You may have come across the terms ‘farm to table’, ‘sustainable agriculture’ or ‘slow food’ in recent years, but have no clue what they mean. These intimidating terms are part of one school of thought, fast gaining popularity amongst chefs and the public: what we eat can save, or ruin, the world. This is no ‘hippy’ movement, but one that could help us all to become healthier and may even hold a money saving trick or two.
Essentially, western methods of food production are not kind to the environment and involve eye-dropping amounts of waste. Your local supermarket probably stocks say, strawberries all year round, of varying quality. Logically, this does not make sense – strawberries are seasonal ingredients, meaning that they naturally only grow (in the US) from the end of May to mid June every year. That’s three weeks of strawberry crop, yet a year of available fruits to purchase. So, either supermarket strawberries are being flown across the world thus creating a huge carbon footprint, or are being grown in forced, unnatural environments. This is an element of the ‘slow food’ movement, which promotes local foods, gastronomy and production as opposed to globalisation. Plus, strawberries produced in unnatural conditions are not going to taste as delightful as those in full, natural bloom.
The emphasis on eating from local and seasonal sources is challenging. Real, meaning with no pesticides or genetic modifications, strawberries are not perfectly red, plump and triangular. They have lumps and bumps, white patches and all manner of differences. While they may look less appealing, they are far superior in taste. Farmers face such problems constantly – supermarkets demand big, generous fruits and vegetables which often compromises on taste. Smaller products are more flavoursome and intense.
Asda, a leading supermarket in the UK, has started selling ‘imperfect’ vegetables such as wonky carrots or oddly shaped fruits for a lower price, triggered by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s movement to cut down on food waste. Until 2009, 20-40% of ‘imperfect’ looking fruit and veg was banned from entering supermarkets, despite tasting the same and holding the same nutritional value as their designer counterparts.
But this issue goes far beyond eating ugly strawberries. ’Sustainable agriculture’ is necessary to ensure we don’t compromise future generations by protecting the environment, animal welfare and public health through specific farming techniques. These include refraining from using pesticides, genetically modified seeds and treating animals with care, letting them roam freely and consume a natural diet.
Chef Dan Barber champions this method in his book ‘The Third Plate’, claiming that it is not enough for us to simply eat organic produce, but to base out eating habits on the movements and growth of the land which grows our food. Basically, to consider the products in season and base our recipes around them but also to consider the crops famers need to grow to allow more popular foods to flourish. For instance, to prepare the soil to deliver delicious vegetables, farmers plant soil building crops such as barely and millet. These products often go to waste, but Barber makes a point of using them in his cooking.
The ‘farm to table’ philosophy encourages people to interact with local food producers, rather than the impersonal act of buying from a supermarket. This not only ensures hard-working farm folk a living, but guarantees the consumer fresher, healthier seasonal produce – it’s a win:win.
While this may not be a practical method of eating for many people, there are small ways you can begin to interact with local growers. Jamie Oliver, food superhero, saves the day once again by bringing the ancient practice of ‘gleaning’ to the attention of the public. This occurs after farmers have completed their initial harvest and, in many cases, provided supermarkets with their required amounts of vegetables. Speedy farming tools such as tractors tend to leave a large surplus of crops at the sides of the fields which is often left to waste due to the lack of manpower on the farms. Locals are invited to ‘glean’ i.e. pick up the leftover crops for free (!), massively reducing waste. Again, win:win. Bear in mind that such practises are wonderful for children, providing a fun and educational experience to kids who may never have seen a real farm in action.
Speaking of money saving tips, foraging (searching and harvesting for wild-growing plants) is a great way to expand your taste buds, and save on cash. Please, however, do this responsibly: do not pick anything you don’t recognise as it could very well be poisonous, and choose what and where you forage carefully. Picking at random is likely to endanger fragile ecosystems, or delicate crops so research beforehand.