The Ethical Foodie - Thought for Food

Tomatoes on the vine - but could you change your shopping habits and only buy tomatoes when they are in season which would mean nine months of the year buying something else?
In his new column for the Ecologist, chef and campaigner TIM MADDAMS tackles the big question - how do we reduce the environmental impact of the food we buy?
Don't buy tomatoes when they are out of their normal growing season - buy something else

I have been asked to share some foodie thoughts with you here, and I am looking forward to it but I am also a little nervous. I have been asked to keep it up beat, and not berate anyone for mis behaving with their food purchasing. I will try to keep the soap box locked away but I know that from time to time I will be exasperated and loose the battle, please bear with me, we have a long way to go together and I am still making the journey myself. It's a different trip for everyone, for all sorts of reasons and often there is no wrong or right, just ideal, and less so. I will begin at the beginning, like some later-day cross dressing leftie wishy washy version of Maria in The sound of is after all, a very good place to start.

I am not an academic. I have been a chef for over 20 years. For a long time I didn't really care about anything to do with my ingredients except freshness and quality. But, I come form a rural background, I have an interest in farming, fishing, foraging and hunting. I became disillusioned by waste and unseasonal cookery whilst working in London restaurants and later as a corporate chef for a Formula One team.

Since then I have changed the way I view food, placing it's provenance, ethics and welfare at the top of the priority list. I have read, researched, got it wrong and got it right. I have worked with others to promote better awareness of issues within food production, both during my time with River Cottage and after. The way ahead is not always clear, but I have found that often, almost always, when you seek out the best, freshest, most local ingredients you will find you are more or less on the right path to making the food you consume both less damaging to the environment and far more tasty.

Someone asked me the other day, a question that I have asked myself a lot but have yet to come up with a complete answer to (I don't think I ever will). That question is one we should all be considering and making an effort to answer. The question in question is one I am certain we will hear asked more and more over the coming years, and by a wider and wider section of society as food prices become more real and less subsidised (and as we export less poverty).

The question itself sounds simple enough, but it isn't really a question, it's a beginning, an introduction to a whole new world, the world of the ethical foodie and it is a tough place to inhabit. It's also a very rewarding one. I will come to the point: the question was "How can I most reduce the environmental impact of the food I buy?" It's a biggie, no doubt about that and there are many different ways to look at it and its myriad facets.

When I say it's the starting point of a journey, I mean it. And not in the whimsical, dreadfully trite media use of the word 'journey'. It's a personal awakening for many and as so often is the case in life, it's a journey most people don't even think about taking until it becomes personal. More and more people are finding their way to less environmentally damaging ways of consuming their food via animal welfare than by a concern for the direct and indirect impact of agriculture and its globalisatio. I don't care. Just so long as we get there. The beginning is the best place to start and that is why I have started here, with THE BIG question.

Don't buy tomatoes when they are out of their normal growing season - buy something else

Once you are on this journey you quickly discover various things. The first is that conflicting arguments, or at least seemingly conflicting arguments, abound. Some of my favourites are the Organic vs Local argument and that leads me to one of my favourite examples. The humble tomato.

Now, if you eat only fresh foods that are in season in your locality then you are one of the lucky few because you really know what a tomato is and how good it tastes. You are unlikely to be sold a shoddy one as you are more likely to be looking for the real thing and will know where to get it. You are also in a brilliant place because you are prepared to go 9 or 10 months of the year without eating any fresh tomatoes. That's quite easy really with so many low cost preserved tomato products out there and worthwhile too, as you then get to only eat the very best fresh tomatoes and you appreciate it far more because its been nine long dark months since you last had a tomato.

However, what most people do - and this is a criticism - is buy more or less the same things they have always bought but just worry more. They opt for organic tomatoes in December. Well, if you must that's a good(ish) way to go but frankly they still wont be really very good and they are likely to have been produced a long way from home and to have undone all their good work in being organic by traveling so far.

Ah ha! I hear you say, "So local is best, well, I have seen these tasty looking British tomatoes in the shops in May so that's better than organic right?" Well, er wrong, sorry. (By his point the conversion is getting pretty awkward and the other person is failing badly to hide the fact that they wish they had never asked).

What you have there is a tomato grown at its extreme northern range, outside of its season in a heated greenhouse. And that's when we get down to the point, there is no good answer, one will be marginally better than another but it's beside the point. If you can help it, simply don't buy tomatoes. Buy something else. Its the same with many, many things....

This is all getting a bit heavy and all I really wanted to do here was to set the scene for a few thoughts I would like to share, some research I would like to do and some ideas I have. I will look into many issues in more depth and I will have more to say, but for now I just wanted to make a start.

I think most of us are still living in much the same way we were 20 years ago (or a worse way even) in terms of food and I am a little fed up of nit picking. Should we all be vegetarian? It would certainly be easier to feed the world if we eat a great deal less meat, but what if we want to eat meat and can produce a little in a low impact way? After all the whole idea of livestock for meat was a way of saving excess food to be consumed later. A pig, for example is essentially a type of ancient refrigerator, keeping meat fresh by keeping it alive.

And so, I hope, the Ethical Foodie stage is set.

I will be sharing a few thoughts on specific issues with you over the coming months. I will do my utmost to be practical and realistic about it. I will deal with the everyday, the low hanging fruit, the easy wins. I will do my best to find the best way for now, and look to changes in the future of our food systems that could herald better things to come.

I intend to start with the average weekly shop. After all, if we can all change a little, that is so much more effective than a few changing a lot.

Who knows, maybe one day there wont be any sodding fresh tomatoes in the shops in December, wont it be nice not to have to worry about which ones to buy?

I will end with a promise for now. I will try to focus not on the "we should" or "shouldn't" and simply focus on the how and why of making food less damaging and more rewarding.

This Author

Tim Maddams is a passionate and creative foodie, unafraid to face the difficult arguments that surround food. Having grown up in rural Wiltshire Tim spent time cooking for various notable chefs in London before a return to the west country saw him take the helm at the river cottage canteen in Axminster, later taking on a key role within the Fish Fight campaign. Tim now works as a private chef, food writer and presenter, based in beautiful east Devon



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