The planet on your plate

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Where in the world has the food for my school lunch come from, asks Dr David Bellamy, and how much has it cost the Earth to put it there?

We all know that fish don't have fingers and that they do have bones, and hereby hangs my fishy tale. Every school lunch is a lesson in biology and geography, with a bit of history and maths thrown in. Every course started its life as a plant and, for those who are not vegans, some had animal connections. Whatever your choice for lunch, your meal was probably grown or lived a long way away from your school.

Ask your class to check on the packets in the supermarket and find out where the different foods they eat came from. Mark all the sources on a world map and, wow! It makes you feel very important. You are an international school at the centre of a food web that spans the entire world.

My choice for lunch today is fish fingers, French fries, lettuce, tomato and bell pepper salad, and seasonal fruit, all washed down with orange drink. cFish fingers were invented partly for convenience. They are bite-sized, boneless and were covered in breadcrumbs to hide the fact they were not made of cod - overfishing had reduced the stocks of the choicest fish so that trawlers started to catch strange-looking creatures such as angler fish. Great to eat, but not so good to look at. So fish grew fingers! The Press, of course, found out, so one major producer spent money advertising the fact that theirs were really made of cod.

Today, overfishing affects most of the world's seas, cod is an endangered species and many coastal fishing communities have been forced out of work. Another problem is the size of the trawl-nets used by fishing fleets. Enormous nets catch everything, including whales and dolphins. Remember, they are mammals and breathe air like us. When caught, they are dragged behind the ships and drown. What's more, other sea creatures and fish too small to be sold are caught and thrown back, most of them dead. The gigantic trawls have an added problem; as they bump along the bottom they destroy everything - shellfish, crabs and the nursery grounds of many important varieties of wildlife.

When overfishing happens in tropical countries, the local fishers can no longer catch enough food to feed their families, so they use dynamite and poisons, such as cyanide, to catch what's left. This destroys the living reef that shelters both the shore and many marine species.

You are not likely to have shark-fin soup on the school menu, but shark fishing is perhaps one of the worst things happening in our seas, even around Britain. Often sharks, once caught, simply have their fins cut off and are thrown back in the sea to die. Many sharks are now on the endangered list and, once they have gone, the marine system will be out of balance, spelling all sorts of trouble.

On my lunch plate I have some chips. We eat a lot of potatoes, so they are grown in large fields under intensive, mass cultivation. Some of the most productive potato farms are in East Anglia, where different varieties are grown for different uses -c chipping, boiling and mashing. Lots of fertilisers and other chemicals have been used to grow them.

The fertilisers leak out into streams and rivers, where they can cause water weeds to grow out of control. Such blooms, as they are called, can kill fish and other wildlife. Pesticides and herbicides can also cause problems and could end up on your lunch plate! Fortunately, some producers and buyers are becoming aware of this and are working towards integrated crop management. This aims to make sure no fertilisers or other chemicals get into the wrong place.

There are also plans to help farmers make the whole countryside more wildlife-friendly by putting hedgerows, copses and wetlands back into working order. The quicker it happens the better.

Like the fish in the fingers, my salad, fruit and orange drink may have come from anywhere in the world. Some of it we can't grow in Britain in winter and some of it we can't grow here at all. Much of it is grown in far-away places because land and labour are cheaper, so larger profits can be made. People in developing regions, including parts of Africa, India and South America, are badly affected by this. Families that used to grow their own food have been moved away so crops can be grown for export. Farms use tractors, not people, so only a few locals have jobs. The rest have to leave their villages to try and find work.

Each day, some 60,000 people in the developing regions leave their villages and go to shanty towns seeking jobs. This indicates the size of the problem, which, in part, is due to the cheap foods we import.

Crops need a lot of water and, in the poorer countries of the world, water is often in short supply. It takes 17,000 tonnes of water to grow one tonne of cotton to make jeans, so reservoirs have to be built. These flood farmland and can become breeding places for nasty parasites, which cause diseases in communities that can't afford modern medicine. If the irrigation is not carried out properly, the soil may become so salty that crops won't grow at all. In rainy areas where trees have to be cut down to make way for crops, soil erosion can be a problem and fertile land can be washed away.

We must, however, polish off our school lunch and look at the problem of what happens to the food after we've eaten it. Well, we flush it down the loo! Off go all those nutrients, which have been imported from around the world, through your local sewage works. Our poo goes into rivers and seas, choking frogs and poisoning fish along the way.

To finish up on a good note, though, the ingredients for our school meals are bought in bulk, so there is not as much rubbish (packets, cans, bottles and tins, etc) to be disposed of.

A good project is to ask your pupils to collect all the packaging their family is left with after they've bought their week's food and look at where it all comes from, and where it all ends up.

Remember, each one of us is a prime polluter - or should I say poo-looter? - of our planet.


Poo You and the Potoroo's Loo (how waste can be recycled), byDavid Bellamy, Pounds 6.99. Portland Press, 01206 796351 The Compost Box (education pack for infants and juniors exploring compost as a curriculum topic), by Michael Marston, Pounds 8 (+ Pounds 2 pp). National Federation of CityFarms, The Green House, Hereford Street, Bedminster,Bristol BS3 4NA, 0117 923 1800 Learning from the Land (a guide for teachers at all levels about opportunities to gain first-hand experience of farming and food production), Pounds 10 (inc pp). Food and Farming Education Service, The National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park,Warwickshire CV8 2LZ, 01203 535707

Schools Organic Gardens (a guide for infantjunior teachers linking science, technology and the environment), by Jennifer Pattison, Pounds 7.95 (inc pp). Association for Science Education, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AA, 01707 283001

The School Orchard Pack (materials for primary school teachers to grow, plant and maintain fruit and nut trees), by Liz Russell, published by Learning Through Landscapes, Pounds 9.50 (+ Pounds 1.25 pp). From Biblios, Star Road, Partridge Green,W Sussex RH13 8LD, 01403 710851 This list was compiled with the assistance of the Councilfor Environmental Education, University of Reading, LondonRoad, Reading, Berks RG1 5AQ, 0118 975 6061

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