Why are we importing food from far away? Joanna discusses current thinking behind supermarket shopping and the need to appreciate British seasonal produce.
The UK is over-reliant on external imports
The craziness of supermarket fruit and vegetable sourcing stopped me in my tracks when I picked up a bag of sugar snap peas and noticed that they came from China. This was back in June, when British gardens and allotments produce an abundance of this sweet, summery crop. With all its fine words about supporting British farmers, I had dared to hope that the chain in question would be stocking UK-grown sugar snaps, but I should have known better.
Thanks to the global sourcing of all the big retailers, the UK is now the largest produce importer in Europe. We grow only 58% of the vegetables we eat, and just 11% of the fruit, which is bad news for our economy. This reliance on faraway places also makes us worryingly vulnerable on the food security front.
Current attitudes and policy regarding British produce
Inside many British people, there’s a resigned script that says Britain simply can’t grow enough to feed us all, not unless we want to live on turnips and cabbage. Sure, unless we imported fruit and vegetables we wouldn’t have crops that hugely enhance our food choice. Imagine life without lemons, avocados, nectarines, a steady supply of bananas! But there’s a much longer list of vegetables and fruits that we can grow commercially.
If you buy from a greengrocer, veg box scheme or farm shop, you’ll soon learn what’s in season in this country when. In supermarkets though, the seasons are largely invisible; country of origin is lost in the small print. How come?
Supermarket chains in the UK operate a stocking policy, which I call ‘permanent global summertime’. They aim to stock every horticultural product on the planet, 365 days of the year. No wonder many Britons struggle with the concept of seasonal eating: supermarket produce shelves look the same in July as they do in January. Spring, summer, autumn and winter come and go but the shelf space allotted to particular fruits and vegetables barely changes.
Ironically, the vote to leave the EU could mean that more of our fruit and vegetables come from even further afield, not closer to home. 38% of UK retailers say that they expect to source more lower cost produce from Africa, and less from higher cost European countries.
What are the possible solutions?
My challenge to supermarkets is to rip up their store plans and present their UK-grown fruit and vegetables all together in one aisle so that people can instantly appreciate what’s UK-grown and seasonal. Chains that didn’t do their bit to showcase British produce would have embarrassing questions to answer.
At present, if you don’t think to check country of origin, you’re very likely to get Peruvian asparagus when the English crop is in season, or unwittingly buy Israeli potatoes when UK growers have lots of lovely spuds to sell.
I’m not arguing for a chauvinistic ‘buy only British’ approach. We’ll always want and need some produce from further afield. But it seems sad to me that supermarket shoppers don’t see, or fully appreciate, the varied harvest we have in these aisles.