In an Australian town called Cootamundra 30 years ago, as a young journalist, I played five-a-side with a team of young women whose primary work was as asparagus-pickers.
It produced instructive interactions among people with very different backgrounds. I’d just come back from a year backpacking in Europe. They regarded me as an entertaining oddity who needed to be protected from the rougher side of life.
They saw themselves as a tough working-class elite – as they were – and all others as more fragile. Asparagus-picking was a very high-paying job for Cootamundra, but one that everyone knew was immensely hard work.
I thought of those young women when reading the anonymous words of a British asparagus farmer who expects to lose 30 per cent of his crop because his post-coronavirus local workforce is struggling to cope with the physicality of picking: “It’s a complete nightmare, to be honest. If I had to rely on British workers I would be out of business next year.”
The farmer is quoted as suggesting that British workers just aren’t “up to” what his usual immigrant workforce achieves.
But before we descend into stereotypes, this is a good moment to think about food production methods and about what we should expect in the 21st century of any worker, from anywhere in the world.
Per Hogberg, Head of the British Asparagus Growers Association, is quoted as saying: “It’s backbreaking work. Migrant workers will go a 12-hour shift.”
That makes me think back to the 2013 Fruit Focus, where an older apple farmer told me how he remembered the crop being got in decades ago – housewives, children and retired people arriving to work for a few hours as and when they could, picking up a bit of handy extra cash.
Apples are a crop that’s relatively flexible in timing, unlike berries or asparagus, but the farmer said to me of course that couldn’t be done now – supermarkets would never stand for the uncertainty of supply or the variability of the product.
We now have a food system in which the structure is driven by the demands of the supermarkets and farmer gate prices are squeezed to an absolute minimum, all too often below production costs.
And all of this produces an insecure supply of deeply unhealthy food that’s a major factor in the obesity epidemic that has created a population more vulnerable to Covid-19 than most of the rest of Europe.
Our population needs at least four times as much fruit and vegetables as now for a healthy diet; in fact, if we want to produce it locally, we’d need something like eight times as much as we grow now.
But it is clear we have nothing like the labour force to produce that, at least if it is grown in current ways, without even getting to the environmental issues.
There are very few people who can pick asparagus for 12 hours a day, and we have to ask: should anyone be doing that, being worked into the ground like an early Victorian factory worker, in the 21st century?
I’ve often focused on the ecological damage being done by large-scale industrial monoculture. But we also need to think about the human damage – the sustainability of the life we’re asking people to lead.
Do we really want to burn them out in a few years, leaving them with the kind of physical damage that coal mining and steelmaking used to inflict?
On small areas of land, a small cooperative or group of workers can produce a diverse range of crops, demanding and certainly hard work, but far more varied, physically viable work for many more people.
If you’re spending an hour picking enough asparagus for that day’s local box scheme, before moving on to check the tomatoes for diseases and then cutting some salad, the labour is not of the monotonous, repetitive type that far too much farm labour now demands.
Sustainability is about ecology, but it is also about giving people decent-paying, physically safe, fulfilling careers they can do for decades, in any part of their working life.
That’s why fellow Green peer Jenny Jones and I will be taking every chance we can in the House of Lords to question our current food system, the weakness and risks of which have been exposed by Covid-19 but far pre-date it, and look forward to the planned England Food Strategy, which had been expected to be released by now.