We have become complacent.
The seemingly limitless process of replenishing supermarket shelves has detached us from the precarious reality of how that replenishment is actually achieved.
The UK’s dependence on long, complex food chains has grown as we have become less and less self-sufficient. Today we produce only 60% of the food we consume. For the rest, we rely on imports, of which 79% come from the European Union.
In that context, Brexit is a huge challenge. When you factor in other, more fundamental challenges such as climate change, soil erosion and a worldwide collapse in the number of bees and other pollinating insects, you can begin to understand how precarious our food security really is, and why it has been said that citizens of the UK are just five meals away from going hungry at any one time.
In fact, Britain has not been self-sufficient for centuries, and the problem has been getting steadily worse. In the not too distant past we could rely upon plundering occupied colonies for our food. In more recent times we have depended upon trade with countries that produce more food than they need.
Successive British governments have sought to improve the UK’s level of self-sufficiency by attempting to boost agricultural production, but this has been done by throwing artificial fertilizers and pesticides at the problem. The long term damage this has caused has left our fragile ecosystems at breaking point.
If the UK is to have any chance of living within its food producing means then what is needed is a revolution in our attitude to food – in the way we grow it, value it and consume it.
At the heart of the necessary changes must be the preservation and nurturing of our most precious resource – the soil. To achieve this, we need a government that will encourage and subsidise sustainable farming practices.
The scandal of food waste must also be addressed through improved consumer education and a loosening of the supermarkets’ vice-like grip over food suppliers, which often leads to food being wasted before it even leaves the farm because it is the wrong shape, size or colour.
And we must change our diet. Meat eating should become as infrequent as it was just a few generations back. The vegetable protein currently used so wastefully in meat production should become part of our normal diets.
Greater investment in sustainable local food production would mean we could cut back on imports and reduce the economic and environmental cost of food transportation. A major programme of funding for sustainable farming would put high quality produce and the preservation of natural diversity at the heart of our food system, leading to a more secure farming sector and to a healthier population.
That has to be a future worth striving for.
If, like me, you grow some of your own vegetables then the chances are that you will soon find yourself with an abundance of courgettes.
To help tackle that inevitable glut I offer this simple recipe, combining courgettes with a little red onion and spices to create some rather tasty pakoras. Eat them on their own or as an accompaniment to an Indian meal.
courgette and red onion pakora
300 g courgettes
1 red onion, thinly sliced
120 g gram (chickpea) flour
50 g rice flour
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan
1 red chilli, seeds in, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 cm piece ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp baking powder
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
groundnut oil, for deep frying
1. Grate the courgette and place in a colander over a sink. Sprinkle over the sea salt. Leave for 30 minutes, then squeeze out the excess moisture with a clean tea towel and place in a clean mixing bowl.
2. Using a food processor or pestle and mortar, combine the chilli, garlic and ginger into a paste. Add to the courgette in the mixing bowl, along with the red onion, turmeric, toasted cumin seeds. Mix in the baking powder, gram flour and rice flour, followed by the chopped coriander. If necessary, add a tablespoon of fresh water to help combine the ingredients. Once the combined, take small portions of the mixture, weighing around 35 grams each and form into balls with your hand. Place the balls on a clean board or baking tray. You should end up with around 16 balls.
3. Pour the groundnut oil into a deep pan to a depth of around 5 cm and place over a high heat. When the oil is hot, carefully add a few of the courgette pakora to the pan. . You will need to cook them in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan and to avoid lowering the oil temperature too drastically. Turn the pakora in the pan to ensure they are evenly browned. They should take around 3-4 minutes to cook.
4. Serve with a simple salad and raita or chutney.