Can The Foods We Serve Be Greener?

The rise in food prices around the world as a direct consequence of the war in Ukraine has provided a harsh reminder of just how precarious the supplies of the things we take for granted in our homes and restaurants are.

Wheat and sunflower seeds are two of the prime export crops from Ukraine, but food prices have also been hit by the increase in the cost of oil and gas as sanctions on Russia squeeze global supplies, making fertilizers and the cost of fuel for agricultural equipment more expensive.

All this raises a couple of questions. One is whether the solution is to increase domestic supplies, while the other is whether there are better alternatives to using synthetic fertilizers reliant on fossil fuels anyway, not least as it is a global environmental imperative to phase these out.

Such a notion could be highly attractive: Imagine running a restaurant in which your staff come in, put on their server aprons and spend their shifts dishing up foods that are sustainable in every sense; not only because of supply issues being no problem, but because of the greener way they have been produced.

Among those making an appeal to ensure agricultural production is harmonised with nature is Tony Juniper, the chairman of UK-based conservation body Natural England. In a speech to the Farming for Food and Nature conference in Birmingham on November 28th, he said food production should not be traded off against the recovery of wildlife habitats and promotion of biodiversity.

In the British case, farmers will be paid through the government’s Environmental Land Management Scheme not just to produce food, but to conserve habitats, plant trees and repair areas of soil degradation. A further scheme, called the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, will also seek to achieve these goals.

Speaking in favour of these measures, Mr Juniper said existing good work in this area by farmers must be built on.

He remarked: ”This is about the intelligent use of the land that we have to produce multiple benefits – food for sure, but also carbon capture, flood risk reduction, wildlife recovery and beautiful landscapes.”

The development of more sustainable and eco-friendly food might also be achieved through the use of giant greenhouses that create microclimates in which items normally grown outdoors in hotter countries could be produced locally, maybe within just a few miles of the homes and restaurants where they will end up on plates.

A prime proponent of this view is Sir Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project. His network of vast greenhouses in Cornwall houses a huge array of plants in microclimates and he recently told the London-based Daily Telegraph that a reliance on imports will be replaced by a “muscular localism” within 20 years.

In this scenario, he predicted, people will say: “We want to be able to grow what we need to eat within 30 miles of where we are and we can’.” Moreover, with sufficient renewables, the use of fossil fuels in agriculture to make fertilizers and pesticides will be replaced by a situation in which “you can grow under glass whatever it is you want, wherever you are”.

Some may say that is a pipe dream. But the necessity created by war and environmental issues may be the catalyst for a sustainable agriculture revolution.

December 23, 2022 — Jacob Blakey