Are we really in Love with Local?

Eoghan Conway looks at the relationship between imported produce and local more sustainable options

Go on, take a look at your cupboards. Depending on what day of the week it is and your individual budgeting skills you could be faced with one of two options.  It could either be a sad sparse reflection of instant noodles and pesto that’s probably past its best or an eclectic mixture of erratic purchases. Mustard, mayonnaise and a Mars bar. Not quite enough to rustle up a dinner. Off to the supermarket, you go. Tote bag in hand, budget set and options aplenty. Do I go for a stir fry, burrito bowl or a curry? The paradox of choice is real. After some deliberation, you decide Italian it is. The post-reading week blues have to be combated with a Mediterranean pick me up.  Vodka alla pasta recipe obtained and a naggin of vodka in the tote bag, perfect you think, both dinner and pre’s sorted. Armed with your Spanish vine tomatoes, Italian Parmigiano Reggiano, bottom-shelf Latvian vodka, Greek olive oil and French garlic, you wander on home. How continental? Yes true, but also how environmentally costly.

We’ve become accustomed to being able to access nearly any type of food all year-round. Climate-intensive farming methods and international imports allow shops to carry products that are well outside of their typical seasons. Yet blackberries in the baltic cold of January probably aren’t going to be the best for you, your tastebuds and the planet. We often think of the effects that food has on us but rarely about the impact it has on the climate. A nourishing diet is going to work wonders for your health but will be to the detriment of the planet if you are consuming imported Moroccan watermelons and Mexican limes. A nice lean cut of red meat can only have so much of a net benefit when it’s coming from a ranching farm in Brazil.  That said we should be slightly more considerate in how we shop and what we look for when we are shopping. Trying to choose the climate over convenience.

“If the rationing of radishes didn’t get you worried enough maybe the possible elimination of your caffeine fix will.”

Recent images of bare supermarket shelves in the UK along with rationing show how susceptible we really are to supply chain shocks. Abnormally low temperatures in southern Spain and Northern Africa have resulted in temporary fruit and veg shortages in supermarkets here at home as well. Warmer temperatures are forcing coffee production further up mountainous areas in search of respite from the harsh conditions. 50% of suitable growing areas for coffee will be eradicated as a result of rising temperatures over the next 20 or so years.  According to Peter Gaynor, Fairtrade Ireland’s Executive Director, “by 2050 we could be looking at the end of the much-loved cup of coffee.” If the rationing of radishes didn’t get you worried enough maybe the possible elimination of your caffeine fix will.

What startles me is how much produce we can actually grow ourselves in Ireland. 80% of onions, 89% of tomatoes, and 90% of lettuce are all imported, yet all of these foods can be grown here. Why aren’t we running to build more greenhouses to try reduce our import dependency? It beats me. Yet what pains me the most is that 20% of all potatoes in Ireland are imported. You must be having a laugh. The humble spud, the poster child of Irish cuisine even it falls victim to the import of foreign products. If fresh is best, it is near that we should not fear. We must try to support and encourage the domestic production of fruit and veg that we import so heavily and at such a costly environmental toll.

Well, what can you do as an individual? I’m not saying everyone needs to set up a vegetable patch and go off-grid living, as appealing as that may seem at times, but the little changes make all the difference. Every little helps? Isn’t that right Tesco? Maybe you can start by supporting a few more Irish fruit and veg suppliers. For the consumer, it is all about choice. That lovely six-pack of Pink Lady apples flown in from New Zealand could be swapped for locally sourced Gala or Elstar apples. Pink Himalayan rock salt that is so coveted could be swapped for some domestic Achill Island sea salt. The humble Bord Bia quality mark is still as good an indicator as ever. A small change and a little more consideration of what we actually pick up in the shop is a good starting point.

“It begs the question though, do we not care so much for our homegrown goods? Have we fallen out of love with local produce?”

Of course, it’s nice to have exotic ingredients but we often disregard the environmentally detrimental supply chains that get those goods to us. Don’t get me wrong I love chasing down ingredients from far-flung places, this is coming from a man who has smuggled spices back from holidays trying to replicate dishes to no avail, but the pursuit of the exotic ingredients is at times damaging. It begs the question though, do we not care so much for our homegrown goods? Have we fallen out of love with local produce? The quality of produce in Ireland is known the world over so why not put it to better use. Next time you want to make pasta why not just try swapping the imported veg for domestic. Try changing the parmesan to a native Irish hard cheese.

Maybe we also need to change the way we look at Irish food in the home. I’m certainly not advocating for total alimentary autarky but when was the last time you decided to cook with true seasonal Irish produce? I’m not calling for a return to nettle soup and bacon and cabbage but we can all certainly do our bit to try to buy and use domestic seasonal produce. In the coming months, the likes of peppers and spinach are coming into season. Cauliflower, kale, cabbage and beetroot all are firmly in season as I write this. Looking on towards the summer we have the crowning glory of Irish produce, well in my humble opinion anyway, new season potatoes. Seasonal produce is going to be fresher, tastier, will support local producers and is oftentimes even cheaper. Some of my suggestions for producers/suppliers would be McNally’s Farm and Lilliput Stores. They both can be found at the Temple Bar Food Market which takes place every Saturday from 9.30 to 4pm.

You change your clothing style based on seasons and trends. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. What’s hot and what’s not. In or out. Yet why is it that we don’t go seasonal when it comes to the food that we eat. Any trendy restaurant in Dublin prides itself on its love of local and seasonal set menus. There is no reason why home cooks can’t do the same. Seasonal, nose to tail and foraged are just some buzzwords that float around as guiding forces to cooking and acquiring produce but any considered ethos is commendable. Think about what you are buying, where you are buying it from and just see if you can make a more environmentally friendly choice. Mother nature will probably thank you in the future.