The Burning Truth
There is nothing that says British Summer more than the smell of burning charcoal on a BBQ as we fire it up ready to throw on some vege kebabs or sausages.
We love them in parks, on the beach and in the garden with friends.
In recent years as we have delved deeper into the origin of our food issues of additives, pesticides and animal welfare have been revealed.
The growth in veganism has reconfirmed a mistrust in the meat industry and a desire for change.
These enquiries are valid and valuable but how often do we think about our cooking fuels and where they come from?
Do you know where your charcoal started its life?
A recent analysis of 36 charcoal products from German supermarkets, commissioned by WWF and the German television company NDR revealed charcoal often contains tropical wood.
Sadly this was true even for products labelled FSC certified as well as products that stated they only contained German wood.
Are we being hoodwinked by big brands trying to make a quick buck at the expense of our planet?
In Germany 250, 000 tonnes of charcoal are used for barbeques each year, this compares to 90,000 in the UK.
Gerald Koch, a scientist from German institute Thunen reminds us that there are sustainably managed plantations in the tropics like there are in Europe.
What is tricky is that it is impossible to say, even with a microscope where exactly the charcoal came from. Whether it was a sustainably managed area or logged illegally.
In countries such as Africa the FSC is not a reliable label either. As a consumer we have to be on our guard but in reality we are never going to know unless we buy local.
Why import charcoal when we have an industry already present in Britain that needs reviving?
Coppicing is a form of woodland management that involves cutting down hornbeam trees, leaving a stump about one foot high which allows new shoots to grow from the stump. This extends the life of the coppiced trees indefinitely. In the past trees were coppiced for fire wood, charcoal production, bean poles and pea sticks. Buying local charcoal helps support the conversation management of our British woodlands.
Like anything made on our doorstep it comes with higher cost to us but the costs represents the true value of the goods and labour that go into it. The trouble with any cheap goods, their cost is generally subsidised by the environment, a cost it can no longer bare.
Cheap imports of charcoal from unsustainable sources keep prices down.
With the news that our forests emit more carbon than they are able to sink from the atmosphere due to deforestation it is more important than ever to protect further destruction of these important habits.
What other alternatives are there?
As well as supporting local charcoal we can inspire ourselves to look at other alternatives this summer.
A key place to look for these alternatives is at our waste and what other countries are doing.
In Greece there are companies making briqettes from olive pits, in Italy corncobs are used as charcoal and in Dorset there is a company making charcoal briquettes from used coffee.
Nothing is ever wasted in nature and its time we remembered this philosophy as we did during the wars and look to how we can support a circular economy.
So next time you buy charcoal consider some more sustainable options…
British charcoal companies:
Read more about the work of the National Coppice Federation.