We wander around supermarkets, filling our baskets with imported fresh fruit and vegetable, available regardless of season or region. Want tomatoes in January or apples in April? It’s easy at Tesco. But this all comes at a cost, and it isn’t just counted in air miles and agro-chemicals. Our reliance on out of season foods is costing us our edible biodiversity and our gastronomic heritage. From Formby Asparagus to Herdwick Sheep, and Grimsby smoked haddock – all are becoming increasingly endangered species. How did this happen? And more importantly: what can we do about it?
The supermarkets are spoon-feeding Britain. Despite a recession-related spending crunch, supermarket’s profits are on the up. According to the food and grocery experts, IGD, UK stores generated a total of £32.4bn in sales from April 2010 to April 2011 – a 4.9 per cent increase on the previous 12 months – outstripping every other sector of the groceries market. But there’s a downside to easy access to cheap food: power is in the hands of the supermarkets rather than the producers.
Supermarkets exclude foods while standardising others. According to Jimmy Doherty, TV farmer and rare breed enthusiast, saddleback pigs are few in numbers simply because consumers are more familiar with the colour of commercial pork. ‘When you got a chop or a joint of meat, if you saw a black hair on it, my mum used to go: “oh, I am not having that one.” It’s all aesthetics and actually insane,’ says Doherty. ‘Because if you saw a white hair, it’s still there but you can’t see it because it’s white. And because of that, these pigs nearly went out and we nearly lost a really important part of our food culture.’
If there is going to be a change, supermarkets need to accept responsibility and Slow Food UK are attempting to ensure they do just that. ‘In order to successfully revive something, it needs to be where most people actually buy their food, and we need to accept that most people buy their food in a supermarket,’ explains Catherine Gazzoli, CEO of Slow Food UK. ‘Supermarkets are here to stay, and it’s the responsibility of Slow Food to encourage and demand that supermarkets look to issues of sustainability.’ Of course, the current state of affairs isn’t entirely down to supermarkets - consumers need to act too. ‘How you spend your pound greatly dictates what the supermarkets do,’ adds Doherty. ‘Consumers need to take a step back from pacing the aisles of supermarkets and track down the forgotten foods. Availability today is really easy because everyone has got a computer – you can shop online, that’s not a problem. And so many different farm shops send mail order now.’
For those with less to spend however, commercial breeds tend to prove more affordable. Rare breeds are, in general, more costly than commercial varieties, particularly where meat is concerned. ‘Your average shopper who is buying sausage to feed the family on a regular basis or a joint of meat will tend to go for the commercial pig production,’ explains Doherty, ‘and you can understand that because it is about putting affordable meat on the plate. I think the rare breeds tend to be more of a treat, more something a bit special.’
Booths Supermarkets is working with Slow Food UK to bring down the price. ‘These foods are forgotten and that is what made them rare,’ says Booths CEO and head buyer Chris Dee. ‘One of our objectives is to help the producer communities to share production knowledge of these foods with each other to enable more of the food to be produced. “Rare” suggest exclusive and expensive – we want to make these foods affordable and available.’ Once the supermarkets and the consumers are in action, is there a place for these breeds in a commercial setting? Ryan Perry, Conservation Assistant at the Rare Breed Survival Trust thinks so. ‘Often rare breeds require less feed input in order to reach slaughter weight, which would be of interest to a commercial producer. Many rare sheep breeds are noted for their mothering ability which when crossed to a more commercial sire they can produce a faster growing lamb, which requires fewer inputs through pregnancy.’
There may come a time when you can use mysupermarket.com to compare the prices of Kentish cobnuts. Or when you can easily buy Lyth Valley Damson flavoured jellies, jams and desserts. But in the meantime, effort needs to be made by consumers and supermarkets alike. We need to seek out these forgotten foods, and put pressure on the supermarkets. These foods are a part of our heritage: they need to be preserved, celebrated and, definitely, enjoyed.
To find out more about Britain’s forgotten foods, see www.slowfood.org.uk
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