Embrace local foodstuffs and “grow what wants to grow”: Monty Don

The Maldives – along with the rest of the world – needs to grow, eat and appreciate local food, says famous UK broadcaster and horticulturalist Monty Don.

Don was one of the big-name writers at the Hay Festival on Aarah last weekend, and as President of the Soil Association in the UK, is one of the outspoken architects of the ‘organic food’ movement.

“There are now a tiny handful of firms who control certain basic products like soy and beef,” Don said. “The organic movement is intended to counteract that, by saying you can maintain and sustain productivity by working with nature, rather than imposing short term fertility on it.”

Embracing this concept means embracing local foodstuffs, Don explained, and “growing what wants to grow in a place.”

Producing sustainable food supplies in an island nation such as the Maldives only something that could be achieved “with very great difficulty” he acknowledged.

“But there’s a phrase that runs through my head – ‘learn how to live where you live.’ You need to tune in with the realities of a place, because as soon as you forget those guidelines, which are dictated by place not society – I think you get into trouble.”

As land was a precious resource in the Maldives, Don suggested, “obviously the sea is going to be the key to food sustainability.”

“I wouldn’t presume to tell people in the Maldives how to live, and I’m always worried when people apply systems that work great in California or the Home Counties of England, when locally people are saying ‘but this is how we’ve done it for generations’.”

But a country like the Maldives could be open to ideas from other agriculturally-challenged regions, he suggested.

People living on the rocky isle of Aran off the coast of Ireland had fed themselves for centuries by making their own soil from seaweed and sand, “just fertile enough to grow crops.”

“It’s a very laborious system, but it worked there, and was the most reasonable way cultivating that land,” he suggested.

Similarly, Don recounted an experience travelling down the Amazon river in South America, where locals, constrained from planting by sheer cliffs of jungle on either sides of the rivers many tributaries, had made gardens in boats which they pulled behind them, with soil in baskets, fruit trees and animals to provide manure.

A country faces many risks if it becomes divorced from its food supply, Don said, referring to Cuba’s oil crisis in 1991.

“Their oil dried up because it all came from Soviet Union,” he said. “Overnight there was no oil and no exports,” he said.

With the mechanised agriculture industry crippled, people had to grow thing themselves, Don said. They were forced to grow food organically “because they didn’t have any other choice – they didn’t have any pesticides or chemical fertilisers.”

“The hardest thing to do in Cuba was tilling the ground. Spades are a lot of work, and to feed a nation, spades are not enough. So they had to use oxen, and for that they needed to handle oxen. I keep cattle, and if cattle don’t want to do something, you can’t do anything about it. If you want to harness them you need skill, and so they had to go to the old men – it was only men over 80 who knew how.”

This was, he said, a vital lesson: “Don’t trade knowledge in for consumer products. Hang onto these skills, even if they don’t seen immediately applicable, because if you lose them they are gone and you don’t get them back.”

“One of the problems we have in our modern western world is we don’t have to do anything – we don’t own our lives. We don’t have to do anything, so we are not responsible for anything. We don’t know how to feed ourselves, we hardly know how to cloth our ourselves – we certainly don’t know how to make our clothes.

“We can log onto the internet anywhere and make huge sums of money, we but don’t know how to do anything.”

Such disconnection from the process of survival had other effects, Don proposed.

“I went to see my doctor in my little country town in England, and he said in passing that it had the worst heroin problem in Britain. I nearly fell off my seat.”

“It struck me – why in such beautiful countryside where people using drugs – it was because there was nothing for them to do, because agriculture had changed, and now on a British farm of 800 acres you only need one person, where as 30 years ago you would have needed up to eight. Where there is no connection to place there is no culture, and it struck me that in our society obsessed with physical health we never talk about social health.”

Demand and supply

An audience member observed that the Maldives was subject to the whims and food habits of the foreign visitors its income relies upon.

“I regard it as practically disastrous and certainly not viable in the long term to try and cater for a global idea of what is good or desirable food,” Don replied. “It is a bad idea on lots of levels – if you grow what wants to grow in a place, it will be more nutritious. Plants adapt very well – this is why weeds are so successful. Plants that grow well in a location take in more nutrients, are better for you, and are more resistant to attacks and diseases.”

“At the same time the economy depends on tourism, and the tourist says he wants eggs and bacon for breakfast. The resort I am staying at, Soneva Gili, is doing very interesting things with sustainability, and is working very hard on it – but the food caters for an international audience. Last night was Mediterranean night.

“I would much rather see Maldivian people eating Maldivian food and being proud of it. As a traveller, I always want to eat what the locals eat, because that’s a large part of the experience. I ask any indigenous people – and this applies to Britain as well: ‘Be proud of what you do, and do it well, because it’s important for you, it’s important for the visitor, and I think it’s very important for the ecology too.”

The western concept of eating “whatever you want, whenever you want, for cheap,” was destructive and unsustainable, Don said.

“I think we have to get used to the idea that we don’t have this right. We have a right to be treated with respect, we right to not be hungry, but we sometimes have to go without for the sake of sustainability.”

He acknowledged that the growing use of food as a status symbol, rather than a staple of survival, was challenge the ‘local food’ concept had to overcome.

“How do you persuade enormously wealthy countries like China and America not to use food as a display of their wealth?” he asked.

The problem was that treating food as something aspirational divorced it of place and meaning, Don suggested.

“One of my pet hates is five star restaurants that serve food from the other side of the world that has no meaning, simply because it is expensive, or because a particular chef wanted to flex his testosterone in front of me.

“Meat is a good example – as a world we have to eat less meat. It’s interesting that China’s demand for beef is so great because it is a measure of money – that you can buy yourself out of the immediate predicament and any responsibility.

“It is the same as the story of the hedge-fund manager who goes into a restaurant and says ‘I don’t want to look at a menu – I want this and I want it now. I don’t care what you charge me.’ This is the way industrial nations behave

“You have to persuade people to care – to be responsible, to stop being infantile, to grow up and stop strutting around. By acting as little pockets of truculent people demanding stuff because we can, we sidestep the problem.”


21 thoughts on “Embrace local foodstuffs and “grow what wants to grow”: Monty Don”

  1. The best piece of advice i have read for a long time. Good one. It is high time we should try and know what you eat. Afterall you are what you eat.

  2. Not only local food I guess. Local democracy also. A democracy that is based on the level of education of the masses.

  3. Extremely important stuff by Don, local sustainability is important most importantly it would be important in maintaining and developing the culture.

    One thing everyone agrees would be Maldivian food is limited, the established food companies in the Maldives are in seafood. The oily stuff like "Masmirus" and so on, I was thinking coconut is such a important fruit in the Maldives and we don't see it being exploited in good innovative ways.Having seen a lot coconut deserts sweets you name it, in our neighboring countries.

    One thing local dishes didn't develop and there is no industry of the sort, which I believe is, the tourism industry does not interact in local culture on a culinary level. The restricted tourism model should be opened up.

  4. I do believe that nature provides us the best food in our own soils for nurturing our physical bodies. I feel the confusion among our farmers come from the fact they do not know how to deal with the new crops. They are trying to be rational and apply techniques they learned. They do not do it instinctively. We can argue human beings are adaptable. However it takes life times of some generations for that to happen. I do not think the Earth ever recovers from the manipulation.

  5. President Nasheed has killed our country. He wants us to submerge so that he can get his medals through sympathy. Nasheed has destroyed our country and nationalism. He has sold our nation to stay in power. You foreigners who live in luxury pls F...off. We can hardly survive under this leadership. Let alone try to compete with cheap food stuff from neighbouring countries.

  6. when I was growing up in my island my grand dads had a taro field and my mum goes and brings taro home daily and we eat taro for lunch always. We also had 2 large bread fruit trees at home and during season we eat bread fruit as a staple and we also smoke dry left over bread fruit and boil it and eat it when bread fruit is not in season. Now we have no taro fields and no bread fruit trees. to make things worse my whole family moved to Male for education.
    Yes we have destroyed a culture and a livelihood by driving people out of their islands and homes and forcing them to come to Male. We have created a culture of dependency on others and begging for even the most basic requirements to sustain life. This is the good planning of years of Centralized development. What a shame!

  7. 'Grow locally' is good if there is fertile agricultural ground. One does not need to be a genius to know that.

    How ever 'grow locally' campaign by Europeans has a sinister aim. Do not be fooled by it. Europeans simply do not want to import agricultural produce from poor countries even-though its cheaper. This is why their farmers are subsidized against all the free market principles they breach to others.

    Like classic NGO speak, the immediate intention of his argument seems appealing. But he is not telling the entire story. May be he does not fully understand the implications of what he said.

    'Growing locally' is an ongoing campaign of trade protectionism by the rich west in the clever guise of protecting the environment. This is also called 'green protectionism'. The purpose is not to buy from poor farmers in developing countries.

  8. we have to reclaim the taro fields back. lots of fields were given away to people to build homes in these swampy areas and not a lot have succeeded in building there. It was one more unforgivable oversight of the past govt to give-away these productive pieces of land for nothing...

  9. Great advice. I support a hundred percent. I will write about it. Hold workshops about it. Work in awareness. Go on TV and talk about it. But I will eat what I eat.You hear me? I cant eat maldivian food. I just can't. I am allergic, i think. (I've to keep up with my peers you know, or else I would just be an outcast. And I cant afford that)

  10. Mr Don, you have been surely misinformed about the nutrion habits of Maldivians. We eat much more organic and natural fresh food than anyone. Your UK where you come from has nothing but all binge drinkers and junk food eaters. So please save your words for them. Our islanders eat fresh organic food grown in their home gardens. Our people eat fish caught fresh on the same day,not frozen for months like yours in UK.Its only some odds in Male' who think of themselves as europeans who eat rubbish like the way you brits eat.

  11. Ibrahim Yasir has an extreme viewpoint that stereotypes all Brits as binge-drinking, junk food-eaters. I wonder if he has ever travelled to my country and formed his opinion from first-hand experience or reached his conclusions from reading, TV or heresay. Naturally, he is not correct to say that ALL Brits are as he describes, however, I am sorry to say that neither is he entirely wrong. There is a veritable blaze of truth hiding behind the cynical smoke of his over-generalisation.

    Britain has long deserved her reputation of being a nation of binge-drinking, junk food-devouring, urbanised peasants. A walk through any of our cities on a Friday and Saturday night will illustrate why.

    I am sure that many of the people who embarked on this expensive, literary jaunt to your paradise, did so with a sense of righteousness and with their hearts in the right place. I am just amazed that a group of self-proclaimed, climate change evangelists did not arrange to meet up in a Travel Lodge in London and hold an online conference with The Maldives, rather than conspiring to create a carbon footprint the size of - well, a Maldivian islet.

    I think Ibrahim Yasir is correct to express his cynicism about this visit. I have visited your beautiful nation several times, including once following the Boxing Day Tsunami. I wrote an article for a small British magazine appealing for my countrymen to come to the aid of The Maldives; not with charitable donations, but by once again booking holidays in your resorts. I know how proud most Maldivians are of their country and their culture, and I can understand entirely why they would sneer at the effrontery of pontificating, foreign hypocrites poking ill-informed noses into their affairs. I also happen to believe that some of their 'expertise' might be about as useful to Maldivians as a lecture on how to build motorways!

    I have recently had a suggestion from a Maldivian friend of mine that we collaborate on an idea he has for a book for tourists. I am yet to be convinced of the argument that global warming will cause The Maldives to sink as I believe other experts have stated that the sea level is actually quite stable. I therefore could not be called a hypocrite for chucking a couple of tons of carbon into the atmosphere as I fly to be with you to do my research. Sadly for me, it is my personal finances and not dubious ethics that keep me from coming to the place I have adored for a decade.

  12. As a student of Human Rights and also passionately opposing neo-liberalism, I apprecitae Don's intentions in creating awareness among our people who has misdirected their concerns to petty issues, ignoring the real concerns that we should be focusing on for the progress of our Maldivian community. Don has expressed his concerns in a humane manner but I have to be more blunt. I am saddened to see my people uplifting the Global North and their values, unaware of the fact that we are being stripped off of our own values in the name of development and progress.
    To the people I love, I caanot agree with Don more, we must think about the way we used to live and be self sustaining rather than adopt and support transnational corporations in their evil work in stealing our freedom to live life our way. In support of my argument I would like my Maldivian people to think about the most basic human need, 'WATER'. Do we have access to this scarce resource as a Human Right or we have to pay for it as a service? Think about it guys. There are things we could do restore our culture and values but we need to work together to restore our commons resorces in working towards our progress. My beloved people, it is your right to oppose agovernment who supports neoliberal value sytems rather than uplift undemocratic money making processes that hinder gthe government from serving its people. Don, good work! Awareness is the first thing, then comes analysing and organising in working towards the common good.

  13. Sad that Yasir has totally misunderstood Don's views and had a go at him, very sad.
    About his concerns for a sustainable food supply, I can see his point. Imported food that has been produced usually with genetically modified crop has unknown damaging impacts on human health as well as the hydrological cyle as well. We have to think about these things for the common good. Genetically modified crop needs more pesiticides, fertilizers and more water which is a limited and scarce resource. Therefore, if we could at least work towards making a little diffewrence by thinking of retoring our traditional ways to reduce the impact on our eco system, I think it would be great. I believe on larger scale, this is what Don's concerns are, also mine and I do hope to go back to my beloved mother land one day soon. It is not possible to express a lot in comment like this

  14. @Sama - GMOs need more pesticides??Eh? Afaik, most GM crops have been genetically altered to be more resistant to pests, not less. This fear of genetic modification is fear mongering, nothing else.

    On the other hand, I think that people need to be aware of the carbon footprint that importing everything has.

  15. @Ibrahim Yasir

    These 'Some odds' you refer to make up a significant percentage of the maldivian population. And like it or not, if you check out what is being loaded onto the big boats to be taken to the atolls for sale, its not all organic veggies, sunshine and rainbows. In fact, a large amount of food consumed by maldivians (whether city dwelling or from rural areas) is processed, packeted and canned. An unfortunate side effect of living in a country with limited public transport and unsustainable local produce.

  16. This lolwut or someone is very naive, it very sad you have to do your research on these issues before you criticise other people's comments. I have done my reserch and I can quote my source as well that gene tically modified food is good for industrial purposes but not for the human body or the eco system. I am very concerned about the world's finite and scarce fresh water resorces. water necessary for everyday use in local communities are being consumed by irrigation systems and genetically altered crop takes more water than natural crops traditional farmers use to grow. Wake up, it not the governments of the Global South that benefits from the money the large transnational corporations from the Global North are making, also backed by World Bank and IMF and other powerful financial institutions. Foreign is aid is tied aid that keep our countries poor. One reason why our governments are unable to provide better services. So wake up! However, governments could do better if the powerful elite are not corrupt and selfish. there are other ways I believe. I totally agree with Don if we want true development and true democracy, we ahve to look for means to self sustain. Wish poeple are more aware.

  17. Sorry about the spelling mistakes in my comments but you could grasp what I'm trying to convey

  18. food sufficiency is vital character of country. try to grow for own food. there many crops which grows well in sandy soil. soil is a natural body. it can be improved by adding organic body, like plant leaves , organic manures, dead body.irrigation is urgent for plant/crop growth.test boring for exploring of underground water.some crops grow in saline water. grow more and more food only knowing technology. thnx editor for nice article.even some veg/fruits can be grown n roof of houses.


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