GIY Weekly Column November 18th 2017 Food Miles

Don't follow Mick around a supermarket, and other top tips....

For Science Week, we had schools visiting us at GROW HQ and we did a range of food related activities with them.  One of my favourite is our Food Miles exercise where we take five vegetables that are ‘in season’ and available at HQ currently, and then show them an imported equivalent from the supermarket.  We lay the two veg (the HQ-grown one and the supermarket equivalent) side by side on a table and get the children to guess how far the veg have travelled (clue: it’s always more than you think).  It’s a fantastic way to get children thinking about where their food comes from and the health and environmental impact of the choices they will make as consumers.

So here’s the thing.  I have no issue with anyone buying imported food when it’s something we can’t grow or produce here in Ireland.  And, I have no issue with supermarkets selling it.  Yes, if you were to follow me around the supermarket (don’t do that, it’s creepy), you would certainly find many an imported item in the trolley – bananas, the odd pineapple or satsuma, certainly some coffee and the like.  At certain times of the year you might even find things that grow in Ireland but which are (a) out of season and (b) something I just can’t do without.

Where it gets completely nonsensical is when it’s food that we can grow here in Ireland, and which is currently in-season.  I’ve spoken here before about the strawberries from Israel which I’ve spotted in a supermarket during strawberry season.  It’s a great example of a completely needless import that’s bad for our planet (all the energy required to get it here), bad for Irish growers and their livelihoods and most likely bad for our wellbeing too (because the food is not as nutritious having travelled all that way).  That’s before you get to the unnecessary packaging required to transport it.

For the record, the veg we used for the Science Week food miles exercise were onions (from Holland, 779 km), salads (three different salad leaves from three different countries in ONE ‘superfood’ salad bag – UK, France and Spain, for a total of 2,973km), squash (from Portugal, 1,742km), garlic (from China, 5160km) and finally, wait for it, it’s a classic: carrots, yes carrots (from South Africa, 9,083km).  That’s a collective journey of a whopping 20,000 kilometers for five very standard, very staple vegetables, all of which are available from Irish growers right now.

This being food there are always exceptions, outliers and other things to consider. What’s better – an imported organic carrot or a non-organic carrot from down the road?  What about a consumer in Donegal considering two options – one from the Isle of Man and the other from Kerry, with the former being closer to Donegal than the latter? The point is, that these consumer decisions we make are important and have consequences – for our health and the health of our planet - and we should deliberate and take our time.  As consumers, we have tremendous power in our wallets – buy local and seasonal, or better still, grow it yourself.

Watch a short video about the food miles exercise here: 

The Basics - Clear Tomato Plants

Many GIYers I've spoken to this year have had tomatoes and pepper plants in the polytunnel/greenhouse harvesting right up to the end of November.  It's probably time to clear these plants now as heavy night frosts and cold weather set in.  Remove all fallen leaves and fruit as to leave these on the ground will encourage disease.  Lay out any un-ripened fruit on a sunny windowsill.  Tomatoes are hungry plants and the soil will need a good feed now. Put down a good layer of compost or well-rotted manure in to the bed where your tomato plants grew this year.