The brilliant American writer Wendell Berry once wrote that “eating is an agricultural act”. His point was that since we all eat, we’re all responsible for the state of our agriculture. So if things are sorely amiss in our insane food chain, us munching consumers, as much as producers and the demonised retailers, should shoulder the blame.
The main problem is that we’ve become so hooked on cheap food that we ignore the hidden costs: the poisoning of our land by pesticides; the consequent collapse of bee colonies, thus declining rates of pollination; the destruction of ancient woodlands and hedgerows; the mass slaughter of cattle because of ludicrous feeding practices that led to BSE – and, lest we forget, 176 people have died in the UK of the resultant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. And the drugs metaphor is entirely appropriate since, like a dodgy dealer, many people have been cutting beef with horse to make it go further.
It’s easy to make supermarkets, and Tesco in particular, the pantomime villains in all this. That, after all, is why an Armando Iannucci sketch once pretended Tesco had invaded Denmark, because it really does destroy local communities. In the town near where I farm in Somerset, there’s no butcher, greengrocer or fishmonger thanks to the cathedral-like Tesco in the ghastly retail park. But in a way, supermarkets are only giving us what we want, and some of us need: food that’s cheap as chips. Why else would every supermarket advert be about price?
With independent retailers decimated, small-scale producers don’t know where to place their crops. At this time of year you regularly see someone walking from door to door with bulging bags of courgettes, chard or plums. They simply don’t know what to do with them all. The advent of farmers markets helps a bit, but there’s still no cheap, accessible marketplace for smallholders.
Us farmers, too, need to acknowledge our faults. Far too many of us have forgotten that, in the words of Berry, farming “is a culture at the same time that it is an economy”. Farming’s a way of life in which money is almost irrelevant. We’re constantly bartering this for that, offering a piglet or firewood in return for a favour or two. It connects us to our local community in a deep way that pre-dates dosh. The very word “culture” derives from tilling the soil. Since the beginning of time, a galaxy of virtues has been associated with agrarianism: from husbandry to humility (being close to the earth). But we no longer care about such dreamy things. Screw the culture, they say, it’s the economy that counts: turn farming into an industry, make it efficient and mechanised.
The result is that where farming used to be communal, an activity that united the whole village at key times in the calendar, it’s now a sad and isolated profession. The typical farmer is likely to be a lonely, often overweight tractor-driver who barely touches the soil. He or she might as well be an HGV driver. If farming has one of the highest suicide rates of all careers, it’s because of a combination of soul-destroying solitude and frightening debts racked up through idolising costly machinery.
The other problem is that globalisation, rock-star chefs and endless foodie TV have given us a taste for exotic foodstuffs: our palates are suddenly so sophisticated that we want pomegranates and figs and za’atar and everything else. The countries that supply such delicacies don’t, of course, care much for our spuds and parsnips. The result is that we’re importing ever more food.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cosmopolitan cuisine. But we’ve so lost touch with our culinary roots that we no longer know how to source food that’s staring us in the face. For some reason, this year has been spectacular for elderflowers. Its creamy flowers have been everywhere this summer, even in towns and cities, so we made gallons of cordial: the pearly stuff, but also pink cordial from “black lace”. Years ago I used to meet dozens of people when picking elderflowers, but this year I didn’t meet one person. It’s the same when we go blackberrying in early autumn. The reason, I guess, is that most of us are now too busy, or lazy, or perhaps just too ignorant. It’s so much easier to go to Tesco.
Tobias Jones is the warden of Windsor Hill Wood, a woodland refuge for people in a period of crisis.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010