Concerned about the amount of imported food we eat — and its effects on rural Ireland — organic farmer and artist Lisa Fingleton has challenged farmers as well as the general public to only eat produce grown on this island for the whole of September
Rarely does a month go by without one of our farming organisations launching a tirade against cheap food imports undermining our locally produced product.
Whether it’s beef from Poland, potatoes from Israel or pork from the Netherlands, there’s nothing like it to raise the ire of farmers.
But how good are farmers themselves at supporting Irish food?
Well, Lisa Fingleton, an artist, writer and organic farmer, wants to put Irish farmers’ food patriotism to the test next month.
Six years ago she started the 30-Day Local Food Challenge, encouraging people to eat local food for the month of September each year.
Participants can only use ingredients grown on the island of Ireland, so that means doing without imported goods such as sugar, bananas, chocolate and other luxuries to which we have become accustomed.
Having grown up on a farm in Laois, Lisa has become increasingly disenfranchised with the modern food system and Ireland’s reliance on imports despite its status as a great food-producing nation.
“I found more and more I was asking why are we importing so much food, when we have the most amazing capacity to grow food in Ireland,” she says. “We have a fantastic soil, we have lots of rain and a very moderate climate.
“I was also thinking about how our diets have changed so much. We want all this food off-season.
“I guess because I farm myself and I work a lot with farmers, I was noticing more and more that what was on the plate in front of me, especially when I was out, wasn’t in any way connected to Irish fields and farms. That made me very concerned.”
Like many in the agriculture sector, Lisa worries for the future of rural communities, wondering how do we create a future for the next generations? How do we create jobs? How do we keep people on farms? How do we make sustainable incomes?
“If we’re not eating the foods grown on the farms in Ireland, then we’re not supporting farmers, and I think that’s critical,” she says.
The erosion over the decades in the value placed on food is a key part of the problem, according to Lisa.
“We banned low-cost alcohol, but actually, low-cost food is causing as much damage because it’s annihilating farmers and growers, and it’s causing such damage to rural communities.
“Those skills of growing food are being lost, and if we lose them in another generation, we won’t get them back,” she warns.
There’s no such thing as cheap food, Lisa says, adding that somebody somewhere will pay the price.
“People will spend almost their yearly food budget on a phone and then not question it. That’s marketing,” she says.
“So if I’m buying a €5 chicken, then I have to ask myself, what life has this chicken had and who is transporting a chicken to my table for €5? That is not sustainable.
“Anybody who has reared chickens or grown vegetables knows that the prices we’re paying are just not sustainable.
“People talk about cheap food, but what wages is someone being paid in Africa to produce this product, or is the rainforest being cut down to produce these avocados?
“The price is always paid, it just depends on who’s paying.”
The impact of our cheap food policy on our health should also not be underestimated, Lisa says, highlighting the obesity crisis.
Further, with some 30pc of all the food we buy in Ireland said to end up in the bin, Lisa is anxious to see more families growing more of their own food so that they’re not wasting money.
“If you’re putting a third of all the food in the bin, the money you spent on that food is going in the bin too. If you take that out of the equation, then you can afford to pay more for the food that you’re actually eating and buy better quality food,” she says.
Initially, Lisa’s local food challenge required participants to get Irish-only food at every meal. However, this year, in a bid to broaden its reach, she is suggesting people try even one meal a day.
“It can be a real challenge to do every meal,” she says. “People often don’t realise how challenging it is.
“When I did the first time, some days I was absolutely wall-fallen, and I couldn’t get food from morning to night, particularly if I was out. I could probably eat a burger, but I couldn’t eat the bread because the bread was imported.”
So how can we increase the amount of quality locally produced food in our diets?
According to Lisa, the first step is simply to open your eyes to what is being produced in your local area.
“Really look around. If you live in the countryside, it’s really interesting to look into the fields and see who’s actually producing food,” she says.
“That in itself is a shock for most people, because they are like, oh, wow, where is the food? Yes, we have dairy, and yes, we have beef, but when we look at actual vegetables, only 1pc of our farms grow vegetables.
“We are the lowest in all of Europe for producing vegetables, so that’s a bit of a shock.
“Find out who is producing vegetables in your area, and see how you would access those.
“Sometimes the local supermarkets are really good at having a local section.”
If there is one thing Lisa really wants to achieve with her challenge, it is to get shoppers looking at food labels.
“Then you see what is actually in your basket when you bring it home and what is actually from an Irish farm,” she says.
The Local Food Challenge will require participants to make sacrifices as there are certain food groups with no Irish option.
The lack of Irish flour is one area where Lisa says major improvements can be made.
“With climate change and global warming, we need to look at what we are going to be able to grow in Ireland,” she says.
“At the moment, we spend millions and millions a year on pizza — all the flour that is used in that and all of our breads is imported.
“So in terms of climate change, could we be looking at growing cereals that enable us to make bread? We really need to put research into this.
“Some people say we don’t have the weather here, but when you look at the changing climate, I believe it will be a possibility in the future that we can produce our own flour.”
September was chosen as the month for the challenge as, according to Lisa, it’s the time when Irish farms are most abundant in food.
“We usually have some potatoes, some carrots, some parsnips,” she says. “What’s fabulous about it is that there are so many people in Ireland who are still growing their few vegetables.
“If people started this year, they might decide next spring to actually plant a garden. And that’s what’s happening with a lot of people who’ve been doing it for a few years. They plant in March, knowing they will do the challenge in September.”
For those interested in taking on the challenge, Lisa says good planning is key to success.
“I would start looking now and planning,” she says. “If you’re going for an Irish-only breakfast, ask yourself can I get porridge? Can I get local honey? Apples will be starting to come into season, I could chop up some apples.
“Find out what is available and start looking now.”
Lisa will be working at the National Ploughing Championships next month and has already pondered if there will be enough Irish food available at the event to sustain her — and what it might say about the Irish food system if there isn’t.
■ Make it fun and enjoyable. Choose what works for you. Is it possible to do every meal, or would one meal a day be enough of a challenge?
■ If you grow your own food, the challenge is quite easy and it is fun to eat from the garden for a month, especially in September when our gardens are quite abundant. Enjoy.
■ If you don’t grow your own food, do you know someone who does?
Can you source food from a local farmer, farmers’ market, community garden or local food box scheme? Do your research in advance on what food is available.
■ Share food with friends or family. Organise local food picnics or dinners together. Would a local restaurant or community space take on the challenge and have a special local food night to showcase local food producers?
■ Look in your fridge and cupboards and see what is from the island of Ireland. Make a separate section in your kitchen for all the local Irish food so you know what you want to eat.
■ Start buying local fruit and veg and pickling or freezing them for the challenge.
■ Prepare snacks like oat biscuits (made from honey and oats) to avoid sugar cravings.
■ If you are eating out, ask what food is sourced locally. What local ingredients are being used? What local farmers and producers are being supported? Ask questions.
■ Look at the labels on food products (this can be frustrating as ‘produced in Ireland’ does not guarantee that any of the ingredients are from Ireland).
■ Try to avoid supporting below-cost vegetable and fruits in supermarkets. Remember there is no such thing as cheap food, and someone else is paying the price if you are not.