Ever really read those redundant and annoying little stickers on fruit and vegetables and try to work out just how far away from your kitchen your tasty treat or clever garnish had been grown?
In fact, even this exercise is difficult as seldom is the produce labeled with geographical data, just a brand-name. Every additional step away from your garden that it’s taken to deliver a meal to you is an additional pile of carbon shot upwards to widen that hole in the ozone layer, to heat up our already over-heated world.
Perhaps your apples are from New Zealand, the oranges from California, grapefruit from Israel, Bananas from Fiji, pineapple from Hawaii and strawberries from the Glasshouse mountains. I could expand that – cheese from France, Jamon from Spain, olives from Greece, cranberries from Canada, Peaches from Georgia, Kobe beef from Japan, lychees from China, Snow Peas from Guatemala, citrus from Costa Rica, cherries from Korea, spices from India, vanilla from Mexico and fish sauce from Vietnam. Top it off with a German ale, a Chilean Wine, and a cup of English tea or Italian coffee. Why? In Australia, ALL those products are grown at some stage of the year. Do we have to have them all year round? I don’t think so.
We are too often encouraged by beautifully written menus to ignore not only our local farmers but the gourmet effect of the seasons on our palates. There is nothing to rival freshly picked food, and that’s something you can’t experience when there is a warehouse and customs department (and refrigeration) in between.
The cost to the farming countries, whose economies and landscapes are re-shaped from forests and jungles to suit the culinary flavour of the month, is far higher: it is foreign monocultures dominate once pristine landscapes, pesticides and streamlined, sometimes hormonally assisted farming practices and the ‘worker/boss mentality’ that moves small landowners out of their farms into the roles of wage-slaves is causing deep-seated unhappiness across a wide geographical area. Sure, subsistence farmers may never have the money to buy a gas-guzzling car or a plasma telly, but on the whole, the cause/effect, action/reaction cycle of their lives seems to be a lot saner.
It has been said that the banana republic of the 20th century has been replaced by the raspberry republic! This is, by the way, encouraged by foreign aid and large-scale lending that, all to often, sets people up in large ‘efficient’ and ‘hi-tech’ farms to replace subsistence and local market driven small-holdings. These farms exist on streamlining and monoculture so that pests can be sprayed, birds culled, water can be diverted through irrigation from once-grand rivers, and genetically modified varieties can pump out perfect specimens suited to Coles and Safeway shelves. As in Hollywood, good looks are everything. Blemished produce is dumped. Seasonal plants are manipulated to extend or double their production times either through genetics or through the application of liquid fertilizers in massive quantities to shorten their maturing times. Local consumers have little or no control over what goes into imported fruit and veges and the regulations are generally slacker that at home.
Mexico, for instance, allows the use of at least six pesticides, such as Chlordane & DDT, either dumped on them by the USA or imported, that wouldn’t get to Australian farms. They are, however, phasing much of this out as their President, Felipe Calderon, is quite environmentally aware and cleaning up of the country and environmental measures are creeping in all over the place. Farmers and builders still don’t wear protective clothing here and one imagines that the cancer & immune disease deficiency rate must be way higher than any other diseases particularly amongst pregnant women (pickers and farm workers) and their babies.
Then, of course, the produce is given a sticky label, because today’s supermarket workers can’t recognize a Royal Gala apple from a Granny Smith, loaded into punnets and boxes and crates, refrigerated, put on a plane or ship, driven to your supermarket where you are the one in control of choosing a local or flown in product. Of course, there are some occasions when compromise is required, but though I am often hanging out for a slice of Gippsland cheese here in the land where the cheeses taste as white and rubbery as they look, I am quite content to defer that experience until I am in Melbourne and the journey of the cheese has been as short as possible.
Buying local is becoming a very important issue in carbon awareness. But the other issues raised above, and I am sure there are many more to this story, make it vital to put pressure on all the food providers to reveal their sources and try to add up how much of their cost is actually covering their travel and how much goes back to the point of harvest.