What is the impact of how we consume food in Scotland?

By Priscilla Gordon-Duff |

The list of local food that I consume is very short: eggs, vegetables, salad crops and fruit. They all come from a Walled Garden. And only the eggs are available all year round.

Like most people in Scotland, the food that I consume is mostly bought in Tesco’s supermarket, my nearest supermarket, in the once-upon-a-time market town of Keith. Occasionally they have tried Farmers’ Markets in Keith. They have not proved successful.

This local food that I consume travels a few hundred metres from the Garden to my kitchen. But of course most of the food I eat involves a car journey of 12 miles to Keith and back to buy food that has travelled many hundreds if not thousands of miles. I did try to resist, honestly, but I gave in. In June in Ardtornish, I learned just how my consumption supports productions systems that are very different to those in the Walled Garden.

From the Walled Garden I consume what is available when it is in season - in Tesco I have choice. At least I thought I had choice, until I listened to one of the speakers, who told me how main-stream production is about profit, which is achieved by producing more, and encouraging us to buy more. The availability is not a result of the natural conditions of soil and climate but of decisions made by the retailer. Biodiversity has declined as agricultural land use has simplified and intensification of production increased. The emphasis, as with industrial food production is on quantity and profit. For the majority of consumers the element of choice is price and within that narrow, single issue approach, we buy what we are given.

Well, I thought, at least it is efficient. There are only so many ways that one can serve lettuce when it is in glut in the Walled Garden, and it doesn’t freeze well!  But no, at Ardtornish I learned about the waste involved in large scale production: the constant innovation to add value to products, the vast majority of which fail within 6 months, the rejection of non perfect specimens, and of course the ubiquitous sell-by dates. The innovation is necessary to keep encouraging us to buy more, try more. It’s all about more. In the Walled Garden, as on allotments, there is very little waste... it is called compost, and goes back into the soil to produce more plants (and fewer lettuces) next year.

Meanwhile the health messages are mostly about less...except of course for fruit and vegetables...and guess what? They are the more expensive items that don’t behave so efficiently when it comes to storage and stock control... which adds to the expense.

Beacons of hope, and daunting in their commitment, were the producer/retailers of the ice cream, ‘Cream o’ Galloway’.  There were no representatives from the large scale production systems or retailers so I cannot say if they would have been passionate and energetic. I suspect that the long supply chains that typify such systems require so much regulation and standardisation to ensure food safety that all passion could be easily spent. Paradoxically small scale producers appear to have limited influence on policy whilst delivering across a wider agenda including health and biodiversity.

If how we produce food demonstrates how we value and connect people and land, and people with each other, we perhaps need to think again about the effect of efficiency. We learned that school children in Huntly found it hard to think of anything to draw when given the topic of local food. Huntly is surrounded by productive agricultural land. Does efficiency replace meaning and a sense of connection and belonging? Does it take the culture out of agriculture?

At the end of the weekend I made a poster of bullet points of the key messages that I had heard in relation to production systems. To my list, someone had added: ‘There’s a perfect storm coming. Get ready’.

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