Is it worth growing potatoes?

I'm growing a range of crops - including potatoes

I’m growing a range of crops – including potatoes

I used to think that the best crops to focus on growing were those that were either unusual (and thus difficult to find in the shops) or expensive (so that I would save money by growing them). As a result I have, over the years, produced kilos and kilos of peppers and purple sprouting broccoli, and significant amounts of oca and chilli peppers. However, as I have become more and more interested in reducing my impact on the planet, I have come to realise that it’s also important for me to grow crops that I eat lots of but that require large inputs of chemicals when grown commercially.

Potatoes are a typical example. It’s hard to find information that is completely up to date, but PAN (the Pesticide Action Network) have a 2007 fact sheet that outlines the pesticides that are used in Britain during commercial potato production. It includes the following table:

Pesticides used on British potatoes (source: http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Issue/pn75/pn75%20p18-22.pdf)

Pesticides used on British potatoes (source: http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Issue/pn75/pn75%20p18-22.pdf). NB ‘ware’ potatoes are the ones we eat

The fact sheet provides lots of additional information including:

During the vegetative phase ware potatoes are sprayed on average 14.5 times and are treated with 19.4 different products; fungicides are applied most frequently. Seed potatoes are sprayed 10.7 times with 17.5 products; again fungicides are applied most frequently.

The author of he fact sheet emphasises the impact of these chemicals on human  health, but it’s important to remember that the majority of pesticides have a large carbon footprint in their own right, have impacts on the environment directly and have to be transported over great distances. In addition, commercial potatoes are treated with other chemicals to increase their storage life.

So, despite their relative cheapness and the fact that I can buy local potatoes direct from the producer, I am still growing some of my own. So far this year I have not applied any chemicals  and I am growing blight resistant varieties, since blight is the most damaging disease in most years. The result is healthy plants and abundant tubers from both containers and  those growing direct in the soil. I’ve planted a range of varieties from first earlies to maincrop, in order to prolong the season and minimise the time I need to store them . In previous years I’ve only grown earlies (because new potatoes are so expensive), but I think that my current approach is successful enough for me to want to repeat it next year. Of course, the maincrop may not do as well as Colleen (the variety I’m currently eating), but the tops, at least, are growing well.

So, I’m celebrating the humble potato and savouring yet another crop with food metres not food miles.

-oOo-

This post was inspired by comments made by Wade Muggleton during my most recent visit to Station Road

Flower power

There is a scene in the US sitcom Friends where Monica gives the following advice to Phoebe’s boyfriend

do not get her flowers. Okay? Because y’know, she cries when they die, and there’s the whole funeral…

The line gets a big laugh and it’s supposed to show just how cookie Phoebe is but, you know, I’m really on her side in this case. Whilst it may seem strange to most people, the truth is I really dislike cut flowers… the idea of having something gradually decomposing on my mantlepiece isn’t something that appeals to me.

A breadseed poppy flower in my garden

I have told many people over the years about my feelings towards cut flowers and most of them think I’m bonkers… although a few have acknowledged that I do have a point. I prefer to see my flowers growing… perhaps in a pot, but preferably outside in the garden or in a natural place where the bees, butterflies and hoverflies can enjoy them too.

I was brought up not to have flowers in the house because my mother has such severe hayfever. Even the flowers at my sister’s wedding had to be artificial. So, I didn’t grow up expecting to see flowers indoors… just green growing plants. Perhaps this is why I have always been thoughtful about their presence and never really accepted them as a natural feature.

Of course as I got older I began to think about the origin of cut flowers and question their environmental credentials. The point of a cut flower is beauty… for most people they should be perfect – no blemishes or signs of deterioration when they are received. Like any other plant part, once picked decomposition is going to set in quite quickly, so treatment with fungicides and rapid refrigeration are in order… particularly since many flowers travel thousands of miles before they reach the supermarket or florists where they are sold. As John McQuaid says in an article in the magazine of the Smithsonian institute

Selling flowers is, at bottom, an attempt to outwit death

But even prior to their picking and transportation, the flowers need to be perfect – so have to be grown in conditions that prevent attacks by insects and pathogens.

Flowers in the garden – where I like them

A large proportion of cut flowers are grown in Colombia or Kenya – countries with a climate that allows year-round flower production without artificial heat. In terms of carbon  emissions this seems like a good option – the other common source of cut flowers is Holland, where the plants must be grown in heated polytunnels to ensure they are available throughout the year. However, even in tropical countries, cultivation is often in polytunnels in order to control pests and water applications. And, of course, pesticide use is common… having a significant impact on the health of the workers (often women and children) in the facilities (you can’t call them gardens or even farms) where these flowers are produced. Most (but not all) cut flowers are produced by large companies whose primary motivation is profit, not the welfare of either their workers or their customers. War on Want have highlighted the issues associated with the industry and, whilst the situation seems to be improving, in part as a result of customers looking for fairly traded of environmentally responsible bouquets, there are still problems. For example the ‘Fair Trade’ mark tells you nothing about the levels of pesticides, although it does give more assurance that workers are not being ‘exploited’. In my opinion, however, ‘exploitation’ should be considered to include exposure to dangerous chemicals as well as long working hours, limited breaks, child labour and so on.

Even as a purchaser or receiver of cut flowers you may be exposed to unpleasant substances. John McQuaid writing in 2011 noted that

the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks imported flowers for insects, but not for chemical residues

Which makes me wonder what the message really is when you give someone a bunch of flowers – here darling, have some dangerous chemicals and watch these plants slowly dying!

There’s plenty advice on buying flowers, be it from The Ecologist Magazine or the UK Government. You may want to think about worker’s rights, carbon emissions, water resources, pesticide and fertilizer use, supporting developing countries or your local economy, but for me it’s easy – I don’t like cut flowers so I never buy them!

Oh, and I don’t like cut Christmas trees either!

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