How to eat ethically

written by Kerry Boyne

Woman fruit farmer apple happy

Credit: iStock

There’s a Facebook meme that goes, “TRY ORGANIC FOOD. OR AS YOUR GRANDPARENTS CALLED IT: FOOD.”

When our grandparents thought about what to eat, they didn’t have to consider what their food choices might be doing to the environment, what animal welfare conditions were like or even what bad effects their food might have on their bodies. They didn’t stand motionless in supermarket aisles, head down, squinting at tiny labels, and there weren’t whole sections of the shops they needed to avoid.

Our forebears were on first-name terms with the butcher, grocer, greengrocer and fishmonger. The baker delivered bread daily and the milkman brought milk to the door. Cakes and biscuits were home-baked and potato chips were the hot kind, fresh from the stove or wrapped in paper from the fish-and-chip shop. They looked forward to seasonal fruits like cherries and grapes. They went mushrooming, prawning, fishing and blackberry picking.

Bought food was packed into paper bags, bread was wrapped in tissue paper and milk came in glass bottles that were left empty at the door for the milkman to take for reuse. Meat and fish were wrapped in paper, too, and chickens were often killed in the backyard, then cleaned and eaten without ever being wrapped in anything. Families took saucepans to the Chinese restaurant to fetch their takeaway.

It was normal for people to grow fruit and veg to save any pennies they could. They made their own pickles and preserves with real ingredients — no food additives to create flavour, colour, consistency/texture and a long shelf life. They used leftovers to create the next meal — Monday’s shepherd’s pie from Sunday’s leftover roast lamb — and added to the pot of soup on the stove to keep it going for days.

Fast-forward to today and we have factory farming of animals in unnatural and arguably cruel conditions, more and more synthetic chemicals, antibiotics and hormones used in food growing and production, mountains of plastics and packaging polluting land and sea, plus the ever-present concerns around issues like genetic modification, toxic imports, dubious trade agreements between nations and powerful agribusiness manoeuvring itself into position to control the very basis of our food supply: seeds.

Help! How do we get back?

Well, many people are making efforts to get back, particularly the organic farmers who work hard to grow food as naturally as possible; who strive to give their animals a good life — with “one bad day”, as US food activist Joel Salatin has said. But ethically and naturally produced food can seem a lot more expensive, some items can be harder to come by and sometimes we face dilemmas like organically grown but not local, health-giving goodness like omega-3s vs sustainability, or a much longer drive to buy better food.

Our “first-world problem” is not where our next meal is coming from, nor even necessarily the cost of it, but how ethical it is.

Plus, it goes against the grain to fear food or to always think of it in moral or ethical terms. Food is such a primal thing and the enjoyment of it is rooted in cultural and social traditions; indeed, so much of how we relate to each other in our families, friendships and even business dealings inevitably involves the shared enjoyment of food.

In wealthy countries like ours, where food availability has not been a problem for many decades, what to eat has become an angst-ridden challenge. Our “first-world problem” is not where our next meal is coming from, nor even necessarily the cost of it, but how ethical it is.

With the global food footprint estimated to account for 40 per cent of Earth’s biocapacity and a recent episode of ABC TV’s science show Catalyst telling us we are exposed to 80,000 synthetic chemicals, many of them via our digestive systems, the need to make better food choices feels more compelling than ever.

Buy organic or biodynamic

Sceptics and opponents (yes, they exist!) of organics and biodynamics usually assume that people who prefer organic food do so merely for health reasons and cite the flawed 2012 Stanford study, which concluded there was no difference in nutrition between organic and conventionally grown produce. Apart from newer, more rigorous research that shows the opposite, the truth is those who choose organic do so for a multiplicity of reasons:

In a major UK study published last year, researchers carried out meta-analyses based on 343 peer-reviewed publications to find out whether there were “statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods”.

Among their conclusions: “The concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods” with levels of phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanins substantially higher. Additionally, “The frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal cadmium.”

The report also said, “Many of these [antioxidant] compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD (cardiovascular disease), neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies.”

Further, the World Health Organization recently stated that glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the world under the Monsanto brand name Roundup, “probably” causes cancer in people and that there is some evidence linking it to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — clearly not good for farmers and farmworkers, especially. Moreover, there has been a sharp increase in its use since the development of GM crops resistant to it.

That organic farming is better for soil and water is a no-brainer, but supporting it are studies that show how conventionally farmed soil becomes overworked and depleted of organic matter, including the billions of micro-organisms that keep it living and healthy. Organic farming, on the other hand, enriches the soil and adds to the carbon content.

One of the few long-held arguments against organics — other than price — is that they require more land area because of lower yields. The Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST), which Rodale calls “America’s longest running, side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic agriculture”, is proving otherwise and even that the opposite may be true over the long term.

The company’s researchers have been comparing crop yields and soil samples on the test plots at Rodale’s 330-acre farm for 27 years. Their findings are that organic crops have largely produced equivalent or better yields over the years. In four out of five moderate drought years, the organic corn yield, for example, was 31 per cent higher.

They have also found organic corn and soybean crops tolerate much higher levels of weed competition than conventional equivalents, while producing a similar yield. In addition, this trial has shown that organically managed fields outperform conventional growing in both building organic matter and retaining nitrogen in the soil; they build soil carbon while conventionally farmed soil loses carbon. Carbon-rich soils retain water better, which may explain why the organic crops did better in drought years.

Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

Every year since 2004, the US Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published a shopper’s guide to pesticides in fresh fruit and veg. It’s divided into the Dirty Dozen, the worst for pesticide residues, and the Clean Fifteen, those that are the least contaminated. This is the 2015 list.

Dirty Dozen (Plus)

  1. Apples
  2. Peaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers (capsicum)
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry tomatoes
  11. Snap peas, imported
  12. Potato
    + Hot pepper (chilli)
    + Kale/collard greens

Clean Fifteen

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Cabbage
  5. Sweet peas, frozen
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mango
  9. Papaya
  10. Kiwi
  11. Eggplant
  12. Grapefruit
  13. Cantaloupe (rockmelon)
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Sweet potatoes

This is a US list and doesn’t translate exactly to Australia and New Zealand, but farming methods tend to be somewhat similar and you’ll notice that by and large the worst offenders are items you eat skin and all. Delicate fruit, such as berries, which can’t be scrubbed clean, are of most concern.

In a recent petition to stop the use of one particular pesticide, the SumOfUs movement stated, “Nearly three-quarters of Australia’s strawberry crops are grown with methyl bromide. This pesticide is so toxic it was banned decades ago by the UN’s Montreal Protocol, which aims to phase out ozone-layer-depleting chemicals. Continuing to use methyl bromide in strawberry crops could have devastating consequences for the ozone layer, farmworkers and anyone else exposed to fumes from the pesticide.”

Apples tend to be among the worst offenders on the list every year, if not the worst, because of the chemicals applied to the crops before and after harvest to ensure a longer shelf life.

If you can’t source all organic fruit and veg, try to ensure the produce you eat with skin on is organic and perhaps choose among conventionally grown fruit and veg with a thick skin you peel before eating. Worst case, most nutritionists and dieticians would say that eating produce grown using chemicals is better than no fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet.

Favour free range and grass fed

Animal welfare standards for organic certification mean that when you buy organic you can be confident the animals have been raised as naturally as possible with the ability to express all their natural behaviours and without antibiotics or synthetic growth promoters. But, if you can’t buy organic meat, chicken and eggs for reasons of cost or availability and you can’t get to a good farmers’ market, free range is widely considered the next best thing.

What does it mean, though? If you have a mental image of livestock grazing or scratching contentedly in open pasture, you may be surprised and disappointed at what can be labelled “free range”. Really, it’s often more a marketing term than the truth about the birds’ or pigs’ living conditions. This is the case in both Australia and New Zealand.

There is no national standard for free-range eggs, even though they account for around 40 per cent of the market in dollars spent. There are several certification bodies, whose standards vary, including the Australian Egg Corporation Limited, Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia (FREPA) and Free Range Farmers Association Victoria (FRFA) as well as animal welfare groups like the RSPCA and Humane Society International.

It goes against the grain to fear food or think of it in moral or ethical terms. Food is such a primal thing and the enjoyment of it is rooted in cultural and social traditions.

Chickens need space to stretch and flap their wings, a secluded nesting place in which to lay their eggs and an environment that allows them to express natural behaviours like dust-bathing and foraging for food. Certifying bodies attempt to address these needs but there is concern that large-scale production makes this difficult. Indeed, adherence to government-formulated codes, too, is purely voluntary.

For example, stipulated outdoor stocking rates for chickens vary from 750 birds/ha (FRFA) to 1500 (RSPCA) to 10,000 (both Coles’ and Woolworths’ own-brands free range). The Egg Corporation applied to have it raised to 20,000, claiming that 29 per cent of free-range producers have stocking ratios even higher than 20,000, but the application was rejected by the Australian competition and consumer watchdog ACCC. Some brands of eggs and chickens detail their animal welfare priorities on their websites. Some even have a webcam where you can see chickens free-ranging.

Both RSPCA and Humane Society International Australia (via its Humane Choice True Free Range certification) provide more consistent standards that producers must abide by to get approval. Humane Choice, with its “True Free Range” standards, lists on its website the producers it has certified and in many cases where you can buy the products.

RSPCA approval “requires that eggs marketed as RSPCA ‘free range’ or ‘barn laid’ come from layer hens that have more space than those raised in conventional systems. They can perch, dust-bathe, scratch and forage, and lay their eggs in a nest. RSPCA ‘free-range’ eggs come from hens that have ready access to an attractive range area during the day that provides them with shade, shelter and protection from predators.” Similar conditions apply for meat chickens and turkeys.

Similarly for pork, “The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme requires that pork marketed as ‘RSPCA bred free range’ comes from farms where sows and boars roam freely outside, piglets are born outside on the range and, once weaned, are raised in eco-shelters with straw bedding.”

In fact, “bred free range” means the pigs were born in a free-range environment then raised indoors in open sheds with straw bedding (eco shelters) or small pens on concrete floors as in conventional pig farming. With no Australian standard for this, there’s no guarantee of how much time is spent outdoors. Some “free range” and “bred free range” systems also don’t allow teeth clipping and tail docking; these practices are never permitted for organic certification.

“Sow stall free” is yet another term you’ll see on pork products. The Australian industry has committed to phasing out the inhumane practice of keeping these intelligent animals in sow stalls, but it’s not there yet. This term is used to differentiate the meat products that are from pigs kept in group housing. They still may be kept in a mating stall for up to five days following mating to prevent aggression between sows, although some definitions allow only one day in a stall.

Farrowing crates is another horror of pig farming. Sows may be confined for up to five weeks, including a week before giving birth and four weeks after until the little things are weaned. Under development are farrowing pens, which allow freedom of movement while protecting the babies from crushing.

Be aware that the pink “Australian Pork” logo does not mean the pigs have been raised in a free-range system.

It’s a similar story with beef, which is often from cattle that have spent at least part of their lives in feedlots where they’re artificially fattened with grain. Beef finished in feedlots makes up 40 per cent of our beef and 80 per cent of that sold in major supermarkets. Grain feeding adds significantly to the already high environmental footprint of beef production.

“Grass fed” not only tastes better but it implies that the animal has mostly lived a natural life on the range, though it still may have been grain-finished for 50-150 days in a feedlot. “Grass fed and finished” means the animal has spent its whole life grazing in pasture. Grass- or pasture-fed beef can sometimes have a slightly chewier texture — “tenderness” is one of the reasons for grain feeding — but it has been shown to be higher in omega-3s, has better flavour and puts less stress on the environment.

While it’s possible to find smaller producers of free-range and grass-fed foods, whose welfare standards are more acceptable, and there are ethical butchers who sell meat raised in better conditions, all of this just takes us back to the last point: buy organic or biodynamic if possible.

Stick to sustainable seafood

Three-quarters of the world’s oceans are overfished, according to the Australian Marine Conservation Society (ACMS), and a UN report claims that commercial fisheries will collapse by 2050. Yet we are advised to have two to three serves a week of oily fish to get a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Besides, we love eating seafood!

Is fish farming the solution? The answer is not simple. For example, the AMCS says salmon raised in aquaculture are fed fishmeal from the wild and it takes 2–4kg of wild fish to produce 1kg of the farmed fish. Salmon have also been known to escape into the wild where, as introduced predators, they pose a threat to the natural balance. Pollution from their waste is another concern, although aquaculture conditions and practices continue to improve.

Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide assesses the sustainability of Australian and imported fish species. It’s available as a free phone app or a free printed pocket guide, or you can buy the full printed guide for AU$10. The Greenpeace Australia Pacific website has a ‘Label My Fish’ section that reveals the labelling “scams” concerning both fresh and frozen fish.

The downloadable sustainable seafood pocket guide divides seafood species into Better, Less and No. The Better choices of wild-caught include Australian salmon, Tropical Snapper, Dusky Flathead, King George and Stout Whiting as well as prawns, calamari, mud crabs and spanner crabs. Farmed Better choices include barramundi, mussels, Black Tiger, Kuruma and Banana prawns and oysters.

Not so favoured are farmed salmon and ocean trout, wild barramundi, Blue-Eye, Tiger Flathead and Dolphinfish (Mahi Mahi), as well as several farmed prawn species and imported fish such as Basa and Nile Perch.

Those to say no to include wild-caught Sea Bream, Gemfish, Jewfish, Deep Sea Perch (Orange Roughy), Flake, Pink Snapper and Tropical Snapper, farmed Kingfish and Yellowtail as well as imported farmed prawns, Blue Grenadier, Hake (Cod) and Albacore, Yellowfin and Bigeye Tuna. You can see why the pocket guide would be handy when shopping.

It’s easier to tell whether tinned and frozen fish, which are still good sources of omega-3s, are sustainably fished, especially if the product sports the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo that tells you it’s Certified Sustainable Seafood. This organisation certifies seafood products worldwide and its website provides lists by country. It may surprise you that the major supermarkets’ own brands make that list. Greenpeace also has a Canned Tuna Guide, rating brands’ sustainability. Plus, labels often reveal the catch method, eg pole and line caught: a more sustainable fishing method.

Tinned herring, mackerel and sardines tend to be good choices as they are fast-growing and low in the food chain. Their fast growth also helps make them more mercury safe than the long-lived varieties.

Buy Fairtrade

Fairtrade is an international organisation aimed at improving the trading position of producers in the developing world as well as promoting sustainable practices and fair working conditions. The idea is to promote equity for small producers in their dealings with wealthier traders in the dog-eat-dog global market, to fix fair prices that’ll insulate them from fluctuations in commodity prices and provide additional funds to invest in social, economic and environmental initiatives, such as health and education, in their communities. Fairtrade also seeks to eradicate forced and/or child labour.

Most of us are familiar with Fairtrade coffee, tea and chocolate but many other commodities come under the Fairtrade banner, including sugar, cotton, handicrafts, fruit and wine — even gold and diamonds. According to Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand, “more than 6 million people — farmers, producers, workers and their families — in 70 countries” benefit from its system. Fairtrade certification is available only to democratically organised co-operatives of small producers, not individually owned farms, estates or enterprises that use hired labour.

If you can’t source all organic fruit and veg, try to ensure the produce you eat with skin on is organic and perhaps choose among conventionally grown fruit and veg with a thick skin you peel before eating.

While the Fairtrade logo is a beacon for consumers who like to feel their purchasing dollar is doing some good for someone, somewhere, such organisations do have their critics. Some coffee buyers prefer direct trade with producers, claiming they get better coffee that way — not necessarily at a better price but without any money going to middlemen and farmers’ co-ops. They say the Fairtrade system, by setting prices a year in advance, compromises standards because no one knows what the quality of the next harvest will be.

Others mutter about “guilt-based marketing” or regard the Fairtrade brand as a fashionable logo some retailers wear as a cloak of virtue and good global citizenship. These critics point out that Starbucks, for example, sources just 3–6 per cent (estimates vary) of its coffee from Fairtrade farmers; in reply, the company contends its massive sales amount to more than 10 per cent of the world market in fair-traded coffee.

Still others find the Fairtrade system paternalist and “neo-imperialistic” — ironic as the movement had its beginnings in the 1960s as a political gesture against the economic imperialism and unfair business models of giant multinationals. But such criticism ignores the vulnerability of small-scale farmers. If Fairtrade can level the playing field between Third-World producers and big-city buyers while providing them with some income security and social welfare, maybe that’s not such a bad kind of imperialism.

Be aware that Fairtrade certification does not stipulate that the product be organically grown, although farms that are certified organic receive a small additional premium.

Frequent farmers’ markets

Many of us have access to weekly farmers’ markets where the produce isn’t always more expensive but, when it is, that’s usually made up for it in colour and flavour. In rural areas, you can even buy straight from the farmgate and roadside stalls.

Of course, just because it’s a “farmers’ market”, that doesn’t mean you’re buying organic or even that the sellers have themselves grown the food. Many stallholders at local markets are merely resellers who have gone early to the big markets and bought a load of conventional produce that could well have come from the other side of the country.

If you’re lucky, you may have an organic market nearby. But you’ll usually find some local growers and even certified organic stalls at regular markets. You’ll also find meat, organic or not, that’s sold by the farmer or the farmer’s representative, along with handmade or artisan products such as cheeses, oils, breads, olives, preserves, sauces and drinks made with home-grown or even certified organic ingredients.

The beauty of farmers’ markets are that they give you a good chance of finding out much more about what you’re buying from the stallholders themselves, and you can establish a regular pattern of buying from those you trust. Plus, you’re buying fresh food for the coming week and there’s some evidence that having fresh produce to use up encourages more fresh food consumption. And we tend to better appreciate and feel less inclined to waste foods whose provenance we feel closer to.

Reject GM

The only genetically modified (GM) food crops currently allowed to be commercially grown in Australia are cotton and canola. New Zealand has none as yet, though some are in testing. GM (also known as GE or genetically engineered) crops that have been approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) but are not currently grown here include soybeans, corn, potato, sugarbeet, lucerne and rice, most of them modified to resist herbicides or to be insect protected.

Wait a minute — cotton a food? Yes, actually, for its oil. Cottonseed oil is commonly used by restaurants and takeaway joints and in processed foods, which also often contain imported corn, soy and cottonseed oil. Under current labelling laws, both canola and cottonseed oils can be labelled simply “vegetable oil” with no indication that they are GM.

But why is GM a problem when the pro-GM forces say it could feed the world? In genetic modification of plants, scientists take one or more genes from the DNA of a different organism, such as a bacterium, virus, animal or plant, and transfer them into the DNA of the plant in which they want to express a certain trait or traits of the other organism. The intention is usually to make the plant resistant to pesticide or make it capable of producing its own insecticide, or less often to increase or reduce particular components of its makeup.

The obvious concern about any food that has been altered in the laboratory is safety for human, or indeed animal, consumption. Governmental food safety bodies such as FSANZ claim to stringently monitor and assess GM foods for safety before approving them. But can we trust their assessments?

According to Sheldon Krimsky, chairman of the Council for Responsible Genetics and co-editor of The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know about the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk, we cannot. In 2014, he said, “When I investigated the scientific literature, I found more than a dozen studies showing negative health impacts, and these have to be addressed. You can’t just throw them away.

“When dealing with risks, it’s not about having more studies showing no harm than ones showing harm. One negative outcome is worth 99 positive outcomes because many positive outcomes are funded by industry.”

Moreover, he believes any scientist who has found negative impacts of GE foods has been vilified, citing as an example Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, who published a study showing negative impacts to rats fed GM corn and Roundup herbicide.

GE crops are living organisms, so they can reproduce and spread. We’ve seen a recent case of GM canola spreading to a neighbouring organic farm in Western Australia, resulting in the organic farmer’s loss of certification and an ensuing court case. Elsewhere in WA, Tasmania and NSW, GM canola has been spilled on roadsides and spread to neighbouring GM-free farms. While no one can control the wind, more careful farming practices may be able to somewhat limit the spread of GM crops to where they are not welcome; however, consider what the escape and unintended spread of GM animals could mean.

As an example, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is currently assessing AquaBounty super salmon with a view to allowing it entry to the food supply. The super salmon contain extra growth hormone genes and are said to grow twice as fast and twice as big as native salmon. The company plans to produce GM fish eggs in Canada, grow them in Panama’s fish farms and sell the fish in the US. Imagine the consequences of those fish escaping the farms and reproducing with wild salmon. “Frankenfoods” indeed.

Even if GM organisms were proved perfectly safe on all counts, it is a very serious threat to biodiversity. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN), around 90 per cent of the fruit and vegetable varieties that existed 100 years ago no longer exist today. For example, in 1901 there were 497 varieties of lettuce; now there are 36. In the past 100 years, seeds have gone from common heritage to the patented intellectual property of multinationals like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Du Pont and Dow. Those companies between them control 80 per cent of seed used in farming. Oh, and did we mention they also manufacture the agrochemicals tailored to suit the seed?

We simply cannot allow this to continue. Maintaining seed biodiversity not only gives us wonderful variety but it allows us to breed new varieties (by traditional means) that are resistant to certain pests or can handle the kind of weather extremes that are likely to become more frequent.

How does the consumer reject GM? Food labelled “Product of Australia”, as long as it doesn’t contain canola or cottonseed oil, will be GM free. Look for labels such as “GM Free”, “GE Free” and “Not Genetically Modified”. Anything certified organic or biodynamic will be GM free. The True Food Guide lists brands guaranteed completely GE free, including the feed fed to animals, by their manufacturer. It has a special kids’ products guide you can download.

Weaken the power of big

The high street where we used to shop is rapidly disappearing, replaced by vast shopping malls with even vaster parking lots: sort of one-stop shops where consumers can buy just about everything they need under one roof, trolley their goods back to the car and motor happily homewards.

The postwar assumption that “bigger is better” — exemplified by the growth of supermarket monopolies, huge multinational transport and storage companies and the so-called Green Revolution in intensive agriculture — has only quite recently been called into question. More and more people are beginning to realise that bigger isn’t necessarily better — it’s just bigger. And, in many ways, badder.

Even free-market think tanks like the UK’s Adam Smith Institute have challenged accepted theories such as “economies of scale”. The Institute’s Dr Madsen Pirie writes, “It can be true up to a point that bigger is better, and there can be economies of scale … In service industries, however, bigger might mean less personal and therefore less attractive to customers.”

No doubt the least contentious food of all is that which we grow ourselves.

And so it is with food shopping. Thanks to bulk buying, mass transport and refrigerated storage, supermarket shelves are full of cheap goods including out-of-season fruit and vegies year-round as well as foods from faraway places. But this impersonal interface means customers are often further away than ever from the source of their food. The food may have been grown in a distant field from GM seeds and blasted with pesticides, or on an unsustainable plantation carved out of an orangutan habitat. Food miles add to the food’s carbon footprint, as do processing and prolonged storage, which can also rob it of flavour and vitamins; it may end up denatured altogether. Add to this an inadequate labelling system that tells you as little about the product and its provenance as the manufacturer can legally get away with and what’s an ethical consumer to do?

Well, pay more, for starters. While the major supermarket chains are starting to cater to customers who seek organic, cruelty-free and Fairtrade products, until demand rises above a certain level and, yes, economies of scale kick in, these lines will remain relatively expensive. After all, organic food costs more to produce than the high-yield, pesticide-sprayed crops of big agribusiness or the pragmatic, intensive methods of the larger poultry and livestock producers.

There is a domino effect that starts with consumers. In simple terms, the consumer wants cheaper food and endless variety; the supermarkets compete with each other to serve the consumers’ wants; they in turn put pressure on producers to cut their prices, and fill their shelves with imports that are cheaper or out of season; the farmers in turn feel they have to use farming methods that will give them higher yields for less cost, and producers of imports cut corners to cut prices. You get the picture.

A better strategy is to avoid supermarkets, at least as far as fresh food is concerned, and go back to the greengrocer and a trusted, ethical butcher. Plus, of course, you could consider eating smaller portions. Most of us eat more than we need of everything.

Grow your own

Australian’s own “Father of Permaculture” Bill Mollison said, “The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10 per cent of us do this, there is enough for everyone.” No doubt the least contentious food of all is that which we grow ourselves.

That doesn’t mean just in backyards. We need to use areas like verges, rooftops and other uncultivated spaces for food growing. Actually, some people do garden the verge outside their homes; but there should be more of it. Something else we need more of is community gardens for those who want to participate in food growing but have no dirt to call their own.

We can’t say whether Mollison’s 10 per cent figure is literally correct, but you get his drift and history gives us some inspiring examples of what can be achieved when ordinary people are suddenly mobilised by necessity to get involved in food production.

During World War II, so farmers could focus their efforts on grain and dairy production, Brits were encouraged to “Dig for Victory”. Home vegie plots sprouted all over the place and parks, sports fields and other public areas — even the lawns outside the Tower of London — were transformed into allotments. People also kept chickens, rabbits and goats for food; 900 pig clubs were established and about 6000 pigs raised in gardens. Those home gardens and allotments provided around 10 per cent of food consumed in the UK while using less than 1 per cent of arable land.

The US Department of Agriculture also encouraged victory gardens and by May 1943 there were said to be 18 million victory gardens — 12 million in cities and 6 million on farms. The movement even reached Australia, which launched a Dig for Victory campaign in 1942 because of the shortage of agricultural workers. Even when the problem eased, home gardens continued to produce throughout the war.

Cuba offers a more contemporary example. The US trade embargo during the Cold War made Cuba reliant on the Soviet Union for oil and food imports. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these stopped virtually overnight. No fuel for mechanised farming, no artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and no more imported food caused a crisis that led Cubans to change from the large-scale commercial farming model to small-scale food growing on any available land, no matter how small. And, without access to synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, it was all grown organically by ordinary people who knew nothing of agriculture.

After much trial and error and reclaiming of land, Cubans were able to feed themselves. The country has more than 7000 urban allotments, or organoponicos, which take up around 81,000 acres. They have been established on every tiny plot, in and around tower-block estates and in the spaces between the crumbling colonial homes. In the city of Havana, more than 200 gardens supply over 90 per cent of the fruit and vegetables needed by its citizens.

Maybe we can’t precipitate a revolution, but we can begin to evolve in this direction by becoming involved in programs that focus on using local spaces for food growing, whether it’s in schools, community gardens or suburban sidewalks — plus, of course, by using our own backyards, balconies, window sills and rooftops. Gardeners can also start a compost heap or bucket so that any food waste will go straight back into growing more food.

As the title Towards Ethical Eating indicates, realistically the best we can do is move towards eating ethically. Until we can wrest control of our food supply from those who are only about profit and get it back to those who want to grow and sell clean, honest food — or somehow convert Big Ag to putting human, animal and planetary health before profit — we can make things better by taking lots of small steps ourselves and becoming food activists, opposing the practices of the likes of Monsanto and other Big Ag multinationals. But, in the meantime, enjoy your food. Grow it, buy it and cook it with love and celebrate the wonders of nature!

Eat less meat

Meat is a complicated issue. Its consumption impacts on many resources (nutrients, water, land) and contributes substantially to waste generation (agricultural run-off, greenhouse gas emissions) and poor animal welfare practices, among other things. Half of the world’s grain is now used to produce animal feed and animal consumption is projected to double between 2000 and 2050 as the middle classes grow in countries like China, even as it plateaus in Western countries. As farming has become more industrialised, we are feeding animals with food we could simply eat ourselves.

In wealthy countries with strong sheep and cattle industries like Australia and New Zealand, many people eat well above the recommended guidelines for red meat. And those guidelines are considered by some nutritionists to be quite high as it is: 450g of red meat a week is one recommendation.

Apart from having smaller portions of meat and cooking recipes that use less meat (stir-fries, curries), a good way to reduce consumption is to have meat-free days each week. We’ve all heard of Meat-Free Monday but that doesn’t mean you can’t have meat-free Wednesday or Friday as well. (And, to contribute to seafood sustainability, don’t substitute with fish!)

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Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne loves good food and is the managing editor of WellBeing.