Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Product source is challenging ‘use by’
Food was once a simple pleasure; innocent, personal, agenda-free. Of the appetites, sex was the moral one, the one that got centuries’ worth of attention. Food was just the surrogate, the mousey sibling, the runt. To sit under a tree munching a roast beef sandwich carried no political weight. Until now. The century is young but already it has stripped food of its simple-pleasure status and made it a moral issue destined to put sex in the shade.
True, food had vestigial moral wings. For Western women, and a few men, the post-’60s fat thing gave food intense guilt power. But this was mainly personal and aesthetic, if mildly enhanced by the Other People’s Famines that hover in our peripheral vision. Now, though, food is a fully fledged moral raptor, ready to launch, here, on our patch.
Fat, increasingly political, is still implicated. The link between calorie restriction and longevity is proven only in mice, and human longevity is, anyway, hardly eco-positive. But the scrutiny now focused on obesity’s ecological and dollar impacts – a recent study costed transporting fat Americans at 3.79 million kilolitres of petrol annually, and 1.32 million kilolitres of airline fuel – can only further limit the fat person’s right to be fat.
But food’s moral feathers now include not just quantity and quality but also where food comes from, how it is produced, what it farts and where it sits in the food chain. Food morality is no longer just sugar, cholesterol and trans fats. It’s more than glycemic index and antifreeze in toothpaste. This is about cost: the entire ecological cost of human nourishment. It’s huge.
“Food miles” is a major strand. The food miles debate is hotter in high importers such as Britain and high exporters such as New Zealand. Even here, though, your weekly trolley shop might collect foods from 20 or 30 countries, clocking up maybe 150,000 food miles with a combined carbon tonnage several times that of a week’s household appliance use put together.
At first glance, this looks like the tyranny of distance returning to roost. In the US, networks of “locavores” are adopting the “100-mile diet” which, designed to cleanse more than just your liver, means you eat exclusively local. It’s not easily done. Imagine finding sugar or tea originating within 160 kilometres of Surry Hills or even sourcing the flour in your pasta or the milk in your tea.
Melbourne, as of last week, has its own Hundred Mile Cafe, run by Paul Mathis on the corner of Latrobe and Swanston streets. I haven’t checked out the menu but I say call his bluff. Order lamingtons.
Even if you could do the 100-mile diet without making it a full-time job, though, the logic is not so simple. Kenyan roses air-freighted to Amsterdam generate only 17 per cent of the carbon dioxide of locally grown hothouse roses, because the average Kenyan eco-footprint is a minuscule percentage of the average European’s. New Zealand lamb generates less than a quarter of the carbon dioxide of British lamb, even counting air freight, because of NZ’s gentler climate, lower stock densities and less damaging farm practices.
So say New Zealand studies, anyway. But British authorities insist that to live green is to “buy British”. Which is part of the problem; the food miles debate is so obviously open to capture by lobby groups on both sides of the subsidy debate. Both sides push self-interest barrows, so who to trust?
Plus there’s the fact that the centralised handling and distribution required by big supermarkets often impose crazy travel regimes, making organic or low-mileage food travel several times the crow-flies distance before reaching its point of sale. Which only leaves the consumer with the impossible task of weighing the likely eco-footprint of Sardinian sardines against overfished tuna or orange roughy.
But before you settle for cheeseburgers instead, consider this. The CSIRO Total Wellbeing diet, which outsells Harry Potter, allows 14 weekly serves of red meat. But the CSIRO’s Balancing Act report, meanwhile, reveals that Australian beef farming has 18 times the economy-wide average in water use (litres per dollar yield), 26 times the average greenhouse gas production and 58 times the average land disturbance. Further, cow flatulence methane is 21 times more potent a global warmer than carbon dioxide, with most of that extra potency concentrated in the first few years. Commercial fishing, by contrast, is well below the average on all three counts.
But underpinning every argument about buying Argentinian pears or Guatemalan sugar-snaps is our presumption that to extend the rights of kings across all humanity is a good thing. This is globalism’s most extravagant and seductive lie; that we can all have it all, all of the time.
And sure, increasingly synthetic farming methods could yet prove this true. But most evidence points the other way: towards our dancing more, not less, to nature’s tune; eating cherries only in season, prawns only by the sea; towards keeping specialness special; to the small organic farms and small local markets that peak oil may yet enforce.
Then again, beer’s carbon rating is 20 per cent below average; so maybe we just grow hops on the roof and replace eating altogether with the liquid lunch that put the Great into Britain?