal for sheep. Around here, what about the water meadows and winter-flooded marshes, that are grazed by cows or mown for hay or silage?

Just around my house, there are several fields. One is part of the flood plain. If the river overflows, it floods onto the field and the water can gradually soak in to the ground, helping to top up the underground aquifers from which Norfolk gets its water supply (although this is the area of the country with the lowest rainfall, we have never had a hosepipe ban). If it were ploughed for crops, a drainage system would have to be put in and this water would be channelled away and wasted.

The next field is marked on the Ordnance Survey* maps as Anglo Saxon earthworks. It is ancient grassland and has never been ploughed, although gravel has been extracted in the past. It is full of bumps and hollows and has a wide range of wild flowers and grasses that have taken centuries to establish themselves. It is never artificially fertilised, only by the dung of the cows that graze it. It would not be permitted to plough it up and it would, being light sand over gravel, be poor land anyway.

The next field, though flat, is also sand on gravel. It makes a good hay meadow. It could be ploughed, as the fourth field is, but it is not very fertile and does not hold moisture well. The best way of improving its fertility is by adding whole lots of farmyard manure. Cow muck. Or pig muck. Just like I dig into my vegetable garden. Yes, I make compost, but this improves soil structure more than fertility.

So it’s by no means as simple as all of us converting to vegetarianism even, as she suggested, if it were done over several years. But the thing that I couldn’t believe the interviewer didn’t mention, when all she went on about was not eating beef, was that many, and I should think most, of the cattle are not primarily raised for beef. They are dairy cows.

Now, veganism wasn’t even mentioned. I don’t know if she is vegan. If you are, from planet-saving or animal-welfare motives, a vegetarian, I’m not sure that there is a place for commercial dairy farming. Certainly, for reducing methane production there isn’t. So why didn’t the idiot interviewer (I think I know which one it was, but they are pretty all as bad as each other, so I won’t single one out) even ask whether she thinks we should eat and drink dairy products?

*I had to fill in a form from the Diocese the other day – that’s the Church area administered by the Bishop, of Norwich, in this case. I was amused that they asked for the village church’s Ordinance Survey number.

10 comments on “Keen but ignorant

  1. Ad

    I totally agree, z.

    I have heard it said, from more than one source, that the Herdwick sheep are the grazing gardeners of the Lake District, long may they continue. ”Their wool is rough and their meat quite tough tho’ what a job they do.”

    The dairy problem will be ongoing, most Soya bean crops are of the GM variety, some grown on former rainforest land, not the best advert for being a VorV.

    Keep up the good work and excellent writing.


  2. Z

    Thank you, Ad.

    It’s all complicated and interdependent and just can’t be oversimplified. For example, wool is a by-product of the meat industry, but cotton is usually grown with huge amounts of chemical sprays. Biofuels, one of the latest buzzwords, is giving rise to yet more deforestation. Pop stars jet in with huge entourages to give concerts in favour of green issues. It would be better if we practised more and preached less, but there’s such self-righteousness around that this isn’t likely.

  3. Chairwoman of the bored

    Oh what happened to Worcester Pearmains and Russets?

    Am I the only one left old enough to remember them?

    There were also ‘Jonathan’s’, and an American apple called ‘Newtowns’.

    My uncles was a fruit importer in Spittlefields Market, and he always said that you couldn’t beat a Cox’s Orange Pippin, but the pips had to rattle for it to be in peak condition.

    Could that, I wonder, be where the word ‘pipsqueak’ came from.

  4. Z

    I don’t think you’ll be surprised to know, Chairwoman, that Al sells both of them. The Worcesters are a quite early variety with a shortish season and the Russets keep a bit longer, but not through the winter.

    Yes, I shake my Cox before eating it too.

  5. badgerdaddy

    Russet as in Egremont Russet? My favourite apple. Also an apple that has been adopted – seasonally – by some supermarkets, which makes a nice change.

    Still got the best ones from Al’s though.

  6. Z

    Egremont Russet indeed, Badge. Yes, last year the season was noticeably prolonged, which must mean that growers or wholesalers are finding it worth their while to keep them in storage longer. They are an unusual apple, not juicy nor shiny-skinned, with a distinctive flavour. One for the connoisseur, I think…

  7. Blue Witch

    But really, if you want to eat citrus fruit, you have to accept that it will not be grown here. It is technically possible, but not on a commercial scale and only by using generated heat.

    There are heavy-cropping varieties of both lemon and orange that are hardy down to minus 5 (and maybe other citrus fruit too). If I had 3 bushes of each rather than just one, we could be self-sufficient in lemons and oranges (but only because I don’t eat many oranges as oranges). I think it could be done on a commercial scale – but no-one has tried as there isn’t the money in it. And that, I think, is where these things begin and end these days.

    With all the apple trees that have been grubbed out in recent years, England is now much less self-sufficient in apples than it could be.

    And I entirely agree that It would be better if we practised more and preached less, but there’s such self-righteousness around that this isn’t likely.

  8. Z

    I know that citrus trees can withstand the cold, but surely the climate isn’t ideal? Winters are often not that cold, but the atmosphere is chilly and damp for a fair bit of the year. Are your bushes planted out in the garden, or in pots? I think it would be great to plant them out, but I’ve never seen it. If it’s possible, I’ll have room by next year and could give it a try. But I can’t be doing with more pots.

    I’d like to think that apple and pear trees are being planted again – I think orchards are viable again, judging by demand.


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