Food-wise, we’re living in bountiful times. Quinoa, cashews, almond milk, the ubiquitous avocado. They’re all fashionable, healthy, plentiful – and grown overseas.
The advantages of all this food are plain to see. Varied plates piled high with exciting, tasty, nutritious ingredients. But the disadvantages of importing food are also plentiful. They include adding to the problem of climate change and the overuse of chemical additives.
Also, is a food’s nutritional value all it seems if it’s been artificially ripened en route to the UK? Or if it’s been sprayed with chemical preservatives to make it last the journey?
Here’s a look at how and why local food vs imported food is better, the effect on the environment and some simple British food swaps.
The Benefits of Local Food vs Imported Food
Food grown locally obviously doesn’t need to travel as far to reach our plates. A tomato grown in Kent won’t have as many ‘food miles’ as a tomato grown in Spain.
It’s also likely to be transported by road to its place on a supermarket shelf. It’s Spanish cousin is probably going to be flown or shipped and then road freighted in. And don’t forget, all this needs to be done in refrigerated vehicles, adding to fossil fuel usage.
While road freighting isn’t perfect, it’s still less polluting than air or sea shipping. A major disadvantage of importing food is its larger carbon footprint.
The disadvantages of importing food don’t stop there. There’s more wins for local food vs imported food.
Decreased Nutritional Potential
Fresh fruit and veg that’s imported also needs to be picked earlier. This is to prevent it ripening on the journey, which has an impact on the flavour. Strawberries picked before their prime most definitely aren’t as sweet as hand picked ones from the local Pick Your Own or city farm.
Plus, picking them too soon means that they haven’t reached their full nutritional potential. Levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are then lower than they should be.
What if fresh food spoils on it’s long journey? Or what if the imported food is still not ripe when it arrives here?
The answer to both lies in the chemistry lab. Delayed and artificial ripening both make use of chemicals we’d probably rather not be eating.
INcreased Food Waste
The issue of food waste is huge too. The longer the journey, the more chance of bruising and spoiling. So that means more packaging to protect the food. We might buy it from the supermarket loose, but to get there it’s most likely been wrapped in reams of packaging.
So much produce can be grown in the UK. Salads, herbs, root vegetables, peas, courgettes, peppers, aubergines. Why choose anything from anywhere else? Like Spain, for example…
The Spanish Problem
You might think that imported food is the ‘exotic’ stuff that we can’t grow in the UK climate. Avocados from Central America fit that bill. But take a closer look and you’ll see it’s not always the case.
If you happen to be looking down on Europe from space, you’ll see an expanse of white plastic on the coast of Southern Spain. In fact, you’ll see it if you drive south through Spain towards Almeria. You can see it from Google Earth too, all 165 square miles of it.
The Plastic Garden
This is the polytunnel region of Southern Spain where they grow vegetables in tunnel-like greenhouses. These greenhouses help to control the climate to maximise production. Which at first sounds great.
But the harsh truth is one of intense artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. This area has been increasingly taken over by greenhouses since the 1970s. Now there’s barely an inch of land not covered with plastic polytunnels.
Factories in the region make more and more plastic to renew the polytunnels that soon perish in the sun. Chemical waste from these ‘farms’ washes off into the Mediterranean. Along with tonnes of discarded plastic waste.
It’s said that the sheer size of the area is changing the microclimate. The white plastic is reflecting UV rays away from the earth, having a cooling effect on the local climate.
The Unethical Workforce
The human toll is shocking too. Most of the workforce is made up of African migrants, seeking a better life and pay. Their reality is hothouse working conditions, slum living and chemical exposure. Plus earnings below the minimum wage.
That’s if they get work at all. 90,000 people live in makeshift camps around the region, all vying for work each day.
More than half of the vegetables we eat in the UK are imported. I’m not only talking about sweet potatoes and other veg that can’t be grown here. I’m talking about courgettes, peppers, lettuce and tomatoes. 55% of the tomatoes and broccoli we eat in the UK come from the EU. The majority of which are grown in Almeria’s polytunnels.
If you thought your Spanish pepper was grown under the Spanish sun, you’ll probably be disappointed.
How to Find Local Food Over Imported Food
Buying fruit and veg from greengrocers will allow you to have a chat about where it all comes from. The same goes for farmers’ markets and buying direct from the farm. Plus these are more likely to have hyperlocal food – food that has been grown in your local neighbourhood.
Veg box schemes, such as OddBox, deliver boxes of wonky veg too. This means more UK grown food. But also more European surplus when there’s been a bumper crop that doesn’t make it to the supermarket due to oversupply. All saving it from becoming food waste!
It’s not only fruit and veg. Buying from butchers, fishmongers, bakers and deli counters means you can also ask where a product has been produced.
Look for labels that say British or UK produced too. Generally if a food is produced here, the brand will be shouting about it.
From quinoa to sparkling wine, the best of British food is booming! You’ll be working against the disadvantages of importing food with each product you buy.
What About Bananas, Coffee, Tea and Spices?!
Of course, there are going to be some foods that come from overseas that we can’t be without. Bananas in our smoothies, spices in our curries, chocolate. Coffee.
We’d be ill-informed if we thought we could live entirely on local food. But if we do all we can to maximise the foods we buy from local sources, we’ll feel a lot more comfortable buying imported for the rest.
Being Mindful of the Disadvantages of Importing Food
Our ancestors and our relatives from only a few decades ago didn’t rely on imported, out of season food. Eating seasonally was the norm back then. So why not now? Do we need strawberries and cucumbers in winter? Besides, they’re meant for Pimms anyway, aren’t they? And nothing says summer more than a jug of Pimms.
Many of us want to eat healthy, fresh food and we can still do that by eating locally grown, seasonal food. Be mindful of what grows here in the UK and when, and plan your meals around that.
Being eco-conscious is always going to mean a little bit of self sacrifice. If that means no asparagus in the autumn then is that such a hard price to pay?