Tuesday, 3 January 2012
Food Security on the Isle of Man
After our long Christmas holiday I decided to venture out and do a bit of grocery shopping and errand running this afternoon. Now though the weather was windy, the temperature was warmer than usual and the sea didn't seem as rough as on stormy days past. Even so, the local amenity site, where I'd hoped to drop off all of our holiday recyclables, was closed due to the weather. As I performed my three-point-turn to perfection I wondered why on earth a little bit of wind would be any reason to close the site. It's not as if there weren't a nice cosy office there for the recycle guys to sit in and enjoy a nice cuppa. Pulling back out onto the road I then remembered that a friend of mine told me that this morning's Steam Packet ferry crossing had also been cancelled due to the weather. This is probably the tenth time that this has happened in the last six weeks and it's really been a pain for people travelling back and forth as well as for businesses who rely on shipments of goods being brought in on time.
A bit peeved off over not being able to offload a boot full of empty bottles, cans and gift wrap, I headed up to Shoprite to pick up groceries. Though it was fortunately open, on closer inspection all was not as it should be. While stocks of most tinned and dried foods were plentiful, some items such as fresh herbs, milk and cream were conspicuously missing. Then walking to the back of the shop I was shocked to find the bakery area nearly devoid of fresh bread, pastries, muffins, scones and everything else you'd expect to find there. Sure we've had some holidays recently and sure a single ferry had to be cancelled today but the items that were missing were mainly products produced on the island!
Shortly before the holidays, Manx Radio's Talking Heads show hosted a discussion on this very topic: Food Security on the Isle of Man. Ironically enough, I was listening to it while driving back from another dead-end amenity site trip. Due to nearly a week of cancelled ferry crossings, the community was in the grip of panic buying. Our single Tesco was mobbed and emptied of fresh produce, and milk, meat, bread and toilet paper was also in short supply. Even I who keep a well supplied kitchen was a bit concerned - though we grow quite a lot of our own veggies we are by no means self-sufficient when it comes to the bulk of our diet. What on earth would we do if we couldn't buy goat milk or holiday sweets?! ;) Well, there was a bit of hysteria going around at that time and I'd say most people were getting wound up over having a lack of food choice rather than lack of food. Even so, some very important issues were raised:
1. Bread wasn't able to be made because yeast shipments hadn't come in for the Ramsey Bakery. Say again? The main bakery on the island that 80% of the community relies isn't yeast sufficient? It's possible for bakeries to replenish their own stocks of this ingredient every day from their own product and I'd have thought that it was cost effective as well. Bread is the Staff of Life and if we rely on outside shipments of yeast for its production then the food security of this island is dire indeed.
2.The main dairy enterprise on the island, the Isle of Man Creamery, relies on shipments of plastic containers for dairy product packaging. If the ferry is cancelled and the containers don't come in on time, it means that milk can't be distributed to the shops. Considering this, wouldn't a permanent packaging solution be more efficient as well as beneficial to the goal of island wide food security? Why not bring back glass milk bottles and put in place a system for them to be cleaned and reused time and again? Deposits could be paid on the initial bottle(s) and as long as you returned your empty ones with you when you shopped then you could get away from any additional bottle costs. Heck, maybe the bottles could be produced on-island, thus creating more industry.
3. There is a thriving beef and lamb industry on the Isle of Man but unfortunately many of the animals are shipped off-island to be slaughtered and processed and then shipped back to be sold. This is due to the high costs of using the Isle of Man Meats Plant, our local government-subsidised abbatoir (slaughter house), and the fact that it has no competition on-island. Though it's unethical to stress the animals out with a sea voyage of doom, it's shameful that the local abbatoir isn't serving the needs of the farmers - thus forcing them to have to ship the animals away. Interestingly enough, I was supposed to be part of a group taking a tour of the abbatoir in November. On the day of the tour I received notice that it had been cancelled then a few days later while inquiring into the cancellation I found out that all the Directors had been sacked. Considering this as well as the fact that plans for a new abbatoir have been submitted we might see some positive changes in this industry the years to come.
4. Stocks of food are kept at minimum levels. This is true of shops the world over but it's especially critical in a place that is reliant on food being brought in on a boat subject to 'acts of God'. What you see is what you get when it comes to what the supermarket has on sale. It's worrying to also learn that Manx livestock are subject to the same issues as people - most of their grain is sent in from abroad and shipments are affected by the same weather conditions. Wouldn't it make more sense to create secure stockpiles for people and animals both? Fresh food obviously is affected by long term storage but stockpiles of grain wouldn't be a bad idea in my book.
There are plenty of positive things to say about food production on the Isle of Man but it's during times of stress that these enterprises come under scrutiny. A few missed sailings is really nothing to worry about in the long-term but it does bring up the question of what could happen if we run into greater challenges. Some people choose to put their heads in the sand on this matter but I think it's a really precarious way to live your life. The saying goes that the average nation is three meals away from revolution. And while a single person might not be able to do much about the food security of an entire country, they are very much able to do something about it within their own family and local community. Learning to cook the essentials, connecting with others who produce or just keeping a couple of weeks supply of food at home can help. So while I can't say that I grow and mill my own wheat (yet!), I can say that because I bake my own bread that I won't need to join the crowd of people scrounging for that last loaf on the shelf today.