It’s not easy to do the right thing these days, especially on the food front. Not so long ago, we were happy to load up our trolleys with whatever the supermarkets pushed at us, the more battery reared, industrially grown, air-freighted and genetically modified the better. How carefree that seems now, when a trip to the shops can present enough ethical dilemmas to tax King Solomon. Animal welfare, pesticides, antibiotics, food miles, carbon emissions… there are so many issues to be considered that it can leave the conscientious shopper’s head in a spin.
Do you choose a tomato grown in a heated greenhouse here over one grown in the open air in Spain? Better an English apple kept for six months in refrigerated storage or a New Zealand import shipped by sea? Is an organic leg of lamb from a farm 50 miles away, better than a regular one from the local farm shop?
Problems, problems. And now we have another level of complexity to deal with. The latest buzz phrase is “food print”, the amount of land needed to supply one person’s nutritional needs for a year. With the world population growing by an estimated half a billion every decade, and a concomitant loss of agricultural land to housing and development, it’s not hard to understand why this has become the hot topic de nos jours.
The term was coined by researchers at Cornell University in New York state, who found that a person who followed a low-fat vegetarian diet would need less than half an acre per year to produce their food. A high-fat diet with a lot of meat, on the other hand, needed 2.1 acres. They concluded, however, that the most efficient diet was one that married the two, as raising livestock made productive use of less fertile ground unsuitable for growing crops.
Clearly food prints differ from area to area, depending not just on how fertile the land is, but also on the eating habits of the inhabitants. Equally clearly, those who demand less intensive farming techniques – free range, organic, etc – use up more land proportionately than those eating more mass-produced food.
Next year two studies sponsored by the Rural Economy and Land Use programme will report on just such issues in this country. Professor Bruce Traill, at Reading University, has been looking at the potential effects on our landscape if we were all to meet governmental targets by eating five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day, while Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones of the University of Wales has been looking at the pros and cons of eating locally produced fruit and veg against those produced abroad.
Could it turn out that by doing the right thing we’ve been doing the wrong thing all along? Whatever the outcome, food prints are here to stay.
For the best local produce in your area visit the Times Real Food Directory