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The tip of the iceberg?

February 5, 2017


If my grandmother was around today she would be laughing. The creation of a national crisis in Britain out of a shortage of iceberg lettuces is indeed laughable.

It would be easy to come up with a class warrior rant: Chelsea tractor owners whinging about not being able to find their favourite lettuce in Waitrose. Gym bunnies and followers of Gwyneth Paltrow going into a decline because there are no zero-calorie accompaniments to their yokeless omelettes.

Then there’s the eco-warrior angle. Supermarkets flying plane-loads of the stuff from California, thus creating tons of carbon emissions that fuel the climate change that caused the bad weather in Spain that sparked off the shortage in the first place.

I’m too cynical to be a warrior for any cause, though I’d dearly love to see the demise of Brexit and an end to Donald Trump’s excesses, And as a cynic, I have to ask whether the whole lettuce brouhaha isn’t a confection whipped up by our print media in a desperate attempt to find headlines other than murder, mayhem and incipient disaster.

Is there really mass hysteria among of shoppers, chefs and sandwich makers? Are ladies who lunch having a fit of the vapours over the potential absence of a couple of their favourite leaves?

The supermarkets clearly think so, which is why they are raiding California’s lettuce farms, and charging their customers twice the price for a little bit of hothouse-grown, pesticide-soaked nutritionally worthless vegetation harvested by low-paid workers who will shortly be shipped to the other side of Trump’s shining wall on the hill.

I’m not convinced that Britain’s consumers give a fig about the temporary absence of a few lettuce leaves on their salads. After all darlings, we still have rocket, shredded cabbage, slivers of carrot and nuts from halfway across the world, don’t we?

And for those of us who can’t stand salad, the containers are still flowing into our ports full of Argentinian beef, New Zealand lamb and Chilean wine. Our airports are still chock-a-block with shipments of flowers from Kenya, strawberries from Israel and apples from South Africa.

The iceberg lettuce shock horror is just a little reminder about how ridiculously high our expectations of the continuity of life have become, and how we take for granted the benefits of global trade without counting the cost. We in the West are a privileged enclave of the planet. We, above all others, have it all.

Should we feel guilty because our luxuries often come from countries whose people don’t share the benefits that trade, wealth and political power have bestowed on us? Not necessarily, because globalisation has helped raise living standards in producing countries as well as in those that consume the produce. But we should be aware that nothing is forever.

Which is where my long-departed Granny comes in. She grew up in an era when what reached the table largely came from the country where it was consumed. Foodstuffs were available according to the season. Fresh lamb arrived in the spring. Root vegetables went into hotpots in the autumn. And lettuce was something you ate in the summer.

During and after World War 2, she and millions of others lived through food rationing. When her daughter, my mother, got married in 1947, my future parents went to Ireland on their honeymoon. There they had bananas for the first time in eight years.

This is not intended to be a variant of the Secret Policemen’s Ball sketch, along the lines of “Luxury! I used to dream of iceberg lettuce when I lived in a hole by the side of the road”.

But my grandmother would laugh because she knew what it was like for the things she took for granted – not just food, but safety, security and the lives of family members – to be taken away.

Only the very elderly in Britain have lived though that experience. The rest of us should perhaps prepare ourselves for the possibility that the absence of lettuce is merely the tip of an iceberg that is yet to come. Whether the reasons are political, economic, environmental or a combination of the three, don’t be surprised if one day soon we’re dreaming of salad in the winter.

From → Business, History, Social, UK, USA

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