Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Food For Thought

Are we facing a global food crisis? We take our food for granted. Supermarket shelves groan with an incredible variety of produce, but in 2008 as food riots swept the world, we saw that the international food system is not as stable as it looks. Is this just the beginning of a new era of food? Travelling to different parts of the globe, this two-part documentary unravels the complicated web of links that binds the world together, and asks what needs to happen to avert a major global food crisis. (Blurb for SBS documentary 'The Future Of Food'.)
I watched a very interesting documentary on SBS tonight, called 'The Future of Food.' It was very a interesting examination into the forecast of the world's food production and how different countries are preparing (or not) for inevitable food shortages over the next few decades. It introduced me to three connected terms: food economy, oil economy and food security. The overall premise is that as the world becomes affected by oil shortages, industrialised agricultural methods will become unsustainable, which will decrease the supply of food and increase its cost. Countries with a larger 'oil economy' are already looking to poorer countries with land availability (eg Kenya) to produce food for their people, thus giving them 'food security' as the world moves into more uncertain times. (This does not mean, however, that the economies of the poorer countries are boosted, as the food is still too expensive for the average inhabitant to afford... it just reduces the land availability for these countries to grow their own food and increases their dependance through employment - albeit on excessively minimal wages - on Western food corporations who own and/or run the farms.)

The documentary examined the 'globalisation' of food - the fact that 'fresh' produce can be sourced from foreign countries, resulting in consumers becoming accustomed to eating a wide variety of foods year-round. How many people are able to identify when certain fruits and vegetables are seasonally available in their region? This globalisation has put small, local farmers and markets under pressure to be able to meet their customers whims for big, juicy mangoes in the middle of winter. This has many implications - money is taken out of the local economies, fruit and vegetable quality is compromised and the transport, refrigeration and chemicals (to keep the produce looking fresh) required to get your bananas from California to your table significantly increases the environmental impact your eating habits have.

A cattle feedlot (image courtesy of a google search!)
And that's just fruit and vegetables. What about meat? Reducing our red meat consumption is one of the 'greenest' things we can do. I read a quote today that went something along the lines of 'A vegan in a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a red meat eater in a Prius.' Am I a vegan, or even a vegetarian? No, not even close. But as a family we have significantly reduced the impact of our meat eating.... by reducing how much we eat, as well as being aware of where our meat comes from, and what was involved in getting it to our table.

And this is why. Cattle are traditionally field raised (in Australia, this means they roam the large stations in the vast North of our country) until the few months of their life. Then, they are placed into feedlots and grain fed - including corn and soy products, not naturally a part of a cow's diet, and often GM foods. Cattle across the world are annually fed 700 million tonnes of cereals. They account for around 10% of the world's water usage, and 1/3 of land usage. Cattle are responsible for 1/5 of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. During their feedlot months, they are penned in concrete enclosures and fed growth hormones and antibiotics to speed up their growth ready for sale. Buying 'organic' isn't always enough, either. Barbara Kingsolver, in her book 'Animal, Vegetable, Miracle' (an American book, but this is irrelevant, greed is global) writes,
'Certified organic' does not necessarily mean sustainably grown, worker-friendly, fuel-efficient, cruelty-free or any other virtue a consumer might wish for.
It is up to us to decide what our food values are, and, if it is important to us, do the research into the very foods we eat. Nath and I have decided to buy only local, grass fed beef, local free range pork (be aware that 'free range' may mean that the enclosure the animals are kept in has a door, not necessarily that they are ever able to use it) and anything we kill ourselves. Eventually we hope to eat only what we kill or catch ourselves. For us, this is the most sustainable way of remaining carnivores. Obviously it may not be sustainable if everyone were to acquire firearms licences and start killing animals for meat, or overfish the oceans and rivers, but as it is relatively infrequently done in our culture, it has minimum impact for us to do so. We also only eat red meat, on average, twice a week. It is only in recent decades that red meat every night has become the 'norm'.

As an inhabitant of a world on the brink of a potential food crisis, though, I can't help wondering what will come next. Food prices are sure to rise exponentially in years to come. Some items will simply disappear off our shelves. Where will this leave us? What skills do we need to learn before dietary variety becomes a luxury that few can afford? How many of us know how to grow, cook and preserve seasonal fresh foods?

Food for thought.


  1. It also highlighted that from an environmental view of 'emissions' the production stage is often more intensive than the transport.

    So, an organic item from interstate or overseas can have less of an environmental impact than one produced locally but intensively/ unsustainably.

    Some countries can be cleaner producers by specialising in crops that suit their climate. I think the madness of growing irrigated rice in Australia is a good example (although there is now a rain fed rice now being grown supposedly).

    Of course, the local and organic produce is the holy grail.

  2. Hi Anonymous :)
    Firstly, yes there is an Australian company producing biodynamic, rainfed rice. It's in NSW and here is the link to their website: http://www.rainfedrice.com.au/

    Its a really good point about the local/unsustainable vs organic/imported foods. Ideally, in my little fantasy world, I would love to see people adapting totally to their local environments and only growing/eating what they are able to produce locally in sustainable ways. Would be nice, wouldn't it?

    I think, though, it illustrates the need for us to know where our food comes from, how it is grown and what impact it may have. A big call? Maybe, but when I shop I go by the motto...." If in doubt, leave it out."

    Thanks for commenting :)

  3. Hi Nicole, I really enjoyed this post. Also the comment about growing unsustainable rice is an issue my partner and I have discussed before too. I didn't know about the rain fed rice, thanks for the link.
    We have been eating seasonally (mostly) for nearly 8 years, but you are right, before that I had no clue what food belonged in which season.
    It really is time for a change and time for people to reconnect with their food/Earth, great to see you doing your bit to educate and raise awareness.


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