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2/26: Tomatoes & Top-level Privileges
Hello. In this issue, I’m mostly looking at the UK Tomato Shortage, alongside some other food supply issues there. It’s the usual climate and supply lines stuff; there’s very little in it that I haven’t talked about before, and it’s so predictable it’s not even worth claiming forecast credits on. Spoiler: the solution really is to grow stuff at or close to home, and eat seasonally. I also stop off to look at the privileged positions many of us are in in climate terms.
(Tesco Maynooth, where the hothouse vegetables should be.)
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. All issues are free! You can support the newsletter via Patreon (where there’s sometimes further discussion about particular points), Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise, including the new Plant More Trees t-shirt.]
First, some good things, because it can’t be all nightshade doom and gloom:
Norway has approved the use of vertical axis turbines.
A Swedish study found that single-garden work increases the number of pollinators.
Dublin adds better rain handling (and mentions the upper areas of the Dodder watershed as preventative measures as well, something I’ve been writing about for years).
The UK Tomato Shortage
I noted before in Commonplace that there are weird gaps on the shelves in UK supermarkets. They’re still there, and they’re getting worse. The new one is tomatoes (but there are also issues with some medicines). Read about it in the Guardian, for the baseline information. Some choice quotes:
The wholesale price of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines has quadrupled
Pharmacists, who rely on drugs from China and India, report that some patients are now forced to go from chemist to chemist to try to find one that can fill their prescriptions. There have been shortages of cold and flu medicines, from Lemsip to Night Nurse, over the winter.
Supply lines are having issues worldwide, of course. But Brexit paperwork means that suppliers will sell to other markets - pretty much any other market - before the UK. And fresh produce prices are up everywhere, because the energy costs to heat greenhouses are up. In April or so, the British suppliers reckon, they’ll be able to grow tomatoes in the UK. Assuming, of course, they can get anyone to pick them. The UK is also still running short on eggs, and I’ve seen pictures of empty shelves from supermarkets there.
In Ireland, there have been shortages of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in Tesco (a UK chain). Lidl and Aldi (German), Supervalu, Dunnes and Centra (Irish) and local greengrocers appear not to have any particular issues.
So there are a whole load of different causes here. Aside from Brexit, we’re looking at climate issues (unseasonal cold weather, and also unseasonal hot weather last year, and expected this year), at supply lines that are still snarled up by the COVID-19 pandemic, at high energy costs, at a lack of workers to pick produce, at avian flu outbreaks, and to top it off, there’s a particularly idiotic government in the UK (“Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, suggested last week that consumers might eat more turnips”).
I cannot say anything useful about the government or Brexit, except that the root cause is the Tory party, and the sooner they’re all voted out of office the better. There’s little else to be done about stupidity and greed. The way UK voters continue to dig down is amazing; I am relatively sure it’s due to the Tories systematically gutting education over the last couple of decades, but it’s hard to know where to start.
Climate issues are going to continue, of course, and will almost certainly get worse. Nobody can predict what the weather a season ahead will be like, but I’m willing to have a go and say there’ll be another record-breaking hot summer in Europe within the next 5 years, and that other records will be broken worldwide every year from now on. The heat might be handleable, if it was predictable, but the likelihood of random cold snaps, hail storms, tornadoes, and hurricane-force storms at odd times of year is also increasing. This means that even if supply lines are working - and not impeded by politics - there may not be as many goods to supply.
The supply lines might get fixed this year. I’ve been tracking things fairly closely, and there are signs that things might unsnarl by autumn or early winter of 2023, assuming that there are no more storms (hurricanes, typhoons, etc) than usual, that there are not further lockdowns for pandemics, and that Russia doesn’t decide to invade anywhere else. Etc.
The energy costs are on the way down. This may take some time to reach consumers, and they’re unlikely to drop back to 2021 levels, but they should be a bit less than the current madness. Unless a lot more wind farms come online soon, though, the wider market will remain volatile, and also still somewhat subject to the whim of Russian oligarchs.
The lack of workers to pick crops is a uniqely Brexit-caused issue, and seems to have been intentional (inasmuch as anything was) on the part of the Leave campaign - most of the workers were EU nationals who came to the UK to do manual labour on relatively low wages. Now that they’re not in the country anymore, the British public are not rushing to pick up the low wage work. It’s unclear in the long term what will happen there - it’s possible that farmers will raise wages to the point where UK nationals will take the jobs, but that would push the price of the produce up as well. Or the farmers might take a look at the prospect of high wages, high energy costs, and so forth, and just get out of that business. They might sell up entirely, or go over to livestock, cereal or dairy, all of which are much more automatable.
The avian flu outbreaks are, to some degree, also driven by climate change. They’re also caused by having large flocks of poultry in conditions conducive to disease. So improvement of conditions, and a move toward more, smaller, healthier poultry farms is pretty necessary. I’m told that the point at which a small poultry flock breaks even in terms of equipment and food is around 36 birds; that’s not an unreasonable number if you have some space. However, if the other option is no eggs, then 2 or 4 birds will go some way toward solving the issue, and they can be kept in quite small spaces. That assumes they lay well, which ours are currently not, although that’s much more likely to be a seasonal issue than anything else.
Broadly, though, shorter supply lines are where it’s at, and there’s nothing shorter than you own back yard. But you are unlikely - without a heated, lit greenhouse, which is expensive - to be able to produce tomatoes in February (although I do have one tomato curently growing on a planet overwintered on a windowsill, so it’s not impossible). Within the EU, we’ll probably be able to import stuff from Spain and Morocco, so there’ll be produce out of season, albeit at high prices, and within the US, California will probably continue to produce, as long as random weather doesn’t destroy crops. But seasonal food, produced fairly locally, and preserved tomatoes (and peppers and aubergines, etc) are going to have to see more of a return. Usefully enough, if people are following advice on stocking up against Brexit (written in 2018), it… works.
White Western Conditions
One of the things that I’ve not talked about a whole lot is that most of the people reading this - who are in the West, in the first world, are generally white, and generally moderately well-off in comparison to the remainder of the planet - are going to be the last to be affected by almost any problem. There are already climate refugees; there are people who are being hit hard by wheat and egg shortages. Most of them do not have the ability to subscribe to newsletters.
This is arising from conversations I’ve had recently - and read, between other people, on forums and social media - where people in the West are saying that because they’re not experiencing any particular difficulty, the problems must not be that bad.
In Ireland, in particular, we’re in a place of pretty massive privilege, even in the longer term. The island can feed all the people on it - possibly not optimally, but still feed them. We’re unlikely to suffer much from even the strangest of weather, because our position between oceanic and continental climates means that one is constantly pushed back by the other. Sea level rise will certainly have effects on our coasts, but a good bit of the country will still be well above sea level in 2100. In the longer term - and probably beyond the lifespan of anyone reading this - we’ll have an archipelago of closely placed islands, rather than being completely underwater. We’ve enough wind to power everything we need, and tidal generators can provide more. If the Gulf Stream fails, we’ll have a colder climate, but nothing we can’t handle.
But all of that is something to keep in mind if you feel that you’re not affected by climate change. Other people are already affected, and it will have effects on more and more people as time passes. Just because it’ll happen to us later doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
This Stuff Was Also In My Open Tabs
A few side notes, before I close out: Here’s an excellent article on winterising, even for renters. I realise this is the wrong end of winter in which to be providing this, but it’s worth getting a start on it for next year. It may even help keep some of your energy costs down over the last few weeks of cold weather. And if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, and you get a cold winter, it’ll be of use a whole lot sooner.
The US is starting to recognise that floods are damaging. Well, the article says they damaging to property prices, but that’s the closest that a hyper-capitalist society can come to recognising it, I think. The Snap Forward also has an excellent article about how you, too, can be a climate refugee.
And the IFA madness is getting worse. I know I give out about them a lot, but they keep producing bullshit like this. This is, in fact, full-on conspiracy theory, with the usual detail that the people peddling the story don’t believe it, but are in it for profit. Honestly, the sooner the IFA is closed down and replaced with something sane, the better. Oil companies are also engaging in serious propaganda.
And so as not to finish out on an entirely negative note, here’s an excellent explanation of how heat pumps work. I had only the vaguest idea of how, it turns out.
I’m not going to try to predict when I’ll have the next issue out. I think work will ease off into March, but there’s essentially no knowing, and I can’t complain about being busy. Send me your questions, your suggestions, and any commentary you have, and I’ll write again as soon as I can.