Agronomist Richard Hackett wrote a much commented-upon opinion piece in The Irish Independent before Christmas about the level of food imports coming in to this country. The data on which he based his article came from the CSO. It got more attention than normal CSO data because of Brexit, as we turn our thoughts to what that particular train wreck might mean for our food security. We are, after all, an island nation, and hugely dependent on another island nation to our east as a stepping stone to and from continental Europe.
What is alarming about the figures is what they tell us about the profile of our imports. It’s no longer just about ‘exotic’ fruit and veg we can’t grow well commercially in Ireland. We are now hugely reliant on imports of food that we can grow perfectly well here. In 2017 for example, we imported 7kg carrots, 10kg onions and 13kg of apples for every person in the country. We also imported staggering quantities of vegetables that were once considered our national vegetables - 72,000 tonnes of potatoes and 23,000 tonnes of cabbage in one year.
A borderless EU has made it almost impossible for Irish growers to compete with specialist growers on the continent (mainly in Spain and Holland). As Hackett points out, this is because labour costs (which are the highest component of overall costs) are cheaper there. What his article misses perhaps is the role that supermarkets and consumers (yes, we have to take responsibility too) have played in driving down the cost of vegetables to unsustainable levels. In the Christmas just passed we once again saw supermarkets doing aggressive (39 cent per kilo!) price promotions on the Christmas dinner staple veg to entice you in. Year on year, these price promotions (and our decision to take advantage of them) are putting indigenous veg growers out of business.
If the government is serious about our food security as a nation, it should protect growers from these below cost sales promotions. In the process they would also be protecting Irish jobs, reducing our transport carbon emissions and ensuring we have access to more truly fresh, seasonal, local food. Of course you won’t be surprised to hear that I think growing some food yourself is part of the solution. I’m not naïve enough to think that home-grown food will replace the commercial horticulture industry. Very few of us are ever likely to grow all of our own food or get even close. But when we grow some food ourselves, we learn about how food grows. We learn about seasonality and taste and freshness. Above all we learn to value veg and the people that grow them. Ultimately that makes us more informed consumers when we go to buy the veg we haven’t grown ourselves.
The Basics – Clearing Polytunnels
Lured by the fine weather last weekend, I emerged from my self-imposed winter hibernation and got some work done in the garden. I can’t help feeling a little worried by how strangely nature is behaving at the moment. I read this week that butterflies, which don’t generally survive the winter have been spotted in Dublin. In my own garden, the grass is growing (I refuse to mow grass in January..) and as a result our hen’s eggs have turned the kind of vibrant yellow they normally turn later in the spring when they access new season grass. In the veg patch I’ve noticed potato plants growing from un-harvested tubers from last year – it would typically be far too cold for spuds to grow until March or April. There’s always the risk of course that a cold snap will come along (remember the snow last March..), and give us a proper winter. How will nature react then?
The brother-in-law came to visit last weekend and is always game for some garden work. So, leaving my climate change angst behind me in the house, we got out and cleared up the two polytunnels. In the big tunnel, we cleared the tomato plants – a job that should have been done in November really. We broke up the plants and put them on the compost heap. Though I was tempted to take up the mypex cover from the soil to allow the soil to breathe a bit, I decided to leave it there on the basis that it will keep weeds at bay. I will have to lift it anyway to put a covering of compost and other nutrients (seaweed and poultry manure pellets) but I think that can wait until later in the spring. This year’s tomato plants won’t be planted out until May or so.
The smaller polytunnel is dedicated to leaves and has been more or less full all winter with kale, chard, perpetual spinach and oriental greens. I also have some herbs growing in there – a giant, somewhat straggly lemon verbena plant, lots of parsley and thyme. Not being a fan of eating salad in the winter, I haven’t bothered much with the oriental leaves to be honest, but we’ve been harvesting the kale, chard and spinach semi-regularly. I like some wilted chard or spinach under my poached egg in the morning, thank you very much. Thanks to the fine weather, the chard in particular is thriving. We did a good clean up in the tunnel, clearing out the weeds from in between plants and in the paths, and any bolted salads. After a lazy December, it felt like re-claiming the veg patch again.