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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 17:34 GMT
The secret life of the strawberry
By Helen Britton
BBC Money Programme

Strawberries
Are strawberries no longer special?

Strawberries used to be a special summer treat.

Available for just six weeks a year, they went hand in hand with hot summer days, picnics and Wimbledon.

Now, like pretty much everything else, strawberries are available in the supermarkets all year round, but this may have a hidden cost.

Sold in supermarkets in ever increasing numbers since the early 1990s, strawberries are routinely flown in from as far as California to keep the shelves stocked.

Ozone depleting

But many customers prefer to buy British. With this in mind UK strawberry growers set about extending the season with phenomenal results.

You have polytunnels sort of raping the landscape
Gardening expert Monty Don
Initially aiming to extend the season by just a few weeks, the industry can now grow strawberries for six months of the year.

Elsanta is the variety of strawberry preferred by growers and supermarkets alike for its yield, shelf life and taste.

However Elsanta also has its drawbacks as it is particularly prone to soil borne diseases.

Because of this vulnerability, before Elsanta is planted in the ground the soil has to be sterilized with chemicals such as the ozone depleting methyl bromide.

Other countries have phased out methyl bromide in favour of more environmentally friendly alternatives and it will be hard for the UK strawberry industry to justify its continued use.

Yet, the UK strawberry industry is still planning to use about 68 tonnes of the chemical next year, even though it has had 12 years to prepare for the planned phase-out of methyl bromide by 1 January 2005.

Vandalism

There is another, highly visible controversy surrounding the strawberry industry: the polytunnel.

Strawberries and cream
Do we really want strawberries all year round?
Heavy rainfall can devastate a strawberry crop and British strawberry growers used to be at the mercy of our unpredictable weather.

Now, plastic sheeting on metal hoops has eliminated this risk, but few can deny polytunnels are an eyesore.

Gardening expert Monty Don lives in Herefordshire just a couple of miles from a large polytunnel site. He is angry about the impact that such intensive farming is having on the countryside.

"You have polytunnels sort of raping the landscape - it is pure vandalism," he says.

Modern life

Strawberry growers argue that polytunnels are essential to their business.

S & A Produce cover up to 480 acres of Herefordshire with polytunnels over the six month strawberry growing period.

Graham Neal Managing Director of S & A argues that "the land is there both to enjoy and for a commercial purpose, for farmers to farm on. It has been for many years.

"Life is changing, we're getting modern and this is a modern way of producing fruit successfully."

Special

If the strawberry industry was not already courting enough controversy with their use of chemicals and polytunnels, they are also faced with issues surrounding the large immigrant work force needed to pick the fruit at a price that is viable for the supermarkets.

Local people are anxious about the large influx of migrants into sparsely populated areas. There is also concern about these workers' levels of pay.

The question is, do we really want strawberries all year round?

There is a danger that by having them available for so much of the year they lose any sense of being special.

As Monty Don says, "if you have Christmas every day of the year, you lose the specialness of it, so one of the side-effects of the supermarkets pumping out these seasonal fruits is we lose the thing that made us want it in the first place".

Ultimately, consumers will decide whether to pay the full price for strawberries, all year round.

The secret life of the strawberry was broadcast on Wednesday 10 November at 19.30 on BBC2.


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