Why food miles aren't always what they seem. Lessons from watercress.

Why food miles aren't always what they seem. Lessons from watercress.

Fresh produce. But where's it from?

There was an article in a newspaper some weeks back selecting some "top drops" from Australia.

As is the way these days, a string of comments is allowed below the article, including one who fervently stated:

I would ask people to consider the environmental implications of buying wines produced in Australia, South America and South Africa. It is simply not necessary.
— The Guardian - comments on Fiona Beckett article

It's, on the surface, a valid point.

But also one that's so wrong on so many counts.

To start with, most pertinently, it's simply not true. That's down to the fact that a large container ship, with hundreds of containers loaded on it has a remarkable effect of averaging out so-called carbon footprints.

In fact, road transport (to the UK) from anywhere in Europe south of the Loire/Champagne/Chablis regions in France will incur a larger carbon footprint than wines shipped in bottle from New Zealand or Australia.

That's because most wine shipped from Europe is by means of far less effective (from a carbon footprint POV) method of transport; namely by truck.

There are a few other positives to buying wine from New Zealand or Australia I'd like to suggest also:

  • the UK royally stuffed both countries when it joined the EU in terms of things like butter, other dairy products, lamb, beef, etc. Now they're producing amazing wines that we enjoy, why the hell not buy them? They're both part of the so-called "Commonwealth" after all?
  • Australian and New Zealand wines are unique, fascinating, and incomparable. So if you want to understand and explore wines from around the world, you need to experience them.
  • Wine is by its nature oblivious to nationalistic sentiment; get over it, enjoy the world of wine and stop being so pathetic.

Ok, so far so good. So where on earth does watercress come into play here?

I popped into a local supermarket the other day. I picked up a packet of watercress (reduced to 15p; bargain), and then hesitated at seeing it was from Spain.

Problem? It was 15p; get a life, I hear you say. Fair point; apart from the fact that the supermarket is half a dozen miles away from some of the most prolific watercress beds in the UK in south Dorset.

So, you get all a little bit huffy, think back to Morrisons (said supermarket) saying only a few weeks back it was going all out on supporting UK-based suppliers for its fresh produce. Then you feel all smug and cocky, but of course, keep the bargain in your basket.

Get home, fire up the laptop and investigate those local watercress producers you were so keen to support.

Down the road there's two: the first is Vitacress, the second is The Watercress Company. So the first, Vitacress, was established in 1953 in Hampshire, but is now part of the RAR group and so wholly Portuguese-owned. Not much difference then buying a packet of watercress in the supermarket from Spain or from a Portuguese-owned farm down the road in Dorset.

But it was the other local company, The Watercress Company, that provided the wake-up call.

They clearly explain that, stupid, down to our weather they simply can't keep harvesting year-round in the UK. So they have farms in Spain and Florida to keep watercress in the UK supermarkets all year round.

So, simply put, that bag of “Spanish” watercress you’ve picked up in the supermarket could well have come from TWC’s Spanish farms. More British than McDonald’s anyway.

As they point out, back in 1880 Dorset farms were shipping watercress to Sheffield. Further away than Spain is from Dorset. So what? And there's the implicit suggestion that that all-year-round work keeps UK workers in jobs. What's not to like about that?

And, dear reader, that's what it's all about really isn't it?

Trade. The desire to have produce of a certain type available as long as possible. Sure, the chains don't help with their little country tags, usually very small (I've often thought a minimum sized country flag would be a good idea) in the corner of the packet.

But as soon as you get all high-and-mighty about watercress; where'd your coffee beans come from? You drink tea; where from? And so it goes on.

Just don't pick wine out as the poor cousin here. From wherever it hails, it's got unique qualities you'll never find anywhere else.

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