I was watching a episode of “Countryfile” on BBC television a few weeks ago (Nov 10th, 2019, it was their Autumn Special, originally aired on Nov 3rd, 2019) and was stunned to learn a surprising fact about 250 potatoes. Let me explain.
First, the programme showed a farmer who was cultivating his field with a large tractor with a large array of angled, metallic discs behind it, rapidly cutting through the soil and turning it over. Across the whole farm and as far as I could see, there was only bare soil that had been turned or was about to be turned. I was wondering what happens to any wildlife in the soil when this tractor comes through slicing everything up and why nature hasn’t had to do this sort of thing in all of history until now.
But then I learnt the first surprising fact. This farmer was preparing to sow a crop of barley, not for any food purpose, but in order to make beer. I was amazed at the size of the fields being churned up just so we can drink a glass of beer and I felt a little sad. All those trees had to be cleared and all of nature has to be sliced with rapidly moving metal discs, so we can drink beer (I like a glass a beer, but I still felt sad).
Next, they went to a farm that was harvesting potatoes. Again, it was a huge farm with rows and rows of mounds under which were potatoes ready to harvest. There were truckloads after truckloads of potatoes going back to the sheds.
And now the second surprising fact is that these potatoes were, once again, not being used to feed anybody, they were being used to create vodka!
Vodka! I was sitting in front of the television wondering if any of the crops we see growing in the fields are actually used to feed anybody.
They went through all of the process they use to turn potatoes into vodka, and things became even more surprising. Firstly, the reason they were making vodka is that this is a starting point for their gin. I must admit that I didn’t know how gin was made and I’ve learnt that its base can be any ethanol of agricultural origin. In this case, they were using potatoes to make vodka, or the ethanol of agricultural origin. Supposedly, this vodka forms 99.9% of the gin. To turn the vodka into gin, I think they only need to re-distill it (boil it) with various botanicals added.
Now the most surprising fact. In order to create one bottle of vodka, it takes 250 potatoes!
Now, I must say that a good gin and tonic can be very nice, but I never new that a single bottle of gin could use up 250 potatoes. Really, we don’t need to drink vodka or gin (and it would actually be better for our bodies if we didn’t) but the original 250 potatoes could be quite useful for feeding quite a lot of people. Hmm, what’s going wrong here?
I hear a lot of arguments from industrial farmers that monoculture techniques, new pesticides and fertilisers and genetically-modified seeds and the like are desperately needed so we can “feed the world”. I don’t believe this for a second. I believe it’s all about profits. Somebody just want to make beer and gin cheaper so they can make more profit. Who would want to sell potatoes when they can sell gin and make a lot more money. Sad isn’t it.
So, getting to the crux of the matter, this is a good opportunity to use less. Whenever we have a beer or a gin and tonic, we’re actually using a lot more of the Earth’s resources than we think. We’re actually doing a lot of damage. So, in the spirit of Use 10 Percent Less, we don’t have to immediately cut out all beer and all G&T’s, but let’s all just try and have less of these things. That’ll be a good start and we’ll save money and get healthier at the same time. We’d all win, except maybe the people trying to grow businesses based on our obsessions.
Imagine a world where, if we had one less bottle of gin, those 250 potatoes could go towards feeding some people in our community that are really struggling. Why can’t we do this?
Related Links – 250 Potatoes
- Countryfile episode page from the BBC – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000b1tt
- The distillery that Countryfile visited was “Chase Distillery” in Hereford, UK – https://chasedistillery.co.uk
- For many more general details on gin, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin
- Potatoes photo by Lars Blankers on Unsplash
- Bottles of alcohol photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash