Why I’ve no appetite for the Fife Diet

A 'small, grassroots movement' has sprung up in Scotland based on eating only food produced nearby. Local boy James Panton is appalled.

James Panton

Topics Politics

Burntisland is a picturesque town on the banks of the River Forth in east Scotland. It is home to the Fife Diet, the latest eco-trend, in which people are attempting to minimize their ‘carbon footprint’ by living only on food that has been grown or produced in Fife. I grew up in Burntisland and lived for the first few years of my life on an enforced ‘Fife diet’ – and I find the idea of eating nothing but local produce appalling.

The Fife diet, at least the one I vaguely remember from childhood, seemed to consist of an awful lot of mince with neeps and tatties (turnip and potatoes), stovies (bacon or corned beef with potatoes and onions) and stews (made of god-knows-what, but there were definitely potatoes involved). My mother was an immigrant from Nottingham in the English midlands, so she knew of culinary possibilities that existed beyond the Firth of Forth and she worked hard to educate my dad’s rather conservative tastebuds.

Once a week, she would slip in a spaghetti bolognese, which Dad approved of as sufficiently mince-based, although to this day he cuts up his spaghetti with a knife and fork and is suspicious of parmesan. One of my sisters was a dab hand at quiche lorraine (or egg and bacon flan with exotic aspirations). A couple of times a year we had food from the Chinese takeaway on the High Street. Traditional Scottish egg foo yung, which I remember bearing remarkable similarities to scrambled egg with peas and onions, was a favourite. I know for a fact that we had a fondue set, but it was never used in front of the children.

I suspect that my early childhood diet wasn’t that different to many people with my kind of Scottish small-ish town background in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We weren’t particularly conservative, but the menu was pretty traditional, based on ingredients that had been used for decades and cooked in the same old ways. More interesting ingredients and ways of cooking were available: Edinburgh was just over 30 minutes away on the train and it was home to fruit and veg shops selling exotica of all shapes and sizes; there were Italian delicatessens with cheeses that came in a wider range than ‘red cheese’ and ‘yellow cheese’, and there were general stores that smelt of Indian spices and even Chinese supermarkets if you knew where to look. The foods from such specialist shops weren’t part of my daily diet, though – they were expensive treats and curiosities, not daily staples, and they weren’t generally available down in our local Co-op store.

Since I left Burntisland and moved to London at the age of 18, my daily diet has changed beyond all recognition. But what is remarkable is that so too has the daily diet of my parents and my older brothers and sisters who still live in or around Burntisland. Things that were once exotic are now commonplace in the supermarket and even at the Co-op: shipped and flown from around the world in bulk, they are available at a price that makes them affordable as everyday grub.

So there is something depressing about the news that Burntisland is now home to what the Guardian has called a ‘small grassroots movement’ (1) (note the radical twang) that thinks the way to make the world a better place is to eat only foods that have been grown in the region of Fife. Inspired by the Vancouver-based 100 Mile Diet (2), in which participants attempted to survive on food produced within 100 miles of their homes, the Fife Diet draws its ingredients from an even smaller area of land. The diet is premised on the notion that reducing the number of ‘food miles’ (the miles travelled by the food we eat between production and consumption) is one of the most important contributions individuals can make to saving the planet.

Mike Small, the inspiration behind the diet, claims that this is ‘not a back-to-nature movement rejecting the twenty-first century. It is a flexible, consciousness-raising exercise to show what realistic changes individuals can make’. He is surely right – the Fife Diet is a product of a peculiarly twenty-first century form of moralistic miserliness where the future of the planet is understood to be dependent upon the consumption choices made by individual families. The more they can reject the advances of food production and transportation that the late twentieth century brought to small towns like Burntisland the better.

The Fife Diet is celebrated as a way of bringing local communities together and supporting local producers and their products against ‘the ecological insanity of transporting food around the world’ (3). Implicit in this is a politically correct kind of economic protectionism which seeks to celebrate everything local in opposition to producers from other parts of the world. Although I’m a fan of Burntisland, and I have many friends in Fife, I’m not convinced that its small farmers are any more deserving than the rather more efficient producers in many other parts of the world.

According to the diet’s website ‘It’s no good just saying no. We can’t just oppose Tesco, rage against food miles and rant against food-packaging. In all aspects of socio-ecology we need to build alternative platforms and movements from within the shell of the old decaying society’ (4). Unlike the 19 families who have so far signed up to the Fife Diet, I’m not at all convinced that having a diet so exotic as to include such luxuries as salt and pepper, tea and coffee and even the occasional glass of wine – all of which are ruled out in the Fife Diet in an attempt to curb climate change – is an expression of social decay. On the contrary, these foodstuffs were even part of the rather limited diet of my family when I was a young child.

And I am certainly not convinced that Tesco and other supermarket chains are the source of social decay. In fact, they are the means by which everyone from London to Burntisland can get hold of cheaply produced and distributed food from around the world – and all a damned sight more interesting than the neeps and tatties of my youth.

The Fife Diet may be regarded as radical by those with low horizons, but attempting to solve the world’s problems by retreating to the local shows that such campaigners are starved of imagination.

James Panton is politics lecturer at St John’s College, Oxford, and co-founder of the pro-human campaigning network, the Manifesto Club.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen invited friendly bombs to fall on Brown’s eco-towns. Rob Lyons said foodie miserabilists are offering a trolley-load of food fears. Brendan O’Neill argued that ‘buying British’ is a badly soiled argument. Or read more at spiked issue Organic food.

(1) Gordon Cairns, ‘A cause to diet for’, Guardian, 21 November 2007

(2) 100 Mile Diet

(3) About the Fife Diet

(4) The Fife Diet

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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