Do you know your onions?

Ignorance is not bliss: how lack of education is leading to further problems in diet and food production. But are we beginning to learn?

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As someone who is gardening across Worcestershire and also carry’s out grounds maintenance throughout Worcester the appreciation of nature and wildlife is something that is not just instinctive to me, (I believe it is to all of us), but it is so ingrained upon me that I find some attitudes genuinely incomprehensible.

If you are like me, and believe that the eighth deadly sin is ignorance and the lack of a curious mind in a wondrous world, then you might find it rather worrying how bad the disconnect between nature and an increasing number of human beings is becoming. In a world with an ever growing population, the stress on the environment will be immense in the coming decades, and what we do now will have an effect on the time to come. But to make the right decisions, we need to be informed. And what I have seen over recent years fills me with a genuine worry.

I’m sure we’ve all shared Jamie Oliver’s amazement at the time he presented school children with fruits and vegetables and asked them to name them: tomatoes were mistaken for potatoes, beetroots for pears, and an aubergine for an alien.

At the same time, we have become addicted to the fast-food lifestyle and one of ready-made meals, stuffing ourselves and our children to the gunnels with sugar. Commerce being what it is, industry has responded to our demands: I get slightly depressed when I walk around any convenience store and see how much shelf space is given over to sweets and chocolates. In every case, it is often two or three times the area than that given to fresh fruit and vegetables.

This problem is compounded by a great gaping hole in the school curriculum. It seems that nature is not on the school agenda anymore. We have become so specialised in our education that at an early age we break down into chemistry, biology, and physics. We are looking at a micro world whilst not educating children at a more macro level.

If I look at the same problem from the perspective of my own training, that of horticulture, I see how difficult it is to attract young people into the field. Horticulture is essentially an area that is entirely untaught in schools. Of course, we have GCSE biology, which covers the basic of plant life and reproduction, but it is so uninspiring that it probably has a negative effect on getting people interested in the subject, and it is such a small part of the curriculum that it doesn’t get the attention that plants actually deserve (as a species, plants and trees make up 99% of the planet’s biomass – so glossing over such a vital and wide ranging subject in just a few lessons is, frankly, absurd).

Perhaps part of the problem is that real life nature is hard to teach in the confines of a modern school? It’s hard to teach children about what types of tree there are when looking out over a drab tarmac playground with red brick buildings beyond the school gates and where the only green thing visible is a scrubby patch of grass beside the road. Real nature education depends on children getting out into the great outdoors and experiencing the fields and the woods – and the simple truth is that that is just not possible in today’s world of budgets and health and safety and moral panic.

I do think this is recognised however. Much of the training in the landscape industry is now become work-based, which is the best type of education available in my opinion. This is a lesson I have taken on board myself, as I am currently looking to recruit an apprentice and to teach them on the job. It’s a shift I’ve noticed since my time at college, and whilst it is good, it still doesn’t address the question of the younger learners in the classroom.

The need for closer association of nature and how we benefit from it is, I think, beginning to come through however. Yesterday’s budget was a sign that lessons are being taken to heart: George Osborn’s Sugar Tax is to be commended. Usually, I don’t like the idea of a nanny state, or of being taxed to encourage behavioural change and I prefer to leave the choices to responsible adults as to how they live their lives, but this argument fails when we see how much those choices are costing the rest of us on the NHS in a nation that is indebted to one and a half trillion pounds (or about £40,000 for every tax-paying adult). It’s all very well letting adults behave recklessly, but it’s wrong to expect everyone else to pay for it. After all, if your neighbour left their rubbish outside your front door, would you be happy to clean it up?

It isn’t just children who need the right education however. Did you know that about 40% of vegetables that are grown in the UK are left to rot on the fields or given as animal food as they are deemed “not cosmetic enough for consumption?” What this means is that there are basically too ugly to be sold to UK consumers in supermarkets, despite the fact that they are perfectly viable and good to eat. In fact, ASDA has recently gained some good media coverage by selling boxes of “wonky vegetables” – a decent sized box of mixed vegetables that sell for £3.50. (Looking at them in the photos just makes my mouth water frankly).

You can see these wonky vegetables here: http://your.asda.com/news-and-blogs/asda-s-phenomenal-wonky-veg-coming-to-a-store-near-you

On a similar theme of food being wasted by general stupidity (such as ‘sell by dates’), Tesco has recently announced that it will roll out its trial scheme of donating surplus food to charities on a nationwide level. Last year, the store threw away in excess of 55,000 tonnes of food, of which about 33,000 tonnes was edible.

So there are signs that society is beginning to wake up to this artificial problem, that we are re-adjusting our expectations and being more realistic about what is good for both the environment and us. And it’s not all bad news at all: at the weekend I took time out to walk around Madresfield Court in Malvern, open for Daffodil Sunday. I was encouraged to see how many children were there with their parents.

Perhaps there is hope for us yet?

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