The articles in this feature on feeding the world have covered the key areas that are currently driving the crisis: speculation, agricultural monopolies and over reliance on chemicals, combined with protectionist trade practices. Together with the burgeoning world population and higher prices for petroleum based inputs, it is clear that much is unsustainable in current agricultural approaches.
My contribution looks at ways urban Australians can learn from these problems, and the positive externalities that result when a slower more local approach to food takes hold.
My focus is on the individual’s locus of control, and how simple changes in practice can flow through to the broader social policy settings that the other authors have argued for so well. It also seems obvious that the rich countries cannot continue to produce and use food with no changes to our practices, while expecting or hoping that global problems will be solved.
To begin with, we Australians eat too much. The sums have been done in the US for the added petrol consumption that comes with a fatter population. Every aspect of society bears the weight of our blatant over-indulgence: more fabric, additional leather as shoes wear out more quickly, bigger seating, king size everything. Unpalatable as it may sound, the obvious fact is that there is too much of a good thing going on. This reflects a shift in values that permits or encourages consumption.
Not only do we eat too much, but the quality of what we eat has declined. This is due to both the way food is grown and the way it is prepared as it moves through the consumer food chain from the field to the package. As with our profligate use of private transport, over-consumption of convenient, packaged and prepared foods can do us more harm than good.
More plants, less meat. More raw, less cooked. This is the advice from Michael Pollan, who spoke at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Just as the over use of chemicals and pesticides is killing our soil, so does the produce that comes from these over-treated soils offer us less nutrition. Pollan claims an apple today has only 1/3 as much iron as an apple from the 1950s.
It seems reasonable to cut back on packaged and prepared foods, as whatever nutrition might remain is surely minimised by its processing into snippets of molecules freeze-dried or otherwise tortured and made available in a box. This would move towards more sustainable food supply industries, if fewer convenience foods were sought and bought.
A survey of a supermarket check out counter tells you what other people consider to be edible. Probably half of it wouldn’t pass Pollan’s common sense tests of avoiding items your grandmother wouldn’t recognise or that won’t rot.
So we could certainly be putting more time, energy and money into improving the quality of what we eat, and probably lose a few collective giga-tonnes along the way. Increased demand for non-chemically grown food would also encourage better farming practices, and bring down the costs for “natural” food.
But we still have to get the food from the farm to the consumer, and the fresher it is, the more quickly it will rot. And while we might take comfort from knowing our lettuce is capable of rotting, we won’t want to eat it once that process becomes obvious.
Given all the attention to peak oil these days, minimising the transport inputs for food is another obvious place to start implementing sustainability. For urban dwellers, this means a return to market gardens on the fringes. Sydney still has a bit of this, but much has been gobbled by housing. Town planners might begin by setting aside some decent arable land for small scale farming, and encourage low chemical production to protect the water supply.
Finally, there is the enormous wastage of food both before and after it gets to the consumer. This is another issue that needs to be considered holistically, as it relates to transport, storage, and social equity.
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