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What is it with TV chefs and their hatred of imports?

“What is the point of growing food if you let them get destroyed by pests? And another thing, if a sheep gets a headache, I’d give it an asprin.”

That was broadly the gist of a remark made this morning on a BBC food show by Gregg Wallace, the grocer and UK television presenter, who is not a devotee of organic food. Ah, I thought, this guy is prepared to pull the chains of the organic purists on live TV! But then he spoiled it all by going on, as a lot of prominent TV chefs seem to do these days, about the supposed evils of Britain importing food and hence the locals not developing what he regards as a strong national culture that appreciates food. He also criticised working mothers for forgetting how to cook. I must say I smiled at this point since all the folk cooking on the show were men. To be fair, Mr Wallace did not go quite as far as that over-exposed blowhard, Gordon “four letter word” Ramsay, whom Perry of this parish criticised lately.

This is nonsense, to be polite about it. For a start, Mr Wallace bashed the enclosure of UK open land as somehow playing a part in Britain’s historically drab cuisine. Funny, because I thought that the enclosure of farms, and the development of the four-course rotation system that went along with it, helped to make possible the vital leap in UK food production, and hence a surplus, that freed up capital to be used elsewhere: the Industrial Revolution. Up until the late 18th Century, remember, starvation was a regular feature of life in Europe. So much so, in fact, that Thomas Malthus’s prediction that population growth would always be checked by starvation and food shortages was a reason why economics got known as the “dismal science”. Well, the Irish were “self sufficient” by living on potatoes while evil imports of cheap corn from abroad were restricted by the Corn Laws, a situation that came to a terrible conclusion in the Great Famine of the mid-1840s, in which millions of Irish families emigrated to the US to at least have the chance of something to eat. Self-sufficiency, indeed.

All this talk about self-sufficiency by the affluent members of today’s media and entertaiment classes does make me wonder at their lack of understanding of basic economics. To begin with, what sort of geographical area does Mr Wallace think it is acceptable for trade in agriculture to occur in? A county, a parish, a region, a nation, a small street, what? Furthermore, surely the benefits of diversification in agricultural production around the world, made possible by rapid transportation, refrigeration, storage techniques and the rest, actually makes the world as a whole less not more, vulnerable to sudden shifts in economic conditions, or the climate, or even war, although during wars, of course, it may be necessary to build up food supplies, as happened in the UK during WW2.

If it makes more sense economically to grow tomatoes in Spain and fly them over to Manchester rather than for Mancunians to eat only what our foodie superiors deem to be “in season”, why should not such imports occur? For sure, if you want to patronise your local farmers’ market to ensure that local farmers make a living, that is your right. But why are “local” farmers more “deserving” of your wallet than a farmer in Kenya, New Zealand or Canada? At this stage, the Greens will say it is a “waste” to import food from afar if that involves gobbling up expensive fuels, but then in a free market, if the cost of importing food becomes expensive, then local farmers can and should be exploiting that cost advantage. This in fact may already be happening.

And in any event, if there has been an improvement in the quality of food produce and restaurants in the UK in recent years – and I believe there has been – then trade, globalisation and mass transport have driven much of this. A generation that now regards it as routine to fly off to France for a long weekend courtesy of Ryanair or Easyjet has raised expectations of what should be on sale in shops in the UK. We should not forget the significance of the abolition of exchange controls in the UK in 1979 in also driving this increase in travel, and hence a broadening of tastes.

I am sure Mr Wallace means well. He comes across as the sort of no-nonsense, food-loving East End Boy made good for whom I have a lot of admiration. By all means encourage folk to learn more about food, to cook and appreciate food and fine wine. But for goodness sake, TV chefs, spare us propaganda about the evils of imports and stick to what you do best. That’s the division of labour for you.

Right, time for lunch.

4 comments to What is it with TV chefs and their hatred of imports?

  • guy herbert

    Do aspirin work on sheep? Drugs often do different things in in different proportion in different species. Dogs and cats are much more susceptible to side effects from non-steroidal anti-inflammatories than humans are, to the point where giving one an aspirin can easily be fatal.

    The statement betrays the underlying non-science, rather than mere non-sense, that underlies a lot of common attitudes to foods. Not just anthropomorphism but vitalism is rife.

  • Robert Speirs

    Right. Local food only. No bananas, no coffee, no tea. No tomatoes for most of the year. I live in Florida. Can I have oranges? Oops. I live in north Florida, a couple of hundred miles from the nearest orange grove. No oranges.

    No cane sugar, no cucumbers or lettuce in winter. No wine. You Brits should live on oats, barley and potatoes. You call that living?

  • Rob

    Also no pasta, rice, French wine, parmesan cheese, houmous, olives…potatoes, turnips, beer and cider only. It will be a middle-class holocaust.

    Obviously, in the brave progressive future not everything will be banned from imports…

    On the original point of the post regarding the import of food, why would it be acceptable to move seafood from, say, Cornwall or Scotland to London, but not from NW France or Belgium to London? Their argument makes little sense.

  • Hmm, not that I agree or anything, but this reminds me of something that Alf Wight (aka James Herriott, one of my favourite British authors) wrote once…

    (paraphrased) The clever people who said that we can do without British agriculture forgot that we’re on an island and hence it would be very easy for an enemy to starve us into submission.

    Again, I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like that.

    The reality is, ‘you’ (whoever ‘you’ might be) do have enemies in the world, and it would make some minimal sense in being semi-self-sufficient in food. Or, failing which, some kind of food stockpiling. Which, I admit, can be done with food grown from anywhere.

    One of the factors cited for TYhailand’s recovery from the ’97 crisis was its more-than self-sufficiency in food. Layman speculation, sure, but there you are.