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Let them eat turnips Barrie's Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Let them eat turnips

I winced when I heard the BBC’s business correspondent being asked about the current shortages of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. “Is it anything to do with Brexit?” asked the news presenter.

“It’s all to do with the weather, nothing to do with Brexit”, came the earnest reply. I knew then that we were hearing the BBC/Tory Government’s official line, which has nothing to do with facts or accuracy of information. I knew it was time to change channels, which is becoming increasingly frequent nowadays. After all, no one can accuse the BBC of not being government biased, can they?

Listening to more accurate reporting from those who know and have bothered to check the facts, included an interview with Sainsbury’s chairman who made it quite clear that Brexit is mainly to blame for the current situation. Indeed, my amateurish fact checking with friends living in Spain and elsewhere in Europe confirm that their fruit and vegetable shelves are full; there is no shortage in their supermarkets.

Despite what is currently being reported in the right-wing tabloids and the BBC, the reason for the current shortage of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, is more to do with Brexit than weather conditions, whatever our government would like the British public to believe. At this point, the government’s environment minister, Therese Coffey, was wheeled out to address the issue. In a somewhat patronising response, she told MPs that British consumers should “cherish” home grown produce and that the problem is that people now want tomatoes and lettuces all the year round when they should be eating turnips.

Ms Coffey’s remarks were quickly parodied by opposition MPs as “Let them eat turnips”, which was a reference to the 18th century French Queen, Marie Antoinette, who responded to the bread shortage with the comment “Let them eat cake”.

Therese does have a point of course, and her clumsy remarks hid the obvious fact that we import far more food than we grow ourselves, often from countries far away, which have troubling environmental implications. We no longer eat to a seasonal timetable, but whatever we fancy, whenever we fancy it. In my own case, I eat a bowl of mixed fruit every morning for breakfast. I enjoy it and it is usually a mixture of fresh raspberries, blueberries, banana, pineapple and grapes depending upon whatever Tesco or Asda have in stock at the time. I cheerfully eat mange tout imported from Kenya at lunchtime, as well as vegetable produce imported from countries far away, which I rarely bother to acknowledge. I, like so many, just take it all for granted if we can afford it.

If I put the clock back to my childhood, we ate whatever was grown in the garden or available at that time of the year. If we had apples during the winter months, it was because they had been wrapped in newspaper after picking and carefully stored. Oranges were a seasonal delight, but the quality of which deteriorated as the months passed by. If we were fortunate, maybe a pineapple or bananas would appear at Christmas. I am sure that I am not unusual in admitting that my Christmas stocking always contained an apple, an orange, some nuts and maybe a few chocolates, which I was grateful for. Imagine giving that stocking filler to children nowadays!

We were fortunate in having access to a very large garden, an orchard and a greenhouse. At the appropriate time of year there was an abundance of raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, black, red and white currents, as well as all manner of vegetables. Raspberries were always my favourite, and I would help my mother to pick them. For several weeks, desserts were always raspberry-based, and the making of jam was endless. Many bowls and bags of fruit and vegetables were given away to anyone who would take them and who did not grow their own, which was unusual in our community. I loved plums, especially the juicy Victoria variety, which I rarely see available nowadays. None of these delicacies were available during the winter months when tinned or bottled fruit and vegetables came into their own on special occasions.

Despite the abundance of fruit and vegetables that we had at home, my father was always very insistent that mother only prepared and served meat, potatoes and only two vegetables at dinner time. He was always annoyed and grumpy whenever mother would decide to break party rules and serve three vegetables. I could never understand this as we were inundated with the stuff. I used to question, and later tease him whenever this issue came up, but I never got a straight answer. My mother would always make a reference to wartime rationing and “children starving in Africa” but even the younger me thought that sending a bag of cabbages and the dreaded sprouts to starving children in Africa was taking it all a bit too far.

Therese does have a point and there is a case for growing much more of our own food, but the question of space, time and seasonal issues raise their ugly heads. Eating turnips all year round is not a popular option, I suspect. During my childhood, allotments were plentiful in most areas, but nowadays these are a challenge to find, let alone acquire one. We need to be able to access food at a fair price that rewards growers and are not subject to huge variations in price. We need easy access to all manner of crops coming from growing conditions that are very different to our own. I have an idea that I think will work. How about joining a free market with our friends and neighbours across the Channel?