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28 February 2023

Turnips over tomatoes? My taste of Brexit Britain’s withering food culture

As supermarkets ration salad, the Environment Secretary suggests Britons turn to turnips. But even that is a distant dream.

By Anoosh Chakelian

As the amateur dramatics of a new and improved Brexit fudge play out, its reality is hitting Britain right in the BLTs. Our big trade story is still the tomato shortage, with Tesco, Aldi and Lidl joining Asda and Morrisons in rationing salad veg, and the boss of Iceland erecting a “giant wall of lettuce” the size of an average starter home (it’s two storeys high, get your deposits in).

This isn’t all down to Brexit. Salad crops have suffered because it’s somehow been snowing in Spain and Morocco, where most of Britain’s tomatoes are grown. However, as my colleague Emma Haslett writes, Britain’s veg-growing workforce, energy subsidies for farmers and supply chains would be in better nick if we were still in the European Union.

While Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen shook hands, some EU officials behind the scenes privately reflected that the deal would distract Brits from the tomato shortage that will persist weeks longer in Britain than Europe – Brexit having hindered our just-in-time supplies from across the Channel.

If we do have weeks of shortages, we may have to start heeding the culinary tips of our Environment Secretary and relic of the Liz Truss micro-epoch, Thérèse Coffey. Last week, she told consumers to “cherish” home-grown produce, noting that “a lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce and tomatoes and similar”. So that’s what they meant by the growth agenda – growing nothing on greenfield sites but unpopular root vegetables.

Her comments may sound like Marie Antoinette doing marketing copy for Riverford, but Coffey was only being honest about Britain’s Brexity future. When I travelled around the country two years ago trying to work out what leaving the EU would mean for our food culture, I was told rising costs and reduced access would force us towards locally grown, seasonal, native.

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[See also: How Brexit is already changing what we eat]

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Upmarket restaurants were already turning to the odds and sods of England’s vegetable repertoire to fill gaps left by slower fruit and veg imports from Europe and pricier meat and fish. Kalettes (a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts) were suddenly appearing on the BBC’s Great British Menu. No chef was worth their salt (and lots of it) without a signature celeriac remoulade. We are also, apparently, developing a taste for hotter chillis – they taste spicier when freshly picked than shipped in from somewhere more chilli-centric, it seems.

This may sound like a greener, even idyllic future. And it could be. But there are problems with the Turnip Framework.

First, we import more turnips than we produce ourselves – a symbol of Britain’s wider food insecurity. We have a misplaced “neo-imperial complacency” about where our food comes from, Britain’s foremost food policy guru Professor Timothy Lang told me. The attitude goes: “We’re rich, we can buy on the world market.” When prices go up, or shortages throttle supply, this stops sounding so clever.

Second, even if we produce trugfuls of patriotically ugly veg ourselves, there have to be enough pickers to pick them. More than £22m worth of fruit and vegetables were wasted last year alone because of worker shortages, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

Third, turnips are just not that nice. I know, because I live the turnip lifestyle, enduring a locally sourced veg box every fortnight that arrives containing lumps of soily beige I often can’t identify. Is it a kohlrabi or a swede? Either way, tea’s ruined.

[See also: New Statesman staff on the best veg boxes: from wonky carrots to local organics]

I signed up to these boxes four years ago to be eco-friendlier, figuring I should sacrifice lovely crunchy plastic-wrapped tomatoes and lettuce for veg grown at a nearby east London city farm (and thereby rich in petrol and traces of cocaine). Despite transforming me into a far more imaginative cook, it is just really dull.

The idea of a global Britain – access to new and exciting markets – was surely one of cosmopolitan variety rather than Soviet forbearance. My abiding memory of turnips is from an Armenian fable we often had to re-enact at Sunday school: peasants struggle to pull up The Enormous Turnip, and there is no moral of the story, so bland is the eponymous root.

To sell the nation on utilitarian alternatives to their usual diets, consumer tastes have to change. British fishermen have been trying to do this since 2021 with the ocean’s turnip, spider crab – rebranding it “Cornish king crab”. Still, we export more spider crabs to Europe than we eat here as a mainstream seafood. Consumer habits would have to change too, if we were to grow more of our own produce. As the total number of allotment plots has declined, and with gardens at an ever-rising premium, the access is hardly there.

Successive Tory governments have ignored the bulk of the national food strategy’s recommendations, many of which were dismissed by Boris Johnson hours after publication in 2021. The report highlights our poor provision of school food and cookery classes. “Food tech remains a second-class subject – a fun but frivolous distraction from the real business of learning,” the report concludes. “It is time to take food education seriously.”

Without the will to educate or nudge consumers into less appealing eating habits, Coffey’s turnip vision won’t get off – or out from under – the ground. So you turnip if you want to, Thérèse, Britain’s not for turnip-ing.

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