Veg Hero - Tomatoes
The story behind tomato farming offers a neat package of persuasion for anyone looking to encourage seasonal eating. Firstly, the complex, grassy flavour and aroma of a proper soil-grown British tomato is unmistakable, with no comparison to hydroponically produced (using a chemical solution of nutrients rather than living soil) hothouse equivalents. However the fact that their flavour has suffered in favour of more quantifiable factors such as yield and shelf life is typical of modern agricultural practices.
There is another way in which the tomato stands for what is wrong with our current food production system. ‘Local’ food is often lauded as being best for the environment, but such a broad strokes perspective can sometimes be misleading. Despite having a natural UK season of a handful of weeks in August and September, the tomato’s popularity is such that people expect to buy them fresh 12 months of the year. Using unheated polytunnels, we can extend their season from June to mid-October, but that’s as far as we’ll go here at Riverford. Under heated glass tomatoes can be picked from March to Christmas, but the energy cost is insane, releasing 2kg of carbon dioxide for every 1kg of tomatoes produced. Yet this is how the majority of tomatoes sold in the UK are farmed during the cooler months (both in this country and abroad, most notably Holland), in order to meet the year-round demand.
By comparison it's possible to produce tomatoes in the South of Spain or Italy, without heat, right through the winter (though it's still occasionally used to improve the quality and consistency of the crop). The emissions from transporting those tomatoes to the UK are about a tenth of those associated with growing them closer to home using heat; maths like that speaks for itself. Logically it follows that when we’re not growing them ourselves or buying them from likeminded British farmers, that’s where our tomatoes come from. So while that punnet of shop-bought British tomatoes might seem an environmentally sensible purchase, it’s only the case for a few months of the year. Perhaps it’s best to just keep buying them from us. We’ve done the sensible bit for you!