River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Support for 'OUR FOOD, OUR FUTURE'

March 2010

Cyril throws his weight behind the Our Food our Future initiative

This local initiative, under the banner of 'Downham Market and Villages in Transition' deserves the support of the local community. It is encouraging to note that the movement, involving local communities, is becoming of increasing interest to people both nationally and internationally. The stated aims are to find local responses to the twin problems of Climate Change and Peak Oil. These are problems which, as individuals, we often feel powerless to make any impression upon.

So far as the first is concerned, it appears that world governments are making little progress. Their periodic conferences on Climate Change always seem to end without any real progress. On the second problem, Peak Oil, the British Government appears to be sticking its head in the sand; I do not detect any plans for an urgent need to 'Power-Down'. The basic problem in a world short of energy, will be how to feed an increasing world population - including the very vulnerable situation that can be foreseen for our own country. The government seems to be locked into a mindset of how things work in the present, where we make up our current food deficits by trading around the world. I would ask: 'In a world desperate for food, WHO then is going to swop their precious food for what we can offer in exchange?

It can be argued that a certain amount of trading between nations will continue to be necessary. However, much of world trade, carried out by the big corporations, is one of the main obstacles to cutting down on greenhouse gases. Much unnecessary trade goes on across the world and the idea of 'Free Trade' seems to have gone completely mad! An excellent example of what I mean by unnecessary trade, and unnecessary energy use, was the programme on BBC 1 on 3rd February, entitled 'CROP to SHOP'. In the film, farmer Jimmy Doherty visited Egypt, Kenya, and Holland to investigate how some of our imported foods are grown and the long journeys some take to reach our supermarket shelves. The resume below of the notes I made relate only to the Egyptian visit and our imports from there of out-of-season fresh Potatoes:-

Jimmy firstly pointed out that much of what we eat comes from all over the world, by means of what he called the 'food super-highway' which, he says: "never stops moving. . . . It's made possible by a vast web of motorways, shipping lanes and flight-paths". In the UK we grow and harvest most of our food in the spring, summer and autumn. When our season ends we import from other countries [which can be] the most unlikely places. One of them is Egypt." Next, Jimmy is shown standing in a vast and barren expanse of the Sahara desert. Then he meets a farmer who takes him to an area in the desert, about 70 miles from Cairo (and, incidentally, about 2,000 miles from the UK ). Here he is surprised to find a very large area of the desert that is actually being farmed. It is producing some fine potatoes. We see a picture of row upon row of the lush green potato plants, stretching away into the distance.

"Here" Jimmy tells us "The temperature goes up to 45 degrees C in the shade" [what shade, I wonder?].

"In spite of the conditions Egypt produces over 400,000 tons of potatoes which it sends to the UK every year." The farmer, "a major producer", grows both for home consumption and also for export. Now, as is explained, the desert sand doesn't have any nutrients - it is completely barren, also dry! So, both water and nutrients have to be supplied with numerous giant sprinklers. The viewer is then shown the giant sprinklers, each of which, continuously spraying, takes 18 hours to make its full circle. Jimmy comments that potatoes are a thirsty crop: "it takes 500 litres of water to produce a kilogram of spuds."

So where does all this water come from? Jimmy explains: "Hashim" [the farmer] "can't rely on rain, so he relies on engineering. Water for his sprinklers is being pumped from 350 metres below the ground. It employs impressive engineering to exploit the precious resource. Hashim's drills tap into the world's largest underground water system. It was created deep under the Sahara around a million years ago, and will never be replenished. Once used, it's gone for ever." At this point the film shows a depiction of the underground water supply, which looked like giant caverns. Jimmy comments: "Egypt allows farmers like Hashim to drill for [this] water, but I can't help wondering whether we need potatoes out-of-season this badly." He points out that not all potatoes grown in Egypt have to drill for water, but comments: ". . . wherever it comes from, water is precious." On enquiring of the farmer where he got his seed potatoes from, he was informed that they were imported from Scotland: they used Scottish seed and Scottish varieties.

Next, we see the potatoes in the pack-house, where they are packed into large 'jumbo' sized bags. They are then liberally sprinkled with granules of moist peat, which trickles down among the potatoes. This is to help avoid rubbing and consequent damage to the skins; it also helps to hold in moisture. On enquiring about the source of the peat, Jimmy was informed that it was imported from Ireland. "The company says that the peat is from a sustainable source, but some people argue that it takes so long to renew, that it is not [truly] sustainable." Jimmy points out that: "Importing the peat and the seed potatoes, and then exporting to us, makes a round trip of 11,000 miles. That's what it takes, if we want their spuds in the winter."

The potatoes are transported 200 miles by road to the port at the Suez Canal. From there they will travel in containers on the Axel Maesk - a giant ship containing other containers full of food from South East Asia, Middle East and Africa." The containers are unloaded at Felixstow - the biggest container port in the UK. Here giant cranes unload the containers, 24 hours per day, onto the lorries that will then transport the imported foods to our supermarket distribution points. The potatoes, from the time they are harvested, will take 14 days to reach our supermarkets. As Jimmy remarks, these temperature and humidity controlled containers "have quite simply changed the way the world eats. At any moment there are 6 million containers on the move around the world."

Governments always seem averse to going against the interests of big business in any way, so it seems to me that no initiatives from government are likely to be taken in the immediate future for reducing emissions caused by unneeded trade. It is not governments, but People Power that can change the situation. If local communities and local farmers, decide to produce, distribute and buy their food locally; supporting local shops and businesses, then big changes can be brought about. Also, if people refuse to buy imported out-of-season foods from supermarkets, then, as the effects of all this begin to bite, big business will be forced to change. Support for our own farmers will make our food more secure and a terrific amount of energy will be saved - thus achieving the twin objectives of 'Downham and Villages in Transition'.

Cyril Marsters

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