The other day I heard writer/journalist Steven Poole being interviewed on ABC radio about his new book You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture. I haven’t read the book, but going by this synopsis, I have a feeling I might thoroughly enjoy it!
However, there was one thing I heard Steven talk about that didn’t quite convince me. In a discussion on the rise of slow/local food scenes, he raised the issue that while some people choose this foodie path because of the perceived ethical benefits of eating local, others may argue that in doing so, they are doing an African farmer out of his sale of beans or tomatoes or something…which raises a completely different set of ethical complexities.
Now this scenario may be more relevant in places like Europe and the UK, where a lot of food crops can’t be grown because of climate or land availability. Importing food is essential, if you don’t want to live on potatoes and stout (how I wish that diet was good for you!).
In Australia, we are lucky enough to be able to grow most food crops somewhere in the country, so the need for importing food is pretty low (which makes policy decisions to do just that all the more ridiculous). But Steven’s comment got me thinking. I can see the potential for opposing views of ‘ethicality’ in such a situation, but I also wonder if there’s more to it than just these two sides of the story.
What if food speculation/trading/profiteering etc. hadn’t created an international market for that African farmer? Or what if that international market didn’t give him a much higher price to sell on his (frozen) beans to a supermarket in Yorkshire, than he would get selling his produce locally? What if multinational companies didn’t buy up land in poorer majority-world countries where famine and poverty are rife, use up someone else’s resources to grow food, and then ship the produce back home to feed themselves?
If those market opportunities didn’t exist, would that African farmer be doing just fine selling his freshly-picked beans at his local market, or trading them for produce from other neighbouring farmers, thereby supporting his own local food ‘scene’?
We could also consider the ecological ethics. I am an avid support of slow, unplugged life in general, especially the concept of ‘slow food’, sans the obsessive fetishism that sometimes goes along with it! Let’s not forget that, despite the recent popularity of ‘slow’ ideologies, living and eating slowly and locally was the normality until a hundred-odd years ago.
Shipping produce across land and sea is not ideal…for a lot of reasons. Some of the main issues are the effects of this activity on the environment (carbon emissions, potential pest and disease introduction etc.) and the impacts on local farming communities, at both ends of the trade route.
Yes, international trade of food has happened since civilisation began, and will always happen – but surely we can limit it to the most essential/practical items and encourage the growth of ‘local’ food systems wherever possible? Not all crops can grow everywhere, so trying to grow tomatoes in heated greenhouses in Iceland uses more unnecessary resources than simply importing them from Spain or Italy.
However, ‘slow food’ is not just about eating locally – it’s about eating according to the seasons and the local climate. If you feel like eating a mango in the middle of a winter snow storm…well, you just have to wait 6 months! Eating with the seasons has the added benefit of allowing us to reconnect with Nature and appreciate more where our food comes from.
As I mentioned in my last post, global ‘food security’ starts at home – for everyone. I think that, in a world where so much ‘anti-environmental’ activity is often unavoidable just to get through the day, eating with the seasons and growing as much local food as we can is one of the most ethical things we can do.
By doing this, we are supporting local growers and the local economy, reducing ‘food miles’, benefitting our own health, indirectly opposing risky/unethical trade deals, and, more importantly, enabling majority world farmers to build their own stable community food markets, instead of forcing them to rely on volatile international trade agreements to survive.
It’s a win-win situation!
© Manu Saunders 2013
Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I don’t necessarily agree with all that you say here, but I agree with some of it.
No worries 🙂
I had meant to reply to this before. This reminds me of a recent article in the Guardian about the rising demand for quinoa driving up food prices for Bolivia. I tend to agree with you, that these problems are more the result of global capitalism on the world’s food supply and how that affects poor population rather than the emergence of a “gastroculture”.
However, it’s useful to be reminded that our food choices are major pressures on the world, for good or for bad.
Yes, I remember seeing the article about quinoa too – similar situations occur with a lot of other traditional crops that the majority world have used for centuries, but the West has only just ‘discovered’. 🙂
I wonder. Would that African farmer be growing food for his own family instead of having to send his produce away and having to buy the food they need from someone else?
We have been trained into eating what we want when we want haven’t we? It wasn’t that long ago that if it wasn’t in season we knew it wasn’t available and just ate what was. I think we need a return to that but boy, the foodies would be unhappy wouldn’t they! 🙂
exactly! on both points 🙂
The arguments for eating seasonally are plenty – even regardless of ethics, the defrosted ‘matured’ produce you buy in the supermarkets are just foul! The evil queen would never have gotten Snow White with a woolworths apple 🙂
James would have never hollowed out a squishy Woolies Giant Peach either 😀
I have been growing tomatoes from a plant supplied by the FIL. The misshapen fruit are almost black, and Number 1 sons first reaction was “They look and taste weird mum”. It took him a few minutes to realize that they tasted weird because they actually tasted like a tomato!
I have noticed in the last few years there is a growing popularity in weekend farmers markets which is a good thing to see, local farmers selling locally.
that sounds like a mighty delicious tomato!
and yes, it’s great to see local food becoming more ‘popular’…I reckon it doesn’t matter WHY people choose to start caring about the food they eat, as long as they start!