Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Sunday 15 March 2015

It takes HOW MUCH to grow a lettuce?!!!!

I recently attended a training workshop on 'How to become a Food Champion', hosted by the University of Sheffield's food sustainability group, Sheffield on a Plate. Amongst the various intriguing stats , one in particular seemed to hit me across the face:

'The environmental impact of throwing away a lettuce is 100 times greater than the impact of throwing away the packaging it came in'

I had always believed that packaging had a key role when adding up the environmental costs of our food. Hence, I always avoided buying pre-wrapped fruit and veg from the supermarkets, taking my own bags down to the market instead to fill up with loose produce. But it seems I had my values confused.

To me, this startling fact raises two questions. Firstly - when did we stop valuing food as we should? It is a struggle to comprehend how far removed we are from the natural 'status - quo' where we would only be able to eat what we could hunt and kill, forage for or scavenge from other animals. Now we delegate food production to others, and expect it to be laid out for our convenience - but we still moan about the time and effort it takes to shop for it all! We are very sensitive to when food prices rise, but perhaps we have forgotten just how much labour, land and thorough care goes into producing our food. And not just any food - healthy, rigorously checked and nutritious food, for the main part sourced with care, at a standard many nations can't afford. 
It saddens me when supermarkets try to tempt us with bulk bargains into buying more than we can possibly use - as though the most important thing is to clear it off their shelves. But individual responsibilities count too - it depresses me to see so many half eaten takeaways simply jettisoned on the kerb when I walk into work in the morning.
The Love Food, Hate Waste campaign would be delighted to help you minimise your own food waste. This is not the place to lecture, so I will refer you to their excellent website: 

But I will share my one top tip from the workshop: you can freeze ANYTHING. Even cheese. And ice cube trays are brilliant for making the most of leftover bits of liquid - how about feeling the remaining bit of milk before you go on holiday into ice cube trays so that when you get back you already have the perfect amount for that welcome first cup of tea?

Meanwhile, the second question: just why IS the environmental impact of lettuce so high? Apparently, it takes three and a half GALLONS of water to produce one head of lettuce (source http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/wheres-californias-water-going) . Other water- thirsty products include broccoli, grapes, peppers and tomatoes. Agriculture is the largest user of water supplies, accounting for around 70 %. Food security faces challenging times with climate change, an increasing global population and changing diets , particularly in rapidly developing countries. Plant scientists are responding to this urgent need- developing drought resistant cultivars and investigating partial or drip irrigation systems. Yet, in this country, it seems we place even less value on water as we do on food, in the ways we unthinkingly flush it down the drain in our daily activities. 

Quite a lot to consider the next time you buy a lettuce. It is time we stopped viewing food as a ready commodity, and something we must cherish - it is not natural to have such an abundance available and this situation is threatened. Perhaps the best thing any of us can do is to clear a space on the windowsill or in the garden, and grow our own.

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