Food from distant shores

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A few weeks ago was a milestone for the VegVan when we bought in our first organic produce from abroad. It was a week of snow and freezing temperatures and local producers couldn’t harvest their green veg as usual. Much of the produce was stuck underneath mesh used to protect it from bird attack (there are some hungry pigeons out there, we know only too well!), which when weighed down by snow becomes unmovable, but many greens also turn to mush when harvested at zero degrees. Ever since November our back-up for lack of local availability has been to source UK organic produce from our friendly wholesale suppliers next to Western International market on the edge of London, but even this turned up a blank as the temperatures had affected farmers across the country.

One response to this would be to take the VegVan out onto the streets with what we could salvage locally, and make a talking point of the weather while apologising for the shelves full of mud-covered root veg, but in the end we decided to spread our net further, and ended up with some extremely tasty French spinach, Dutch endive and Spanish pointed sweetheart cabbages. We figured that it was our responsibility not only to provide a marketplace for local food in Oxford but also to ensure that the VegVan’s customers always have access to a good range of produce, whatever the weather or time of year. After all, if you have to make a trip to Tesco straight after coming to the van then we’re not providing as useful a service as we could, and neither are we going to keep the custom we need to make the VegVan project a sustainable feature of the landscape in Oxford.

But it’s a tricky balance to strike, particularly when it comes to deciding what represents a wide enough range of produce to carry! For some people, bananas are a year-round staple almost to the same degree as potatoes. Many people wouldn’t dream of keeping their fridge without a lemon or a lime in the door, and people have walked off in a huff when we can’t provide avocados. Part of our remit is to provide seasonal produce to Oxford, bringing bring back a connection with the natural cycles that are deeply part of agriculture and our culture, but we also need to provide a useful service. So this week, when our supply of UK apples ran out and we were left fruitless apart from a last few, now HUGELY expensive english pears, we decided to take the next step and buy in fruit from organic producers in mainland Europe. We have Jonagold apples from the Netherlands, Royal Gala from Italy and Blood Oranges from Greece.

We’d love to know how you think our sourcing policy should develop over the next few months. Should we stock no imported fruit at all? Or should we not worry about where it comes from, as long as its organic? It seems that lots of people have opinions on these things. Personally, I’m very happy buying and eating imported fruit when there is nothing else available. I think international trade in food is a great thing – it enriches our culture, brings colour and variety to our tables, and it is an important source of revenue for other countries and peoples with a rich agricultural tradition.

From an environmental point of view, food transport makes up only a small part of the overall footprint of food. That’s not to say that local provenance doesn’t matter – of course there are a whole load of other reasons for buying local, and we wouldn’t have set up Cultivate if we didn’t believe that strongly… but that’s a topic for another blog post. But it’s important to remember that food miles are not a simple guide to environmental sustainability – inefficiently transported local produce may incur a higher transportation footprint than food transported from the north of the UK in a fully-loaded supermarket wagon, and in turn food transported from Holland might incur a yet smaller footprint. Holland is closer to Oxford than Lancashire!


But the data on food-related greenhouse gas emissions show that focusing on transportation in its own right is something of a red herring. As long as you’re not trucking produce over land for days or air-freighting tomatoes, the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is how food is grown, not how its transported. So while we’ve tried to buy our imported fruit this week from as close as possible in mainland Europe, and we don’t have any exotic cross-continental fruits, we did want to make sure that the fruit is seasonal where it’s grown, meaning it hasn’t been forced in energy-intensive heated greenhouses, and that it’s organic, which is what we believe and what members have asked for, but also cuts out a significant portion of carbon footprint.

So while we await the arrival of rhubarb, berries and summer fruits from our local fields, I for one am quite looking forward to enjoying some produce from our warmer neighbours. But let us know what you want to see, and why. We run Cultivate on behalf of its members and the community, and we’re still working out policies for the future as this is our first year – we’ll take your opinions into account as we decide how to proceed over the next few months. Are you outraged?! Don’t care? Think it’s a thorny food sourcing conundrum…? Email us, call us or talk to us on the van. Sourcing will also be one of the topics discussed at next month’s members forum, so come along and join in the discussion there as well.