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.”