In case you’ve had your head in a sand pit, we’ve just launched our latest book Seasonal Regional (check out our launch photos here)! In this Table Talk post, Seasonal Regional author Sarah Robins takes us on a journey through our changing food landscape, from the beginnings of the ‘green revolution’ to what we can do today, in our own homes, to help overcome our environmental (and health) issues. Read this condensed version of Sarah’s introduction to the book, here…

Food is something of a hot topic: chefs are in magazines and newspapers, make guest appearances on television shows; write books, participate in festivals as guest speakers and are frequently hailed as celebrities. Food and wine tours and events abound. Social networking media act as repositories of recipes; blogs and cook-offs are everywhere; reality cooking programs show little sign of abating in popularity. Thanks to the work of organisations such as Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation, the popularity of domestic food gardening, food awareness and kitchen skills are even on the rise among children and teenagers.

The subject of food, which has always demanded our attention in private, is suddenly everywhere in the public domain, celebrated as a source of good health, great pleasure, cultural diversity and creativity.

Food is, of course, far more than that. It’s big business and thus inextricably linked to politics. A national boycott of products from a country can have far-reaching effects, as can wars, natural disasters and climactic variations. Consider the dramatic price fluctuations of rice in 2008, the crisis mad cow disease caused and its ripple effects, or the 2007 contamination of milk products in China.

Climate change, population projections, foreign ownership of arable land, the economic impact of proposed trade agreements, estimations of oil reserves… all raise issues of sustainability, food safety and food security. These factors have the very real potential to affect what we eat, where it comes from and how much it costs.

The good news is that, by the same token, our purchasing decisions have the power to affect the world we live in, significantly.  Consider the proportion of income you spend on food each week. Next to housing and transport, it is likely to be among your highest consistent household expenses.

The belief that food should be cheap is reasonably widespread, a principle that took root in response to the Great Depression and two World Wars. However, as the industrial food system evolved it became evident that ‘cheap’ foods are not always healthful and therefore not cheap at all in the long-term.

It’s not just our health that can be compromised either; examples abound of the environment bearing the cost of ‘cheap’ food from soil degradation and erosion to the pollution of waterways, chemical runoffs and loss of arable land.

Moreover, the true cost of food production is often not visible. When food is sourced elsewhere, populations far from sight may bear the cost on our behalves, living without electricity, sanitation, healthcare and more, earning much less than first world farmers, who in the context of their own society are often struggling to make a living too. Cheap imports can also change the viability of a local industry. Australian garlic, for instance, represented just 10% of the market at its lowest point in the 1990s. Government and industry subsidies play a role too, of course.

We’re dismayed when food prices increase yet also want our food to be produced ethically. When you consider that most of us agree producing food is hard graft, one is lead to wonder if this food item is cheap, how can that be so? Perhaps instead of asking how much, we’d be better to ask why does it cost this much?

How did we get here?

After WWII the make-up of the average family changed, with two-income and single-parent families becoming more common. Urbanisation, the advent of television and other modernities altered our lives and convenience became essential. Kitchen gardens and backyards gradually became less common food sources, replaced by more trips to the grocery store; meals became less frequently cooked at home and shared.

Corresponding changes occurred in industry with mainstream agricultural practice leaning toward expansion, monoculture cropping and greater yields. Pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers developed alongside labour-saving machinery, providing farmers with seemingly all-round benefit. Emphasis in primary production shifted to longevity, uniformity and visual appeal: perfect looking fruit and vegetables that could go the distance of long supply chains.

Taste, variety, quality and ethics all too often fell down the ladder of priorities. Production of dairy, meat and fish became large-scale too. Tighter margins and higher production costs made agriculture a more difficult proposition and one that we valued less. Over time the number of small farms has decreased, absorbed by the bigger players or simply let go.

In turn, we adapted to the industrial changes, altering our diets to accommodate production. Once an occasion, the consumption of meat for instance, became an integral part of Western society’s understanding of a meal. Eating meat is still the norm, for many totally unquestioned, while vegetarianism is considered a choice and an alternative one at that.

Life got busier and ‘value-added’ products became ubiquitous. If this sounds exaggerated, consider the proportion of fresh food versus packaged goods in supermarket aisles, the number of display cabinets for refrigerated and frozen items. Profit margins from these products far exceed those for primary produce. The nature of industry around these foodstuffs differs enormously too of course: agriculture is but a small part of the equation. Once the packet or jar is taken home for consumption, ‘cooking’ a meal can involve little effort. Pots and pans may not be called for at all.

The controversy of food labelling

Our lack of nutrition and science-based knowledge, particularly as the list of ‘ingredients’ continues to expand, our susceptibility to the authoritative role labels play and desire for something (anything) to make one product stand out over another can even be exploited to the point of being nonsensical. Touting eggs as low in carbohydrates for instance, is not dissimilar from making a claim that oranges are gluten-free.

The onus remains firmly with the consumer to do their homework. In whose interests are these labels written? one might ask.

So what should we eat?

Food myths, like any other misinformation, can be difficult to overturn once established. All things considered, it seems it might be beneficial to bear in mind the underlying purpose behind every commercial business operating in the food landscape: to profit from sales of the brands they represent.

Even when we do find agreement that a foodstuff is ‘good for us’, it seems there’s something lurking in the background to cause consternation. We are told, for example, that fruit and vegetables contain less nutritional value now than in the past due to soil depletion and we’d need to eat many more apples or broccoli stalks in order to receive the same nutritional benefits as previous generations.

Where does that leave us?

By now you may be starting to look at everything with suspicion and feeling the weight of food politics in all its complexity. Fortunately, the answer is simple. Care about what you eat and where it comes from. This need not be complicated or time-consuming.

Eat food that is in season. It’s more nutritious, tastes better and will have a lower carbon footprint. It’s also easier said than done if you’re shopping in supermarkets, with many items imported to ensure year-round availability.

Source your food as locally as possible. The environment will benefit; so too will the community in which you live and the economy that supports them. You’ll be supporting food security for your future and that of the generations that follow. You’ll also enjoy shopping for food much more, and may discover new foods and cooking methods.

There are many ways you can do this, you simply need to join the local food revolution if you haven’t already done so.

Food is one of the great pleasures in life. It’s one we can and must indulge in regularly but while eating is an individual pleasure, shopping affects the world. Embrace a seasonal regional way of life. Your children will thank you for it.

Grab your copy of Seasonal Regional HERE before Christmas and get free postage!
For more information on what you can do, see the What You Can Do page and download the 10 Ways Checklist.

You may also like:
GM Foods – what you need to know Part 1
GM Foods – what you need to know Part 2
Put another shrimp on the barbie… or not
Meaty myth busters