Moving up the food chain
Want to eat ethically but not sure how? Veronica Ridge navigates today’s food landscape in search of ways to eat yourself to salvation.
ETHICUREAN. It’s a new word to describe a new kind of eater – a diner whose ethical concerns take priority over epicurean whims. Ethicureans like their food as tasty as everyone else, but they insist it falls into at least some of four categories – sustainable, organic, local and ethical – SOLE food, for short.
Choices are informed by a grab bag of ethical concerns, not all of which are compatible. How do I save the planet from global warming; show concern for factory-farmed livestock; or help third-world workers?
But there are no simple answers when it comes to the ethics of what we eat. Our food landscape is a moral minefield of complex issues centred on the size of our foodie footprint. It’s no longer enough to carry a green bag to the shops. Do you buy the organic apple or the conventional? And if you opt for the organic, should it be local or can you justify the imported?
Products sold under the Fairtrade label further tangle this endless web of ethical dilemmas. Buying Fairtrade from overseas growers may lift them from poverty, but the goods travel long distances to get here. Wouldn’t the local product be better?
Alternatively, why not buy imported rice when rice growing is water intensive, Australia is dry and countries such as Thailand are awash with it? And what about all that landfill-bound food packaging? Then there are quandaries most consumers avoid. Has your plastic-wrapped pork chop been raised and killed humanely? What sort of life has your cheap takeaway chicken had? Is your fish dinner compounding global seafood extinction? Confused already?
Here’s a comprehensive guide for the ethicurean.
Food sage Michael Pollan – author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma – advises us not to eat anything that our great-great-great grandmothers wouldn’t recognise.
For Pollan, the antithesis of natural eating is yoghurt squeezed from a tube directly into the mouth – a recent hit with US children. Pollan is a champion of the ethical superiority of small, local organic farms and believes that industrialisation has caused the organic movement to lose its soul.
He cites the microwaveable organic TV dinner, saying this bastardisation looks and tastes like airline food.
The more processed or refined a food is, the more energy and water is used to make it.
The lesson: Eat food, not food products.
Food miles are a measure of the distance food is transported between production and consumption. The more miles, the more greenhouse gas.
Britain’s leading organic certifier stirred debate earlier this year when it announced it was considering denying organic status to food arriving by air. In Melbourne, a report by CERES Community Environment Park in East Brunswick in July identified that the contents of a typical Australian weekly shopping basket would have travelled an average of 70,803 kilometres and include four imported items.
The debate became more complex when, at about the same time, a Lincoln University, Christchurch, report called the concept of food miles “simplistic”. The report studied the energy efficiency of food production. It found some goods, such as dairy and lamb exported from New Zealand to Britain, produce less carbon dioxide per tonne than the same goods produced in Britain, due to less intensive farming.
Even the mode of transport creates angst. Is air freight really cleaner than refrigeration on a cargo ship, for example? The fresher the food, the more nutrients it retains.
The lesson: Kilometres count.
Embrace the seasons
Seasonal food doesn’t usually travel great distances. Environmentalists suggest not buying items such as strawberries in winter, which have to come from far away. Buying at farmers’ markets also ensures seasonal purchases.
Internet sites such as http://www.marketfresh.com.au,yates.com.au or horticulture.com.au list what’s in season. Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life chronicles a “locavore” family’s experience eating food they had grown or that was raised in their neighbourhood, and learning to live without the rest.
Allan Campion and Michele Curtis’ newly released The Seasonal Produce Dairy also provides monthly lists, recipes, wine tips and details of farmers’ markets and festivals.
The lesson: There are reasons for seasons.
The Australian Conservation Foundation suggests buying fresh vegetables and unbleached flours rather than food with high-embodied energy such as snack food with aluminium-lined packaging, freeze-dried instant coffee or individually wrapped sweets or biscuits.
One of the worst offenders is bottled water.
According to environmental group Worldwide Fund for Nature, 2 million tonnes of plastic water bottles go to landfill each year in the US alone.
The lesson: Keep it simple.
http://www.en.wikipedia.org (search “bottled water”)
According to the Australia Institute, Australians threw away $5.3 billion of food in 2004. Apart from squandered money, the ACF says this wanton throwaway culture wastes water, energy and other resources used in food production.
The wasted food that each Australian household contributes to landfill produces 15 tonnes of greenhouse gas each year, says environmental group Planet Ark.
The lesson: Audit what you waste. Set up a compost bin to reduce landfill and don’t buy vegetables in unnecessary packaging such as trimmed corn on plastic trays.
Eat less meat and dairy
The world slaughters about 60 billion animals a year for food (excluding fish). The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that between 2001 and 2050, global meat consumption will double and global milk consumption will almost double.
By eating four fewer serves of dairy a week you can save 26,000 litres of water and cut greenhouse pollution by up to 500 kilograms a year – this is almost as much as the carbon pollution caused by flying from Melbourne to Sydney.
The lesson: Find alternatives to meat.
Choose fish wisely
The number of local species classified as overfished by the Bureau of Rural Science, Fisheries, rose from five in 1992 to 24 in 2005. The ACF advises avoiding farmed fish as these often need more fish caught from the wild to feed them, anywhere from one to 12 kilograms of fish meal produces a kilogram of aquaculture fish.
The Australia Marine Conservation Society’s sustainable seafood guide is available from marineconservation.org.au or 1800 066 299. You also need to know what species the fish is and where it came from as they are often sold under different names. And imported fish is not subject to the same regulations as the local product.
The lesson: Buy local produce from a reputable fishmonger.
Have a social conscience
During the past decade, prices paid to coffee farmers fell to a 30-year low, with as little as three cents from a $3 cup of coffee reaching the farmers who grew the beans.
With Fairtrade, farmers – including those in third world countries – get a fair and competitive rate for their beans. Coffee production can be a threat to the environment because some plantations have replaced rainforest. Some manufacturers now offer chocolate and coffee that helps conserve forests, doesn’t use child labour or chemicals, and gives the farmer a fair price.
The lesson: Look for the logo.
Buy organic or free-range
Organic farming uses no synthetic chemicals and focuses on the health of the soil. There is also reduced run-off of water-soluble nitrogen from fertiliser into rivers and lakes, meaning less algal blooms, proliferation of weeds and pests such as mosquitoes, and other ecological change.
Organic food is also free of genetic modifications and its farmers adhere to humane production methods allowing animals to behave naturally.
The downside is that organic food generally costs anywhere from 15 per cent more to three times the price.
The lesson: Seek organic alternatives.
Consider animal welfare
According to Compassion in World Farming, each year 47 billion meat or broiler chickens are slaughtered and there are 5 billion laying hens that live mostly in cramped battery cages.
More than a billion pigs are reared for meat, many in confined environments.
Such intensive farming produces cheap milk, meat and dairy but the animals suffer.
The lesson: Know where your meat comes from.
So just how unethical is your dinner?
The definition of “ethical” is broad and open to debate, but four areas are acknowledged as relevant when deciding what to eat. They are: animal welfare; misleading marketing; food miles; and products from unsustainable practices or deforestation.
As global warming increases, the amount of water consumed to make a product will become more imperative.
Australian producers and retailers only need to indicate country of origin. Produce such as the fruit to the right may have travelled thousands of kilometres when there may have been a local alternative. A “Produce of Australia” sticker can mask the carbon debt from food miles. Eat local: it’s a guarantee the food miles are less.
Each year Australia produces 420 million meat chickens. They live less than six weeks and are housed in sheds with as many as 30,000 birds. Conditions can become hot and crowded, causing heat-stroke in some and making it difficult to exercise. Animals can suffer from lameness, breast blisters and hock burns from sitting on soiled bedding. A family fast food chicken meal results in greenhouse gases equivalent to a 38 km car trip.
Imports of bottled water to Australia have more than doubled in the past five years. This bottle of Galvanina lures shoppers with a promise of water from an ancient Roman spring. It has travelled 16,000 kilometres from Italy using 80 kilograms of carbon dioxide emission per tonne of bottled water.
While battery cages will be banned in the European Union in 2012, battery hens in Australia each live in less space than an A4 page. They can’t exercise, peck for food, can barely stretch their wings and cannot satisfy a powerful urge to build a nest. Look for free-range eggs or organic eggs, where the hens have been fed using organic ingredients and raised under strict conditions.
MARGARINES AND SPREADS
Palm oil is a major ingredient in most margarines and one in 10 products including chips and biscuits. It often comes from plantations created by clearing forests that were once the home of rare species. Friends of the Earth predicts the palm-oil trade could cause the extinction of the Asian orang-utan within a decade.
IS IT REALLY ORGANIC?
There is no legislation preventing an item being sold as “organic” but Australia has seven accredited organisations authorised to certify organic food. Look for a logo saying the product is certified – not just the word “organic”. A new national standard is being created following the recent controversy surrounding GO Drew Pty Ltd, which marketed free-range organic eggs when they were not organic.
How do you know your coffee is really Fairtrade? If it doesn’t have the logo of the Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand saying it’s certified Fairtrade, chances are it’s not. Be vigilant and look for the logo.
Some grapes available now are flown from the US. They sell for about $8.99 a kilogram. The local variety will be available at the end of January. They will be cheaper and leave a lighter carbon footprint on the earth.
Scientists call seas bereft of marine life due to over-fishing, habitat loss and land-based pollution “the silent ocean”. This orange roughy is one of many species the Australian Marine Conservation Society categorises as a no-no because of over-fishing. It is marketed as deep sea perch, so consumers are often unaware they are buying or eating it.
Eco food dilemmas
Q Is it better to buy a conventional apple from Shepparton or an organic apple from, say, NSW? A Don’t buy the conventional. An organic apple from St Andrews near Hurstbridge is best, but an organic from NSW is a second option.
Q Is it better to buy some imported products, such as rice, because Australia doesn’t have the water? A Until we have water intensity labelling, there is no simple answer. Some rice-producing countries have far less water stress than Australia, yet some rice growers in Australia are very efficient.
Q Most canned organic foods and processed foods such as tomato paste seem to come from overseas. Which is best? A Those with the least food miles – NZ, not Italy.
Source: Cam Walker, Friends of the Earth