Monday 10th May 2010
Some years ago, while visiting a Kenyan friend, I found myself in a large white panelled room where a hundred women in white coats and hair nets stood at long tables sorting runner beans. Outside was a ramshackle town where food was bought amongst the colourful chaos of local street markets and people lived on a dollar or two a day. All the beans looked perfect to me but they were being sorted with great skill according to their length and straightness. The perfectly straight went to M&S and Waitrose with a rising tolerance of bend down the hierarchy through Sainsbury, Asda, Morrison with the intolerably curvy going for processing. The beans were then trucked to Nairobi and flown in a dedicated fleet of DC10s to Heathrow to be on the supermarket shelves the next day.
I can only guess what those women thought of a society that worried about the nth degree of bend on a bean while they could barely afford the most basic medical care. Despite the 1kg of aviation fuel used to fly each 1kg of beans and the questionable use of scarce water resources to grow crops for export, in a country which struggles to feed itself, some argue that this is an opportunity for development and to thwart it on grounds of sustainability is just the latest form of imperialism. Occasionally the socio-economic benefit may outweigh the resource and environmental costs but more frequently the companies are owned and managed by foreigners who employ expat managers and buy most of their inputs of seed, plastic, chemicals and machinery abroad. This is a gold rush brought about by sun, water, cheap labour, a compliant and reasonably stable government and ludicrously cheap aviation fuel. At a dinner table one night I was left in no doubt that if conditions became more favourable elsewhere these companies would be gone without a moments consideration of the communities that depend on them.
Most supermarkets import beans even during the height of the UK season (late July to September) principally because labour costs for picking, sorting and packing are lower. If they are not from Europe they have almost certainly been air-freighted.
Our runner and french beans have had a hard time with the weather but are finally coming into full production. We struggle with a less than ideal climate but even more with the cost of picking. After trying with machine for a number of years we have gone back to hand picking to maintain the quality. In addition to featuring in some of the boxes they are also available over the next 5 or 6 weeks to order in addition to your box. I make no apologies for their bend.