Category Archives: food health

Can we grow more vegetables?

Vegetables and fruit in Scotland mapped. Regions of historically strategic land and soil. The Iron Age, then the Romans, Picts and 1700s Improvers. Imports vs local production. Opportunities.

As background to the recent Vegetable Summit, held in Edinburgh, London and Cardiff, Nourish Scotland [1] asked the James Hutton Institute if it was possible to define the places where vegetables are grown in the region. The resulting map, prepared by Nora Quesada, is shown below.

Click on the map to open a larger version in a separate tab

Each coloured dot on the map indicates a field of fruit or vegetables. (The dots are much larger than individual fields.) It is clear from the distribution of dots that relatively little land exists in Scotland on which vegetables and fruit are grown. Even in places where the coloured dots are concentrated, the land area covered by fruit and vegetables is generally less than a few percent. Most of the other cultivated land is under cereals, wheat and barley.

Why do we want to know where vegetables are grown? Questions around  diet, health and food poverty at this time of agricultural plenty were  raised in a recent issue of Nourish Scotland’s magazine, January 2017, with the title ‘What would Boyd Orr do?’ [2].

John Boyd Orr was a pioneer of research into nutrition in Scotland many decades ago.  His work became known throughout the world. The article asked what he would do today faced with the situation that, while vegetables are essential for a healthy human diet, most are imported and fail to reach the people that need them.

It is important to know therefore whether more land than shown on the maps can be converted to growing vegetables? For example, how much land would be needed to provide an optimum (rather than minimum) diet for the whole country from local produce; and can the cities be supplied with fruit and veg by the land surrounding them?

To answer such questions, it is necessary, first, to know what is grown and where. That is the purpose of the present mapping.

How is it done?

The EU’s Integrated Administration and Control Systems (IACS), which is used to manage farm subsidies, collects data on the crops grown on each field. The Scottish Government provided that information to the James Hutton Institute. Each field in IACS is geo-referenced and can be located on a base map that is of high enough resolution to show the outlines of the fields. The IACS reference then allows the fields on the base map to be linked to specific crops in specific years. This is how the maps shown in this article were constructed [3].

The IACS system does not account for vegetables from gardens and allotments and inner city and rural small scale production. There is much activity at these small scales, which we’ll look at in future posts.

Here we  consider two examples of areas where vegetables are now produced: Strathmore and Angus and then Moray, Cromarty and Tarbat. Commercial growing needs good soil and a not-too-extreme climate, and given the difficulty of finding this combination in Scotland, it becomes apparent that today’s vegetable-producing regions have had strategic importance for hundreds and even thousands of years.

Strathmore and Angus

The  main area for production of vegetables lies in Strathmore (map below), which stretches over a generally lowland region, from east of Perth and then in a north-east direction to the coast north of Angus. Angus itself is a major source of fruit and many types of vegetable. Across the Tay, parts of Fife are similarly productive.

The crops occupying the greatest surface area are still the cereals – barley and wheat – but they are not shown on the map. In addition to potato and a wide range of vegetables, this area is the centre of fruit growing in Scotland – strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants.

Increasingly in recent decades many vegetables are sown in the field then covered with a protective fleece to encourage early growth and   to distance them from pests. Similarly, most soft fruit growing today is under the protection of polytunnels, where again the environment is less severe in winter and pests can be regulated.

Strathmore, Angus and Fife showing approx. locations of fields growing vegetables in one year.

The fertile soils and maritime climate here were of strategic importance to the iron age communities who built their many hill forts along the Sidlaw Hills that form a barrier between Strathmore and the estuary and coast to the south. The famous Dunsinane, or Dunsinnan as it is referred to on old local maps, is one of them [4]. One of the photographs shown below was taken from Dunsinnan, north across Strathmore.

Later the Romans invaded, moving north from the region of Hadrian’s Wall, not finding much of a welcome it seems, and erecting forts and watchtowers along the Gask Ridge and in a line just within but near the northern extremity of the cloud of coloured dots in the image above [5].

The Romans’ massive Legionary Fortress at Inchtuthil, within the northern boundary of the strath (see map above), was built and deserted in the 1st Century AD, and was probably sited to guard the passes north along what is today’s A9. The fortress and marching soldiers would have needed constant supplies of food, and probably achieved this by access to the rich land of Strathmore.

From Dunsinnan Hill north across Strathmore (top), the Isla in flood at the the last sunset of the year (lower r) and winter sky above polytunnel frames (www.livingfield.co.uk)

The image at the top of the three above was taken from Dunsinnan early in year, looking across Strathmore. The nearest fields are still in stubble after last year’s harvest; the intermediate ones, showing rich brown soil, have been ploughed; and the green ones just beneath the low cloud were sown the previous autumn with winter cereals or oilseeds. The Roman line stretched this side of the hills.

Centuries later, the Picts made this productive region integral to their southern kingdom in the 7th and 8th centuries. Many symbol stones and ‘pit- ‘ place names survive here from that time [6]. Some of the crops grown here today would not be known then – potato, for example, was yet to cross the Atlantic, and the other ‘root’ crops – turnip and swede – were probably unknown.

Yet Strathmore, Angus and Fife would have offered enough agricultural land to feed this civilisation with its basic grain and protein. You can see it was a prize that other peoples would want to take for their own – the Scots moving across from Ireland would have found little land of comparable quality on the west coast.

The Black Isle, Moray, Tarbat, Cromarty

A hundred miles directly north of Inchtuthil Fortress, across today’s passes of Drumochter and Slochd, the land falls to the coast and becomes productive again. The area (map below) grows fewer types of vegetable today than Strathmore, but grain and tuber yields remain high.

The coloured dots show that seed and ware potato were the commonest vegetables in this region, but interestingly carrot is also prevalent. Go back to the 1780s and the farmer/traveller Andrew Wight had this to relate when riding along the northern side of the Cromarty Firth [7]:

“….. that Robert Hall, the farm manager of Fowlis  ‘introduced a crop, rare in Scotland and an absolute novelty in the north, which is carrot. ….. The farm-horses are fed on carrots instead of corn; and they are always in good condition.”
Andrew Wight visited the area as part of his survey of the Improvements in the late 1700s, but the rich coastal land here has a historical legacy stretching back centuries.

The map above shows the area around the Cromarty and Moray Firths, the Moray coast stretching to the right and the Black Isle left of centre.

The northern Picts established their ‘elite’ farm and monastery at Portmahomack on the northern tip of the Tarbat peninsula. Their massive carved stones, at Nigg, Cadboll and Shandwick, were major contributions to European art. They arose within a civilisation based on the stability afforded by this good agricultural land [6].

As for Strathmore, the rich soil around the Dornoch and Cromarty Firths must have been eyed by the Scots from the west and the Norse from the east. Pictish civilisation, with its distinctive art and craft, did not survive.

Lines in the earth, Tarbat, including rapeseed drilled directly into cereal stubble (top left), then clockwise, the Storehouse of Foulis built in the 1700s; the Picts’ Shandwick Stone; site of the Tarbat Discovery Centre; and coastal grazing looking from Tarbat across the Dornoch Firth (www.livingfield.co.uk)

Opportunities

The maps derived from IACS data show the extent of vegetable growing today. Vegetables and fruit could be grown over a much wider area and a much higher density if the demand was there.

For example, the pulses – beans and peas – plants that fix their own nitrogen and so save on mineral fertiliser, have been reduced to a minor crop. The IACS map shows concentrations of peas and beans in the Borders, but overall  the pulses cover less than 5% of the arable land. This is low by global standards. Countries that have transformed their agriculture in recent years now assign a quarter of their land to nitrogen-fixing crops.

Developments towards greater veg and fruit production and nitrogen fixing pulses will not be just though existing growers expanding their production. There are many local initiatives, some in areas considered inhospitable for vegetables. There is great scope therefore for increasing production but the demand for quality local produce has to be there from consumers.

Future posts on this web site will look at the value of fruit and veg to health, the degree to which Scotland depends (and it depends a lot) on imports for its fruit and veg, the new vegetable products that are appearing on the market (including beer and bread from beans), the increasing local initiatives in veg production and the possibilities for growing much more fruit and veg and making it available to those who need it.

For more on vegetables on the Living Field web site…

Next up –Veg at Bangkok markets, Thailand and Minerals and vitamins from vegetables and fruit. 

For the Living Field’s experiences with veg growing, see Vegetables in the Living Field Garden. For some health benefits, see Cornbread, peas and back molasses and 2 veg to pellagra. For random posts on pulses (peas and beans), see Feel the pulsePeanuts to pellagra and Scofu: the quest for an indigenous Scottish tofu.

From Dunsinnan, across Strathmore, early in the year 2017

Sources, links

[1] Nourish Scotland: The Vegetable Summit was held on 24 October 2017. For background see Peas Please – the Veg Project.

[2] What would Boyd Orr do? Nourish Scotland Magazine, Issue 6, January 2017. The link is to a pdf file. The article by Pete Ritchie explains John Boyd Orr’s contribution and his continuing relevance today. Other articles cover diet, food poverty, vegetables  and right to food.

[3] IACS and map construction. Information of the Integrated Administration and Control System IACS scheme can be found at the web pages of the European Commission and the Scottish Government. Examples of a major exercise in mapping based on IACS data are given in a CAP Greening Review carried out by the James Hutton Institute for Scottish Government, published 2017: for links to the multi-part documentation, see CAP Greening Review on the SG web site; the section on mapping is Part 3 – Maps by David Miller, Doug Wardell-Johnson and Keith Matthews. Maps of vegetable growing produced in the present article were prepared by Nora Quesada.

[4] Dunsinnan hill fort. The Canmore site gives a detailed description.  A string of Iron Age ‘forts’ along the Sidlaw Hills south of Strathmore and just north of the flat, reclaimed coastal plain of the Carse of Gowrie, can be seen on the OS map of the area. Search for hill ‘forts’ by name. (Ps. Shakespeare promoted a different pronunciation – Dunsinane.)

[5] The exhibition Roman Empire – Power and People in 2015 at the McManus in Dundee was an invaluable introduction to life at the northern limits of the Roman Empire. The LF article Feeding the Romans gives some background on the land use around the line of fortifications along Strathmore. For comprehensive coverage of this northern Roman frontier: Woolliscroft, DJ, Hoffmann, B 2006. Rome’s first frontier – the Flavian occupation of Northern Scotland. The History Press (reprinted 2011).

[6]  Carver, Martin (2016) Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts. Edinburgh University Press. (2nd edition). Excavations of the farm and monastery are described. The Picts, flourishing between the 600s and 900s were part of a wider European culture . In their travels, they most likely imported various plants for use as food and medicinals, yet very little other than remnants of grain have survived. Maps in the book show the location of pit- place names.

[7] For Andrew Wight’s note on the innovative growing of carrots  by the Cromarty Firth in  the 1780s, see Great Quantities of Aquavitae II on this web site.

Contact

Text and background: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Mapping: nora.quesadapizarro@hutton.ac.uk

[Updated 2 December 2017  with revised main map.]

2 veg to pellagra

And following Cornbread, peas and black molasses and Peanuts to pellagra …. another way to avoid pellagra and other debilitating deficiencies in the diet is to taste and enjoy the sheer variety of fresh vegetables on display and for sale at our best local food markets.

Here is one held at a square in the town of Carcassonne, in the south of France, a few minutes walk from the Citadel.

It was well attended by locals, discerning or knowing in their choices, and by a few visitors, envious of the variety and freshness.

lf_nmg_crnbrdpsmlss_ccsnn_gs_1100

Here were the very fresh and short-lived leaves that need to be eaten today or tomorrow, others with tougher outsides that will keep a few days and still others like the onions, chestnuts and chillies that will keep for weeks or for months if treated right.

And below is similar produce from markets near Yangon in Burma. There’re maize cobs at the top left, on the same stall as pumpkins (also as Carcassonne). And for sale nearby is a diversity of green matter that you rarely see in Europe.

All parts of the plant are eaten – seed (the germinated bean sprouts), leaf, whether fresh or part cooked or pickled, then roots, root and stem tubers, various reproductive parts (tomato and chillies) and things unidentified. Nuts and grain legumes were also on display.lf_nm_crnbrdpsmlss_ngnvg_gs_1100

There are similarities in the produce offered at these two markets thousands of miles apart. They both offer this wide range of ‘keeping’  time. There are no ‘sell by’ dates! But people still know how long things last before they go off.

In well nourished societies, fresh produce is balanced with storable grain that will sustain families over drought or frost. Of the grains, cereal (corn) grain gives energy whereas legume or pulse grain (peas and beans) gives more protein.

Yet the offering for sale of grain is where markets like those near Yangon and Carcassonne differ. Much less storable grain – cereal or legume – is on display in Europe than in south east Asia.  Notably there is hardly any ‘short food chain’ grain for sale in local markets in Europe. Most of our grain is sourced globally and is highly processed.

In the north of the UK, for example, the most that the discerning home-buyer will see is a bag of locally grown oatmeal. And if in Orkney, you might strive to find a bag of bere meal (bere is a barley landrace).  And who now sells storable, dried, peas and beans?

There will be more on the balance end tension between cereals, pulses and veg …..

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Peanuts to pellagra

Following a trail ….. starting with a blues song – cornbread, peas and black molasses – sung at the Dundee Jazz festival – and on to chain gangs, slavery and rural poverty, and the peculiar malnutrition  caused by a maize-based diet, appearing as the debilitating condition pellagra, and then on to the discovery by Joseph Goldberger that pellagra was not an infectious disease but a dietary deficiency, a shortage of bioavailable niacin ….. and this trail leads to the question of what happens when maize became the staple diet, or at least a major part of it, as the crop spread to Asia and Africa from its origin in central America.

With maize Zea mays as the main corn (grain) and carbohydrate, there has to be other food to provide the missing vitamins – food such as groundnut Arachis hypogaea (usually named peanut in the UK) and other high-protein pulse crops, and fresh green vegetables. And it’s noteworthy that in parts of the tropics, maize is often grown along with pulses such as groundnut, and not just as patches side by side but in intimate mixtures, named intercrops when the two are grown in rows.

lf_nm_mxdcrps_gntmz_gs_750

The spatial arrangement of the two crops probably matters little for the balanced diet, but the combination, when in rows as in the image above, increases the yield on at least one of them. So there are two products – maize and groundnut (peanut) – which together provide much of a healthy diet, and they yield more from an acre of land if grown  together.

The groundnut-maize intercrop shown above was on the margins of the Irrawaddy river in Burma, probably growing on stored nutrients and water left behind as the river receded during the dry season. This example (and there is no one way to grow the two crops together) looked like a long thin ‘field’ of groundnut into which maize was planted in every fifth row.

Research elsewhere on groundnut-maize intercrops  shows that in this configuration, the maize yield is ‘free’ or extra, in that it does not suppress the yield from the groundnut.

lf_nm_mxdcrps_mzcbgntpds_gs_1100

The images above show maize cobs on sale at a local market and a groundnut harvest spread out in a cloth in the sun to dry. Each pod contains three or four seed (the ‘nuts’ in peanut). A month or two earlier, they were  on the plant, but unseen, buried just under the soil, an amazing adaptation that helps to protect the plant’s seeds while they fill and mature.

There are other ways to get essential vitamins in a maize-based diet, but the maize-groundnut mixed crop offers much towards a balanced diet and gets more from the environment than either crop grown alone.

Further

The article Mixed cropping in Burma gives more on crop mixtures, and scientific reference to pulses.

For more on the use of legumes in food: Botanists in the kitchen

Links on this site: Cornbread, peas and black molasses,  Feel the pulse

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

 

 

 

Cornbread peas and black molasses

During his session at the Dundee Jazz Festival, at the Frigate Unicorn on 18 November, Mike Whellans performed the blues classic Cornbread, peas and black molasses. Memories…

Made popular in folk and blues clubs this side of the Atlantic by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, it was a work song – forced work – a complaint on a monotonous diet. The song leads back to a dark history, but also to an enlightened discovery of the cause of a serious dietary deficiency that was thought to be an infectious disease.

The constituents

Cornbread is made from maize flour (maize is corn in the Americas) and black molasses from cane sugar (known as black treacle here). So that’s two members of the grass family, originally accompanied by fatty preserved meat, constituting the food of slaves, chain gangs and many rural poor. In fact, the words go Cornbread meat and black molasses in some versions of the song.

Not a healthy diet therefore and the cause of the disease pellagra, a deficiency in the vitamin niacin (B3 or nicotinic acid). Symptoms include sores covering large areas of the skin, vomiting, diarrhoea and eventually dementia.

At some point ‘peas’ entered the title, but they would probably have made little difference to the prevalence of the disease unless they were fresh.

Pellagra and niacin deficiency

The discovery by Joseph Goldberger in the USA that pellagra was a vitamin deficiency was a victory for logic and experiment over presumption and superstition. (See the links below under Sources.)

So where does the vitamin niacin come from. It is made in plants. They take up minerals from the soil and with the products of photosynthesis, make, for their own purposes, what we know as vitamins.

The deficiency has been associated with areas that consume maize (or sorghum) as the main staple carbohydrate, notably in the south of the USA, but including parts of southern Europe in the 1700s. Maize contains niacin, but not in a form readily available to humans.

A note on the Linus Pauling Institute’s page on niacin reads: “Interestingly, pellagra was not known in Mexico, where corn was also an important dietary staple and much of the population was also poor. In fact, corn contains appreciable amounts of niacin, but it is present in a bound form that is not nutritionally available to humans. The traditional preparation of corn tortillas in Mexico involved soaking the corn in a lime (calcium oxide) solution, prior to cooking. Heating the corn in an alkaline solution results in the release of bound niacin, increasing its bioavailability.’

Foods rich in niacin include pulses such as peas and groundnut (peanut), some fresh fish and meat, wheat bread, green leafy vegetables and fruits; and it’s this sort of food that the poor or enslaved pellagra victims did not get.

Sources

Pellagra and niacin

Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University: Niacin
http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/niacin

Poverty, slavery and the discovery of dietary deficiency

Middleton J. 2008. Pellagra and the blues song ‘Cornbread, meat and black molasses’. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 101, 569-570. Also Middleton J. 1999. The blues and pellagra: a public health detective story. BMJ 319, 7218.

National Institute of Health Office of History (USA) Dr Joseph Goldberger & the war on pellagra.

US Slave blogspot http://usslave.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/slave-diet-low-in-niacin-causes.html (Note: includes images of people afflicted by the disease)

Singers and songs

Mike Whellans web site: http://mikewhellans.co.uk/biography.htm

The Mudcat Cafe (discussion forum on trad songs):  Cornbread peas and black molasses.

Worksongs.org  http://www.worksongs.org/blog/2013/01/25/cornbread-and-peas-black-molasses

See Worksongs.org link above or search U-tube for the song title + Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Johnny Silvo or Mike Whellans.

Links to other livingfield pages that touch on slavery: Empire at Wall projects II MontroseIt was slavery days.

Ed: first heard Cornbread peas and black molasses sung by Johnny Silvo quite some time ago, but no idea at the time what cornbread and molasses were. Good, also, to listen to Mike Whellans again. He played for a time with Ali Bain on fiddle, touring the folk clubs in the 1980s; never forget their versions of Sweet Georgia Brown and  Jimmy Clay (on a vinyl LP called Ali Bain – Mike Whellans).

Great venue, the Frigate Unicorn – an upper room stretches almost the whole length of the ship.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

The Crunch at Dundee Science Centre

Meet the Expert day at Dundee Science Centre, 10 September 2016, part of The Crunch series of public events on sustainable agriculture and food, showcased two of our topics – Roots of Nutrition and Grain to Plate.

It was hands-on for the younger visitors – they donned lab coats, peered into test tubes, felt grain and rolled dough.  The not quite so young shared experiences on topical issues of food and health.

lf_crnch_16sep10_1_gs_1100The team from the Hutton were based in the darkened auditorium, partly to enable slideshows to be viewed on computer screens, but there was enough light to get some images (above).

Roots of Nutrition Main themes are that humans need at least 18 mineral nutrients and thirteen vitamins; but many diets lack iron, calcium or iodine, or the Vitamins A, C or D, causing ‘hidden hunger’ and poor health. Plants provide most of these minerals and vitamins; they take minerals from the soil and make vitamins in their tissues. There are direct links therefore between soil, plants and health. Peoples’ wellbeing can be improved by good soil and crop management.  Science can breed crop varieties that take up minerals from low concentration in soil. Gardening and farming can provide the wide range of foods that between them contain all the necessary minerals and vitamins.

Grain to Plate Main themes are that grain (or corn) crops, mainly barley and wheat, and later oat, were first brought here by migrants over 5000 years ago. Grains have sustained most people and their animals since then, at least up to the second half of the last century when imported grain began to replace home-grown. Today, most of our cereal carbohydrate is grown in other places. Oats is the only one grown, processed and eaten locally. It also needs less mineral fertiliser and pesticide than wheat. Yet more cereals could be grown locally for human food. Examples of bread made from barley, wheat and spelt were on display …. and here ‘s an idea for the future – bread made from insect flour! How would agriculture look farming insects instead of sheep and cows!

On the day …..

Roots of Nutrition: Philip White, Paula Pongrac and Konrad Neugebauer. Grain to plate: Gill Banks, Lauren Banks, Geoff Squire.

Thanks to Aisha and all at the Science Centre for organising the event.

More Crunch on this web site: Bere and cricket, Feel the Pulse.

For general info on Hutton Crunch exhibits email geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk