Supermarkets are the grand monoliths of convenience. Where else can you buy a kilo of potatoes for £4 and cotton buds all in the same place? The likes of Waitrose, Lidl and all the others in-between have changed our perception of food.
We’ve become desensitised to where our food comes from, how it’s supposed to taste and what it really looks like. Before the 1950’s when supermarkets came into being, there was only grocers for our fresh produce when it was clear that they came from nature, be it the earth or trees, and were a variety of shapes and sizes like all natural phenomena. But as an industry, supermarkets did what only commercialised business could do; industrialise the process. Their mass-production attitudes to nature mean that only produce of the right size, shape and colour is eligible in their stores, resulting in a third of utterly edible food going to landfill because they don’t pass the beauty test. This means a third of farmers produce that they cultivate for a whole season go straight to the bin because they don’t match up to supermarkets standards. The brilliance of marketing and clever labels disguise the truth of what we’re putting into our kitchens and our bodies. Global transport and intensive indoor farming practices have made seasonal produce irrelevant despite shorter growing periods, while gluten sensitivity is increasing because of genetic modification in wheat (and not just for the hype). Salads that are British grown are flown out of the country, over to developing nations to be washed, prepared and packaged in plastic, to be flown back to us, still being able to brandish the little red tractor on their packets.
Public perception of food is changing. As wages stay stagnant and distrust for big brands grow, with discussions about pesticides, GMOs, the organic debate, meat farming and the idea of insects as our next food group becoming more common, we are more willing than ever to seek alternatives to our weekly shop. And with disposable income dropping due to more expensive necessities like phones and TV’s, we’re looking more into the basics where we can cut back. And with more people than ever working from home, there’s more time for people to think outside of the box.
Separate to what ‘The Good Life’ and Alan Titchmarsh attempted to rouse us with, the gardening scene is growing. What was once reserved for viewers of Ground Force has now been translated for the burgeoning community seeking advice online and in gardening and allotment groups that are now enjoying a member base below the age of seventy. The cultural shift towards shades of green has been theorised to many societal phenomenas, from a growing rejection of the relentless pace of the digital world pushing us towards the natural and tangible, to the ever-increasing expense of outdoor hobbies. Whatever the cause, a step towards the outdoors is not only beneficial to our mental and physical health, but also the world around us.
It needn’t be the dramatic ripping up of turf from the front and back lawns. Simply starting with a ready to go tomato plant in a bag or hanging basket and experiencing not only the pride of growing something yourself and not having to go to the supermarket to buy lacklustre cherry tomatoes, but tasting the difference between the two. Branch out into runner beans and courgettes in pots. Strawberries and potatoes grow just as well in tubs as they do on the land, and are more accessible. In no time you’ll have a small-production system enough for a vegetable stew and crumble and will have experienced the benefits of going off-supply. By becoming the sowers, tenders, harvesters and eaters of our own produce, we can begin to recognise the true extent of the unique systems that go into growing what goes on our plates.
When what should have been a glut of potatoes like the previous year is little more than a bucketful, the importance of infusing the soil with a variety of nutrients through rotational crop planting becomes apparent. Soon, the expense and smell of more and more fertilisers and ph-balance regulators will creep up, and you will begin to question why mass harvest farmers for supermarkets don’t operate a rotational system. The answer becomes clear when supermarkets pressure farmers into planting a single type of crop year on year to maintain their supply chains. When your lettuces are ravaged by slugs and snails, the importance of thriving biodiversity of insects = food, and birds = predators, will make you more acutely aware of how vital prosperous natural communities are. Yet the industrialisation of commercial agriculture continues to destroy bird habitats and replace it instead with pesticides. But when your raspberries fail to fruit because there were no bees or butterflies to pollinate the flowers, the importance of such pollinators that are killed off by pesticides becomes apparent. And when after harvest all your hard work is paid off, and the cucumber you spent months tending goes soggy and lacklustre in the fridge, you will understand just how much goes to waste in terms of labour and time when you let food go off.
Gardening and growing your own not only breaks the cycle of dependency on massive hedge-funded corporations but endows you with a better understanding of just how crucial all of these seemingly unrelated scenarios are. From a lack of biodiversity to the disappearance of the bees, the loss of arable land, food waste, to the build-up of food and drink packaging along global shores. Even to droughts (hosepipe bans) and warmer temperatures that sabotage neatly planned sowing, growing and harvesting seasons. These buzzwords and catch-phrases that are cropping up so often in the news that seem so distant and unconnected suddenly, and personally, become part of the much bigger picture of a need for more sustainable agricultural practices.
Sustainability is not about shacking up in wattle and daub huts and carving our own spoons while we shout obscenities at ‘the man’. But it is about taking control of what we bring into our homes, what we eat, and the practices we endorse by where we spend our money. It’s time to challenge our way of buying and eating and regain authority of our kitchens and wallets. A cucumber need never have its little plastic jacket, and you shouldn’t have to pay 89p for one stem of broccoli when that could grow you eight. Farmers shouldn’t be penalised for growing produce in the way nature provides, and our demand for food shouldn’t reek unstoppable consequences on the natural world. It’s time we grew our own.