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Supra-sensible - March 2014

Self-sufficiency is an irrational activity. I'm pretty sure accountants never do it, because it makes no financial sense whatsoever. Yes, I save £20-30 on my weekly shopping bill, but my gardening bill more than makes up for it. Last year I spent £3000 on a greenhouse. Even assuming that I spend £300 per year on tomatoes, that is, nearly £6 every week, it will take 10 years to break even! Further, specialising is what has made humans so successful. It is so much more efficient to have one person do nothing but grow cauliflowers, while another spends all day selling them and others spend their days working on production lines to afford to buy them. The supermarkets stock a wide range of fruit and veg from all over the world year-round. Why on earth do we insist on putting our coat on and heading off down the garden with a torch on a January evening in the driving rain in search of leeks? It is insane!

There are very good reasons to do it, though. A major one for me is lack of trust in the food we buy. I'll give you one reason why I don't trust Big Business to supply my food. About 18 months ago I suffered a severe allergic reaction to a 'natural' honey skin cream purchased from M&S. I came up in what looked like chemical burns when my skin was exposed to the sun. The doctor had seen nothing like it and took photographs; it took weeks of steroid treatment to heal, and longer for the scars to fade. I couldn't go out in daylight for a month - as a smallholder that was seriously inconvenient! The reaction of M&S was predictable - blandishments about concern for the safety of their customers, along with careful avoidance of taking any responsibility. They offered me £5 in compensation. I'm not picking on M&S here; I'm confident that any high street retailer would respond in identical fashion. Research showed that M&S, Boots and other retailers had been advised of serious allergic reactions to this particular chemical, known as MI, in up to 10% of consumers over a year beforehand, yet it and all the others were still selling products containing it. They continued to sell it until the EU formally requested they cease using it. Now unpleasant as that reaction was, it was transient and the link to its cause was clear. What if it had been something more insidious - say, it causes cancer after a decade of use in combination with some other chemical? How hard do you think it would be to get corporations to withdraw such a chemical, and how much would they hide behind laboratory test results? One only has to consider asbestos and tobacco to see that Big Business will cheerfully peddle poison and fight any attempt to stop it, and that they are able to purchase science to support their cause. As soft and fluffy as their marketing makes them seem, corporations are merely machines to make profits, at any cost. The larger they become, the harder it is to hold them accountable.

When you grow your own food you witness its entire journey from seed to plate. You know what you put on the soil, what you fed it with, when the produce was picked, what, if anything, you sprayed it with, and how and when it was cooked. No food that you buy can match that provenance. We have no idea what chemicals have been sprayed on the fruit and veg in the supermarket. Companies are obliged to declare what chemicals are added to processed food, but if your apples, say, have been dosed with insecticide monthly all year and then sprayed with something to extend their shelf-life, there is no requirement whatsoever to label it. We are purely depending on the industry's safety testing of the chemicals, and the farmer's professionalism in applying them correctly. Now I don't have a beef with farmers, but I'm not inclined to trust chemical companies.

There is more to it than simply lack of trust of the food chain though, or the health benefits of the activity associated with gardening. Growing food reconnects us to the food chain. It reminds us how difficult it can be to get food, how much skill goes into it, how basic to life itself it is. You cannot take food for granted when you grow it. It is an immensely satisfying thing to do, to produce an entire meal by your own hand. And the delayed gratification of waiting for each food to come into season and then feasting on it for a short time, always looking forward to the next thing, increases the pleasure of eating enormously.

There is one more aspect of home-grown food - that of quality. While it is fairly simple to grow some veg, the results that you can get by continually learning and improving what you do far exceed anything that commercial growers have the resources to do. Put simply, if you have 500 m2 rather than 500 acres, you can pamper your soil to the peak of fitness. If you grow 100 carrots, you can produce considerably finer, more nutritious specimens than if you grow 100,000 carrots, even with the expertise that being a professional grower carries.

Growing your own might not be rational, but it is something higher than rational. The reasons for doing it transcend mere logic, sums and effort calculations. It is a supra-sensible thing to do and I whole-heartedly recommend it.