The suggestion by Thérèse Coffey in the UK Parliament that we should consider eating more turnips seemed to echo the comment on eating brioche, attributed (probably wrongly) to Marie-Antoinette. Let them eat turnips! I don't often agree with the UK Government front bench but in this case I think she had a point, and it fits nicely with my wish to say something about our diets. But first, what an odd word turnip
The OED throws up its hands and confesses that its origins are unknown but dates its use to the late-17th century. Chambers suggests that the word is a compound derived from the more ancient neep
, with which we are more familiar, and a later prefix of 'turn' from French tour
, suggesting roundness. My dictionaries are more helpful with neep
, which comes through Old English and Scots originally from the Latin napus
. The French call it un navet
and the Italians una rapa
, close to the biological term for the rape species of Brassica, to which turnips and swedes belong. I believe swedes, unsurprisingly derived from Sweden, are the larger orange-fleshed ones that are easier to grow and more resistant to frost, but they are essentially the same in nutritional terms and the word neep
seems to cover both.
But what was Ms Coffey on about, and why should we look behind the sound-bite and take her seriously? Because, quite simply, she has recognised one of the fundamental issues relating to climate change: that our consumption of food as well as our consumption of energy needs to change radically. Last week, I referred to obesity as a public health problem, affecting particularly the poor in the West but also the rich in the developing world. This paradox is explained by the distribution of food, the variations in its nutritional values, and the conflict between greed and vanity to which I referred.
To generalise and over-simplify, in the poor world the wealthy can eat all they want but the poor are limited largely to what they can personally grow or buy in local markets, so only the rich can get fat. In the West, the richer citizens have a better education and a wide choice of food – in general, vanity drives us towards choosing good food that is nourishing but not very fattening, and we learn to suppress our greed and to take exercise regularly (there are fat cats wherever there is wealth). In contrast, the poor have fewer educational opportunities and a much narrower choice of foods. Periods of unemployment and low salaries compound this.
The dark art of advertising provides endless temptations to buy cheap, sugar-rich food which stimulates insulin release and makes you hungry for more, a form of addiction little less harmful than that to tobacco. The excess calories, unused, are laid down as fat and the risks of diabetes, heart disease and early death lurk ahead.
What has this to do with climate change? If you have read Mike Berners-Lee's There is no Planet B
, you will know that there is enough potential food production to support a growing world population but that this requires major redistribution and change in our eating habits from an animal- to a vegetable-based diet in the developed world. This change must accompany our requirement to consume much less energy – those of us who eat meat, travel and warm our homes the most are most responsible for the threat to our children and grandchildren from the changing climate and accompanying migration, and we must do the most to protect them and their failing civilisation. It is apparent that not only what we eat but also the carbon cost of its production and transport to us is an important consideration in reducing our carbon footprints, bringing me back to the humble neep or turnip.
The pandemics and the war in Ukraine, awful though they are, have brought the reality of global food and energy supply home to all of us, and thus provide a stimulus to change our habits of over-consumption. For some, the seasons of Lent or Ramadan offer an opportunity to rethink what we do and how we can live more sustainably but, for many, sheer financial necessity is forcing difficult decisions on whether to eat or remain warm. Please note that those most affected in this way are those least responsible for causing climate change.
If you try to look ahead to an end to the war and ask yourself which parts of the world will be least affected by climate change, you will realise that the northern countries, especially Russia, will be even greater suppliers of agricultural produce as the more southern ones start to fail through heat and drought. Thus, this problem will not go away and we need to make personal change now to prepare ourselves and our families and to try to prevent the worst.
This all argues, with Ms Coffey, for going back to an increasingly local and season-based diet. My generation grew up with this and you won't be surprised to learn that mashed turnips played their role. Meat was rationed and usually featured on Sundays, with bits of offal occasionally on weekdays, but seasonal vegetables and fruit, eggs and dairy products were all local. I never saw a banana until I was eight and oranges were very rare treats, so we got essential vitamins from our milk rations, supplementary cod liver oil and vegetables. Cod and haddock were the fishes we ate. No food was wasted – left-overs came back as soup or bubble and squeak (vegetable bits fried up with mashed potato) and peelings were recycled to feed pigs. I developed enough muscle on this diet to become a sturdy front row forward in my school rugby team and the pigs became an important source of the meat available.
I am not advocating going back to this way of life, as it is unrealistic. I am saying that a change in this direction by all of us is necessary now and if we, the lucky ones in this world, do not do so now we are condemning our children and theirs to an increasingly uncomfortable and insecure future. Indeed, if you are now seeing your children or grandchildren struggling to get through as they embark on adulthood, you will know that this future is here for many already. The prospect of rationing food and energy is beginning to be discussed in political circles and I expect this will soon be a serious possibility. If so, I would welcome it as a means of ensuring fairer distribution of resources and cutting waste.
We are all different and most of us grow increasingly set in our ways, as my wife tells me. If you are a vegetarian, you are already doing more than I am and the more who join you the better. Well done! But if not, these are the simple things I am trying to do. I'm lucky to have a wife who does most of the cooking because she is better at it.
• Eat three times daily, reduce all portion sizes and don't snack.
• Buy locally and note where purchases come from – avoid air-freighted foods.
• Buy fresh unpackaged vegetables and fruit, and have five different types most days if possible.
• Avoid plastic packaging.
• Recycle uneaten food into soups, stews etc, and peelings into compost. I make soup weekly, called Elf soup – Everything Left in Fridge. It provides three lunches for two.
• Have as many meat-free days as possible and only eat red meat rarely, as a treat.
• Eat fish twice weekly – sardines and salmon particularly contain good oils.
• Walk to the shops as much as possible.
Turnips have advantages, being cheap, nutritious, readily available and easy to grow in the UK. In a spirit of looking at ways of incorporating turnips in our diet, I have investigated our cookery books. I suspected Mrs Beeton would be most helpful, having written in an era when life was simpler, and consulted her New Revised
edition, inherited by my wife and published in 1923. She noted that turnips are seasonal throughout the year but are hardly worth cooking unless they are young. She had recipes for baked, au gratin
, boiled and mashed; I get the impression she was not fond of them but thought mashed with butter was the best way of serving them. They do not figure in any of her recommended family dinners, even in the economical category, potatoes forming the staple ingredient.
By 1980, our American cookbook was slightly more imaginative, adding to boiled and mashed the making of cups into which a combination of onions, peas and the mashed innards of the cup were inserted, the whole being baked. Searching more up-to-date books, neither Mary Berry nor Nigella Lawson mentions the turnip or swede, but Delia Smith comes up with something that sounds good. She chips and boils the swede, coats the chips in flour and grated parmesan cheese and bakes them in the oven. She tells us that even children like them.
Cooking does have an energy cost, and turnips do take a lot of cooking. As long as there are plenty of potatoes available, I don't think I shall be eating neeps much more often than mashed with tatties on Burns night. But it's worth looking up a recipe like Delia Smith's for the insides of the neeps hollowed out on Halloween to save wasting all that good nutrition and fibre. I think Ms Coffey did us a favour by bringing up the subject of sustainable diet.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own