This time last year, I posted about an article I’d read in the New Civil Engineer (no kidding, I’m married to a civil engineer, and it was lying about), saying that 60% of all cities in Western Europe were using up groundwater faster than it was being replaced. This year we have hosepipe bans in England already, and the gloom and doom prophecies have started. Not that it applies to Scotland – oh, no, we have had the rain only slightly less than usual, and, as usual, we are more worried about flooding than drought. But.
I have been reading The Olive Tree by Carol Drinkwater. It was a bit of a drudge, frankly, but an eye-opener. A series of idyllic life in Provence has turned into a discussion of the whole olive industry, taking in war and peace, organic gardening, corruption and bureaucracy in the farming industry, and, most telling of all, a description of how intensive farming, paticularly in polytunnels, is degrading the landscapes in some of the hottest, driest and most vulnerable landscapes in Europe.
Oh, internet, I do love you very much, but one thing I have noticed since we all went on line is a remarkable rise in the ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ style of thinking. Let us not go there. If you do it thoughtfully, and reclaim waste water and energy to service your tunnel, polytunnels can be a brilliant and sustainable way to grow food. Indeed, in Iceland (where they heat the greenhouses with geothermal energy) and the Scottish Islands (where you are always fighting the wind), it’s probably the only serious way to grow many crops at all. No, polytunnels are not evil. But.
If you buy intensively raised fruit and vegetables from hot countries where safe clean water is a problem, you are not helping to grow their economies, you are trashing their longterm survival. You are importing their water, drying out and impoverishing their landscape, encouraging soil erosion, and creating long-term dependency on cash crops and vulnerability to exploitation by international markets.
This is hard to take on board. I already try to eat seasonal and local wherever possible, but in Scotland in March it leaves you with the end of the apples and pears, and just a pink glimmer of rhubarb – maybe in the next three weeks? The leeks are coming to an end, and my family won’t eat cabbage. From the beginning of March to the middle of May at least, we are in what used to be called the hungry gap, and it is going to be bleak. This year I may compromise. But next year, I plan to be ready. I’m going to harvest, freeze, preserve and store as much local food as I can to get us through. And I’m going to find out as much as I can about growing conditions in those countries we import from – Kenya, Chile, South Africa, Honduras – and try to concentrate on places with sustainable growing methods.