From unheard of in the 1970s, to the third most grown crop in the UK, oilseed rape and its iconic yellow flowers have come to dominate rural vistas. Yet, behind the bright facade, it is a sickly plant, requiring a life-support of assorted pesticides. It is plagued by diseases and pests, the most famous being the stem flea beetle, and of late, the efficacy of pyrethroid insecticides against these has declined, in some places becoming ineffective all together. The classic tactic of overcoming pest resistance by increasing pesticide potency within conventional circles is increasingly dangerous and unsustainable. The flagship of British oil sovereignty, oilseed rape, is now sadly – in its current largely industrial state, and for all intents and purposes – incompatible with an agroecological future. Where do we look now?
In regards to oilseed production, according to the Farming for Change model, between now and 2050, not much needs to change: just a 4% decrease. We do though need to increase our consumption rates, and for sustainability purposes, diversify the crops.
There are a plethora of exciting alternative oilseeds that can step into the rapeseed void. Look at the Traditional Oil Producers of County Down, a Northern Irish Terra Madre community. For generations they have been growing “alternative” oilseed crops like hemp, linseed and sunflower. Hemp and linseed are particularly exciting multifaceted crops. Their stalks can be used for natural fibre production – for example – as well as their seeds for oil.
Or what about grapes seeds? The UK’s new booming patchwork of vineyards and wineries are easily producing enough waste to found a grapeseed oil economy on its back.
The Kentish cobnut could be easily pressed for oil. Or even walnuts? Or in the future, almonds or other now exotic nut species. Who said the oil sources have to be from seeds; nut oil is delicious!
How about chia seed oil, soybean oil, borage oil, corn oil or mustard seed oil? These are all oily crops growing in the UK as we speak. They have not necessarily all been part of our ancestral food culture, but as our cultural diversity shifts, so can our biocultural diversity. Slow foods needn’t be conservative. By 2050, our most popular of oils – olive – might flourish in the UK’s warmer climate, so domestic olive oil production could become a real possibility.
Ultimately, it is integral that we diversify our domestic oil production, but equally ensure that no one of these sources comes to dominate like rapeseed does today. A wide variety of oilseed crops makes for healthier farming and healthier humans. As meat consumption declines, there is a need for new British oil and fat sources, so certain quantities of innovation are required. We must look to other cultures and other Slow Food communities, presidia and the Ark for inspiration, to create a beautifully diverse yet Slow 2050.
Will Farr is a student at Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences at Pollenzo, in Italy, undertaking an MSc in Agroecology and Food Sovereignty. Born into a farming family based in the rolling hills of Northamptonshire, he is passionate about topics as wide-ranging as biocultural diversity, indigeneity and identity, rewilding and ecology, and loves badgering on about how food is the most important thing in the world!
Follow him on Instagram williamjfarr
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