What a flurry in the vegetable patch this season. First it was Michelle Obama, digging up the White House lawn to plant an organic kitchen garden, then Hilary Benn, albeit with his arm twisted by leading organic businesspeople, agreed to pass on a request to Gordon Brown that he start growing organic fruit and vegetables in the garden of 10 Downing Street. Now we learn that the Queen – bless her – has already been busy developing the ‘Yard Bed”, an allotment-sized fruit and vegetable plot in the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
The Queen is bang on trend with her policy of using liquid seaweed to stimulate growth in place of the synthetic fertilisers, and in banning the use of chemicals in her potager. I, too, have been doing my Dig For Victory bit this year and recently referred to the venerable Dr DG Hessayon’s Vegetable & Herb Expert bestseller for advice.
I hadn’t looked at this classic text for decades and was appalled by its trigger-happy attitude to pesticides, as in: “Spray peas with carbendazim at first signs of disease and repeat fortnightly thereafter.”
I don’t want gender-bending carbendazim in my garden shed, let alone anywhere near my petit pois, thank you very much. Consumers only tolerate the routine use of toxic chemicals in food production by default. But when you grow your own and have to actively contemplate the pros and cons of using substances that come out of a bottle or spray bearing a skull and crossbones, it’s a different matter. You will happily accept the odd slug or irregularly-shaped apple rather than use a chemical armoury.
As Britons take a fork to their back yards, our supermarkets should be embracing this opportunity to jump off the pesticide treadmill, but a new survey by the UK Pesticides Action Network shows that only the Co-op, M&S and Sainsbury's are actively doing so. Yet all this interest in organic fruit and veg production offers retailers a perfect opportunity to offer consumers less cosmetically perfect produce in the knowledge fewer pesticides have been used.
The recession has catalysed proactive retailers into offering cheaper produce of non-uniform size and appearance. Now the time is ripe to relax nitpicking specs and let the British public see what naturally grown food really looks like. I’ll wager it would get a warmer reception than retailers may think.
Joanna Blythman is a food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain.