A matter of import

The ethics of buying foreign food out of season are a complex business

One of the responsibilities of a position in the public eye is to be mindful not only of what you say, but also of how people will interpret it. Margaret Hodge should not have announced that the Proms were failing to attract a socially varied audience, not because it was not true, but because she should have predicted that her words would be taken as an attempt to undermine an outstanding cultural event. Gordon Ramsay, promoting his new Channel 4 series of The F Word, should not have advocated fines for restaurants selling out-of-season produce, because that came across as an instruction never to eat imported food. The Soil Association piled in on one side of the argument, Oxfam piled in on the other, and the essential point was drowned.

It did not take long to find out whether Ramsay practised what he preached. Thanks to online listings of menus from the Ramsay restaurants, bloggers were able to note that the Boxwood Café in Knightsbridge was offering "ravioli of Italian winter squash" - though the word "winter" had disappeared from that description when I checked. Poultry and cheese from France, steaks from the US and Japan, and tropical fruit were widely in evidence in the Ramsay empire. "The overriding concern for all our chefs is that they use the best-quality produce," the organisation explained.

So it is, up to a point, with most of us - that point stopping short of sourcing steaks from Japan. This column has eulogised local, seasonal produce, from forced rhubarb to Jersey Royals. My vegetable box supplies salad greens grown just a few miles down the road, and potatoes, leeks, carrots, onions and mushrooms from not much further away.

The suppliers realise, however, that we need a bit of variety from time to time. Nothing could be finer than a winter squash - especially, no doubt, when wrapped in ravioli handcrafted at the Boxwood Café; but there comes a time, and often before winter is over, when one wants to move on. I found in my box last week courgettes from Italy and an aubergine from Spain, and I was grateful.

The arguments about the ethics of local buying are complex. An imported foodstuff may have a smaller carbon footprint than one grown in Britain under energy-consuming conditions, especially if it is transported a hundred miles or so in a lorry. Oxfam says that 1.5 million people in Africa depend on agricultural exports to the UK. Critics of Oxfam say that this is a wasteful and unjust procedure. Weighing up these issues while standing in a shop and trying to decide what to have for dinner is impossible.

Last weekend, I discovered that the Jersey Royal shortage I had written about in my previous column was still in evidence at my local greengrocer. I bought French new potatoes instead. Please don't fine me, Gordon.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?