Love Your Greens

PUBLISHED: 10:21 24 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:22 24 January 2014

The yellow fields of summer are Brassica napus (rapeseed), grown extensively in the UK for animal feed, vegetable oil and biodiesel. 
© Brian Robert Marshall. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

The yellow fields of summer are Brassica napus (rapeseed), grown extensively in the UK for animal feed, vegetable oil and biodiesel. © Brian Robert Marshall. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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Brassicas are an important family of plants that include rapeseed, cabbage, broccoli, turnips and many other vegetables. Lisa Martin attended the annual Brassica Growers’ Association conference to find out about the latest research into these plants, the challenges faced by Brassica growers, and opportunities for the future.

Broccoli is a variety of Brassica oleracea – emerging research shows that eating broccoli may help prevent or treat osteoarthritis.  
© Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under a CC BY-NC 3.0 license. Broccoli is a variety of Brassica oleracea – emerging research shows that eating broccoli may help prevent or treat osteoarthritis. © Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under a CC BY-NC 3.0 license.

This week, I attended the annual conference of the Brassica Growers’ Association, a group of people all interested in developing and improving the Brassica growing industry in the UK.

What’s a Brassica, you ask?

Although this satellite photograph was taken in the USA, British farmers are increasingly turning to extra-terrestrial methods to improve farming precision. 
© Public Domain, NASA. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Although this satellite photograph was taken in the USA, British farmers are increasingly turning to extra-terrestrial methods to improve farming precision. © Public Domain, NASA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Brassicas are plants belonging to the scientific classification of Brassicaceae, or the mustard family. Lots of common plants belong to this group, including the yellow rapeseed (Brassica napus) that blooms in summer fields, from which we get animal food, rapeseed oil and biodiesel. Several types of mustard plant (e.g. Brassica nigra) are also in this family, as are swede, turnip, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.

Brassicas are an extremely important crop in the UK. In fact, as a proportion of total crop yield, us Brits grow more Brassicas than anything else!

The conference was fascinating – speakers gave talks on aspects of this niche in the agriculture and horticulture industry that you wouldn’t have even thought existed!

For example, Andy Baxter from an organisation called BirdStrike Management spoke about the havoc that the population explosion of woodpigeons can cause to Brassica crops – his preferred strategy was shooting to keep the birds at bay, and he recommended that roasted pigeon goes exceptionally well with Brassica vegetables!

Richard Colgan, a scientist from the University of Greenwich, spoke about his research into improving the storage life of broccoli. Supported by the Horticultural Development Company, which is based here in Warwickshire at Stoneleigh Park, his team of researchers has identified ways to remove a gas called ethylene from the storehouses where broccoli is kept after harvest and before transporting to the supermarkets.

Naturally produced by many fruits and vegetables, ethylene promotes ripening, but removing it keeps produce fresher for longer. In line with this, and remembering back to my recent blog post on food waste, I recommend checking out FreshPods. These are small plastic cages containing a sealed sachet of an organic ethylene-removing chemical – pop one in your fridge to keep your veggies fresh for up to four times longer!

Another fascinating talk was by Ian Beecher-Jones, whose Oxfordshire-based company BeecherJones Ltd works to support the agricultural industry. Ian is part of a project called Be Precise, which is looking at ways to improve efficiency through “precision farming”.

As well as some very simple yet effective methods to farm more precisely, including using sensors to keep your tractor in a straight line when sowing, or ploughing in the most efficient way to reduce soil compaction, Ian described some rather more space-age techniques!

I was aware that satellite technology is used in communications, weather forecasting and to transmit pictures of far-off galaxies, but did you know that farmers could use satellites to map the exact size, shape, soil composition and soil texture of their fields? Knowing this information allows growers to treat different areas of their land in different ways, for example to use different fertilisers or to select which crops to grow based on different soil types!

One aspect of the Brassica industry that has recently received some funding is the development of a healthy eating campaign targeted at children and their parents. Jonathan Corbett, a designer from an advertising agency called The Little Big Voice, is working with the Brassica Growers’ Association to promote Brassicas as part of a healthy diet.

As well as the website www.loveyourgreens.co.uk, the project for 2014 will include schools programmes, photo competitions, the distribution of free Brassica seeds, and a Brassica-focused recipe book, all aimed at making ‘greens’ appealing to children.

Another of the conference speakers, Hans-Christoph Behr from a Germany-based European market intelligence company, revealed that the average British household eats around 12.6 kilos of Brassica vegetables each year. With the average cauliflower weighing in at around 1 kilo, that isn’t really very much per person!

And after an engaging talk by Professor Ian Clark from the University of East Anglia, there is one particularly good reason to eat more Brassicas: according to his ongoing research, broccoli may help us to avoid osteoarthritis.

This debilitating disease causes the cartilage that cushions our joints to be eroded, meaning that bone grinds against bone and the joints become swollen and painful. Although his research in still in the early days, Ian’s findings so far suggest that certain natural chemicals in broccoli may prevent the cartilage from being eroded.

There is just so much to learn about the food that we eat and the many facets to industries such as horticulture that we take for granted.

The overall message of the day? Love your greens!

Lisa Martin

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