I have long been interested in food. I like watching shows like Masterchef and Heston Blumenthal, and I used to read recipe books like novels. I enjoyed cooking up a storm with a variety of ingredients. But somewhere in the early noughties things began to look different. I grew concerned that farmers in Australia apparently could not sell their oranges, yet there was a clear demand for orange juice. It was being met by importing it from overseas. It didn’t make sense. I started to notice that fruit and vegetables in various greengrocers was from countries far away. There were debates raging about whether pesticides were ‘safe’, and whether organic produce was better. Despite this, I was still fairly oblivious to things like sustainability, and why organic really is better.
Things didn’t really change until I got energised enough to start growing food. As usual, I decided to read up about this, swapping cookbooks for gardening books. Inspired by the no-dig gardening method, we ordered raised beds (still something of a novelty at this time) and planted green leafy things, tomatoes, and zucchinis. We bought a fruit salad tree with nectarines, peaches and plums on it at the ABC Gardening Expo. I received a subscription to Organic Gardener magazine, and joined the Diggers Club. By this time, I had become a full convert to the sustainability cause.
Where food comes from, how it is grown or produced, and how this impacts ultimately on our communities has become a prominent consideration for those who wish to eat ethically and reduce the stress on our planet’s resources.
Many consumers now want to know where their food comes from, and the impact that it has had in both the developing and developed world. Stories of children working as slaves in cocoa farms, of tea pickers being poorly paid, of workers in terrible conditions churning out processed food in factories in China, and with the habitat of creatures like the orang-utan being threatened with destruction due to our appetite for palm oil, it was becoming clear not all food was created equal. The consumption of food in the Western world was having negative impacts on humans and beasts alike.
As understanding of climate change grows, many of us also want to reduce our carbon footprint and tread as lightly as possible on our fragile planet. What we choose to eat is a very basic decision, yet it has huge implications – for the sustainability of species, for the quality of the environment, for both human and animal rights and for the world’s climate. If we take the time to scrutinise what we put on our table and where it comes from, it becomes clear that not all food is equal.
I was also increasingly concerned about eating animals and animal produce. I was a vegetarian for a while, and having read up in veganism, I decided that was beyond my abilities and lifestyle to manage. I instead found the Free Range Butcher in Sydney. His shop had four signs, which I have produced below.
Provenance (the place of origin)
Traceability (the ability to follow the history of something)
Sustainability (the capacity to continue operating perpetually by avoiding adverse effects on the natural environment and depletion of natural resources)
Ethical (a food produced under conditions which do not involve mistreatment of people or animals, or misuse of the environment)
I was very struck by these signs, enough to write them down. I hadn’t thought before of just how important it was to know the history of our food. Did I really know what had happened to that chicken or lamb chop on its journey from paddock to plate? How was the animal treated? Where was that vegetable harvested? Was it sprayed? How far did it travel from its source to arrive in my kitchen as dinner?
I looked up sustainability. I learnt that sustainable sourcing ensures there is only a limited negative impact on the source communities that produce the food and their ecosystems. Growing food sustainably means it can be supported environmentally in the long term. I also discovered it meant that we should eat food produced locally and food in season, in order to limit food miles, forced ripening, hothouse production and genetically engineered crops.
On average, apparently, food travels between 1,500 to 2,500 miles (4,000 km) every time that it is delivered to the consumer. This seems like an awful long way to me, but I have discovered that food miles are as hotly debated as climate science. Mental note to self to come back to this topic.
‘Ethical’ added a further dimension. I learnt that we should not purchase food that is produced to the detriment of indigenous and local communities, or to the animals involved in food production. I also decided to add not supporting large monolithic food chains to the ‘ethical’ list. The Colesworth duopoly in Australia routinely crushes local producers, they insist on hybrid, long life produce, and they also fly food many miles around the world. When we used to shop at Colesworth, despite both of them claiming their fresh food was really fresh, I found, for example, green veg wilted and sogged within 2 days of purchase, sometimes sooner. If nothing else, ‘food miles’ to me means ‘less than fresh produce’. It stayed crisp long enough to beguile the consumer into buying it, then immediately wilted on arrival home as an act of protest against its removal from the supermarket shelves. Within two weeks I gave up, as it was a complete waste of money unless I was eating it that day.
By contrast, tomatoes remained firm enough to play cricket with. Pale, hard and pretty tasteless, they were bred presumably to withstand trucking and cold storage. Once we had discovered home grown black krims, that ended our relationship with the supermarket tomato. Seriously, I would rather not eat a tomato if the only choice I have is a supermarket one.
There is also the matter of how workers who grow and pick the produce are treated, what chemicals are used, and whether the environment is being affected adversely. And I would rather not eat eggs or chicken or bacon if the animals are caged or confined.
It is a sad truth that in our modern, civilised world, we have changed natural farming practice to intensive farming practice, we have allowed synthetic created chemicals to poison our air and our waterways, we have destroyed natural habitats so animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, indigenous peoples have been driven off their land to satisfy large corporations requiring mono crops, and we have allowed the over-fishing of many species. With the increase of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, we have changed the climate of our planet, threatening the homelands of many. Greed has enabled giant business corporations to turn food into an industry that threatens the home of indigenous peoples, the holdings of smaller primary producers, and the health of many nations.
So right now and throughout our lifetime, the reasons to live sustainably are good ones. Climate change, energy costs and problems of supply, personal happiness and contentedness, species extinction, disastrous environmental destruction, our family’s health and safety, adaptability, food and water supply issues, waste, a fair go for those who grow our food … the reasons are many, and I am sure you could no doubt add several more to this list.
Our lifestyle is the one thing over which we have some control, and the choices we make can affect the lifestyle of others. If we all lived sustainably, our world and our future would hopefu.lly be assured.