Ugly Veggies and Seasonal Eating

The Parsnip Baby
Along with environmental impacts on food production; organic verses intensive farming techniques and packaging for example, I am also very conscious of food miles and food waste.  I believe that seasonality is the key to mitigating many of these issues.  So, please understand that when I describe our veg boxes as fresh, local and seasonal this is not marketing speak.  

I work with a very committed and hard working farmer who believes in organic production and sustainable agriculture systems whole heartedly.  He leases his land in Sawbridgeworth and Stanstead Abbotts, which he has had organically certified, or is in conversion.  He lives and grows on the land and sells his produce to an organic wholesaler in Cambridge, COFCO.  Where he uses the produce from his and other organic farms, mostly in Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Kent and Suffolk, for our veg boxes.  COFCO do also import organic produce, mostly crops that do not grow in the UK climate, ie lemons, ginger and tumeric.  A lot of the fruit in the boxes right now is from overseas.  Because we do not have fruit in season in the UK in April.

We are entering what used to be called the hungry gap. (A great description on the Riverford blog).  Our latitude and temperate climate puts us in this position in April, May & Early June.  It is when we are coming to the end of our winter stored veg, the over wintering crops are starting to bolt as the weather warms up, making them woody and inedible, and new spring crops are not yet ready to harvest.  

We now import produce to cover this period in the UK, and we also grow things under cover - but this can have real negative impacts on the environment.  (There is a great local exception to this; Guy & Wright Tomato Farm )  I'm not suggesting that this should change, I don't want people to starve.  But we are also, at times, unnecessarily picky about what our fruit and veg looks like and how it arrives with us, and this creates waste.  I'd suggest if we were a bit more tolerant, so that producers did not throw away these blemished or misshapen veg, we might need to import less.  Our veg boxes are therefore tolerant of "ugly veg".  It's no less fresh than the same washed British produce you buy in the supermarket, or even some of the imported "fresh" veg that may have taken weeks to get here from the other side of the world.

My bedtime reading at the moment is Mike Berners-Lee's How Bad are Bananas? - The Carbon Footprint of Everything (Bananas - not quite as bad as you might imagine actually, which is great cos I love bananas!)  A carrot's carbon footprint is about 2g of C02e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per calorie, carrots and other root veg are some of the most climate friendly foods available - and healthy too.  If you buy 1 kg of carrots you are looking at; 
0.25kg CO2e, local in season veg
0.3kg Co2e, on average
1kg co2e shipped baby carrots

I get one of our regular organic veg boxes most weeks.   Right now they are full of root vegetables.  These have been lifted (taken out of the soil) before Christmas and stored.  Studies comparing conventionally grown versus organic carrots show evidence for greater nutrient richness.  Levels or carotenoids, phenols and vitamin c were compared, with greater amounts observed in all three categories in the organic carrots.

organic veg box

If you spotted those plastic bags in the picture this is because of my issues around food waste.  The soft leaves of salad crops like rocket, winter purslane and spinach do not tolerate even the relatively short distances that they are transported to us.  The amount of food waste is not only shocking in itself, but you have to take into account the energy the organic farmer has put into growing the crop, water use and even the petrol/diesel used by farm machinery.  There is sometimes a genuine need for plastic bags and these ones can and should be reused. (Not only that, there is some debate on the carbon foot print of paper v. plastic bags.)

Anyway, back to our root veg:  Carrots and potatoes after harvest are stored still covered in mud in the dark.  You will not find UK grown carrots and potatoes in the ground at this time of year.  They are lifted because they are not frost resistant.  Our ancestors, or those of  us with veg gardens or allotments, will be eating the last of these stored winter potatoes now.   This is almost as fresh as your British Potatoes will be in April.  Jersey Royal potatoes, which now have a protected designated of origin, are the UK exception.  Available from around now, they are usually the first "fresh" new potatoes to come into the shops in the UK.  Possible only because of Jersey's more southern latitude and their development of the International kidney potato.

So, if you find blemishes in your veg box potatoes, cut them out, you only need to cut a small area around the blemish. You only need to be concerned if the skin is green. This is chlorophyll pigmentation, not in itself harmful but a sign that there is the toxin solaine in your spud. That said, toxic levels of solanine are 100th of an ounce for a 200 lb person, which translates to that person eating 20 lbs. of whole potatoes in a day! I mention whole potatoes, as the green skin on a potato is the area with the highest concentration of solanine and thus, the most toxic.

willow fencing garden

I'm getting my veg patches ready for a new year of growing and I also hope to have some herb and veg seedlings available to buy in LHStores.  I'd really recommend you try growing your own and enjoying not only the process of gardening but also preparing and eating your own produce.

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