Thursday, 15 May 2008

MAKING CHOICES ABOUT WHAT WE EAT

It is interesting to ask people why they eat what they do. A friend of mine says she grows and cooks only what she knows her children will eat. Some others I know go out shooting feral animals and eat them. Another grew up on a Pacific island, eating plants and animals from the sea. Others are vegetarian for various reasons - some don't like the idea of killing animals, some think it is healthier not to eat meat, others say they feel it is less destructive to the earth to only eat food from plants, for several it is a religious decision and so on. Eskimos eat a lot of fat and blubber to get through the extreme cold. Australian Aborigines eat whatever they can get from the environment through hunting and gathering. All these are perfectly legitimate ways to make decisions and none of these are better per se than another, in my opinion.

As I wrote in the previous post about fish and in the comments between Patrick and myself, I eat anything that comes my way in a natural and /or sustainable form and I think that, where I live, this is the best option. I have been out doing all sorts of things today but this whole topic keeps creeping back into my mind and I have come to a kind of proposal. It emanates from a book I read a few years ago called "The Future Eaters" by Tim Flannery, about humans consuming the resources they would need for their own future and how Australia fits in. It is still a very thought-provoking book but was even more so in 1994 when it was written and when I read it.

When all is said and done, we should eat what suits our environment to produce. That is my suggestion. Pretty obvious isn't it?

The English who settled in Australia from the 1770's onwards completely disregarded the environment in which they found themselves and proceeded to clear land, plough fields, sow European seeds and farm European animals to the exclusion of all else. And, what is more distressing, on the whole they still do. Massive amounts of our limited water resources and huge amounts of chemicals are given over to producing crops of food from every corner of the earth but our own. Animals raised for eating in Australia are still primarily sheep, cattle and pigs. Every grazing property in Australia would have its share of several different kangaroos, wallabies, emus, feral goats, pigs, rabbits, deer and even camels - 1,000,000 of them in the Northern Territory alone - and all these meats are edible and desirable. However, farmers shoot, poison or trap these animals and leave them to rot and persist with the traditional European species. Huge tracks of land are planted with irrigated grapes - as much as whole European countries, in total, to make grape wines. The whole length of the Murray River's 5,000 km is flanked by plantations of citrus and other non-native fruits which are now dying in the drought that is also killing the Murray itself and the water source for many towns and cities, including Adelaide.

Australia is enormous - bigger than all of western Europe combined, but we only have a population of about 25 million people and most of these live around the coast. This is for several reasons but is basically because of the extreme heat and lack of water supply over most of the inland areas. Why then haven't we as a nation taken to growing some local, native foods which have much more appropriate needs and can survive these extremes? I can picture readers of this post screwing up their noses and saying things like - what fruits....oh I tried something once and I didn't like it...my children wouldn't eat it.....you couldn't produce enough...and so on.

Our state of South Australia is 1 1/2 times the size of France....just think about that for a minute.... and because our population is less than 1.5 million.......yes, that's right, 1.5 million people in a state 1.5 times the size of France...... we would be best to be opportunistic, like the Aborigines were. Every person who lives in South Australia could get almost everything they need from their own gardens and sustainable growers in our own state, and often from just outside the city or town. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, whatever is in season. Our mediterranean climate has set us up to be self-sufficient year round and it would not take much of a change for it to happen but people would have to accept a seasonal and varied diet of European fruits and vegetables that could be grown with little extra water as well as local, native plants and feral and native animals including fish and seafood. I am discovering more and more local plants that are perfect for salads, plus some berries, seeds, spices and nuts that are delicious. What about lilly-pillies, quandongs, muntries, desert raisins and native limes, sea parsley, wattle seeds? See the Outback Pride website for more. I really enjoy the variety I can buy of feral and native meats and fish and because I consider it an ingredient, like any other, when we eat meat it consists of very small portions compared to the volume of vegetables I grow and cook. Our small population can harvest all these things sustainably and even sell some but our environment must come before profits or there won't be any profits or environment left and diets must be adjusted back to a sustainable amount of animals and plants.

I feel certain that this would be the best way for us to do least harm. If we were all vegetarian, for example, there is no way we would have enough water to provide all the food nor can we continue on the way we are going but given our huge tracts of arid and semi-arid land and the suitability of some native and some feral animals to survive there unassisted by humans but hunted by humans, then some kind of equilibrium could prevail. Combined with our vast ocean resources and an adaptation to eating more native vegetables and fruits I think if push came to shove, we could survive anything on this diet and this diet alone. In fact it puts us in a unique position to survive and thrive when all we hear is doom and gloom, if we continue to follow along persisting only with exotics and forgetting about native foods.

For other, more densely populated countries this would not work but here, in South Australia (and probably all of Australia) it would be the ideal way. Let's stop following Britain, America and Europe and start to make our own decisions based on what would suit us. No-one who has not been here can ever understand how much space there is outside the cities, you can drive the equivalent of the whole length of England and Scotland and barely see another human (or a drop of water!). So we have to set our own agendas and take the best of what we can learn from others then use the information to do what is necessary to ensure our future food security.

In a couple of weeks our seedsavers group is going to a native-foods grower to see what we can grow locally. The details are in the side-bar. The overwhelming response I have received to this suggestion by Maggie has been an indication of interest in moving into this way of thinking and I am sure many of us will come home with local food plants we can grow for ourselves. It has to be the way towards a better future for all Australians.

I would be interested to read what ideas people living elsewhere have for their countries and how they view Australia and its similarities and differences.

7 comments:

chaiselongue said...

You've put it into a single sentence, Kate - we should grow what it suits our environment to produce. That's what we're trying to do here, growing Mediterranean vegetables - tomatoes, peppers, aubergines etc - which do well, even though they do need some water. We grow potatoes now in the spring, earlies not main crop, which we'll be lifting and eating soon, before they need a lot of water. The rest of the year we eat Camargue rice. We can't grow some soft fruits, like currants. What I find really ridiculous is when people try to grow lawns - and worse, golf courses - here in the Midi, because they need enormous amounts of water in summer. In the decorative part of our garden we're trying to grow only plants which will survive without water, after the initial year or so while they're settling in. Your posts are so interesting and challenging - thanks again!

Pattie said...

I like this post, Kate. It is very respectful of the fact that conscientous (did I spell that right?!) folks from different parts of the world are making very valid, but different, decisions.

Ian said...

Kate, as always a very thought provoking piece.

I moved to France from the UK about 4 years ago. France is about 2.5 times the size of the UK and has a slightly lower population at about 64 million. I was amazed at what that meant in the way of reduction in traffic etc. I cannot start to comprehend a place 1.5 times the size of France with a population of just over 2% of that of France

There is a great tradition here of eating local seasonal foods which is what spurs the continuation of the vast array of local markets. But even here, slowly, the trend is moving towards eating more “exotically” and like in Australia precious resources are used to farm inappropriate crops.

Our climates are pretty similar and we can grow mostly the same things. However, sadly, we do not have the vast seafood resource sitting offshore, that you enjoy. It’s a long way from the coast of France to the fishing grounds of the Atlantic Ocean

However, things are not so bad here, in my little village of 340 people in south west France, we have a pork farmer, a duck farmer, a goat farmer, several “kitchen vegetable” farmers and of course countless growers of grapes, which, in our particular climate don't require extra water! Many people have large vegetable gardens which are also a tradition in France (Potager)

I do agree with my neighbour, chaiselongue though, growing golf courses in this or any part of southern France is too ridiculous for words

The one good thing about living here is that when the water crunch comes we’ll be forced to drink the wine!!!

Kate said...

A lack of traditions and a huge amount of space gives us the opportunity to do great things but sadly most don't have the imagination to think outside the square and look at 40,000 years of Aboriginal life in Australia for inspiration!

France attracts my sense of connection with the soil and growing food. I can't wait to get there. Maybe there's a flight later today...Stop tempting me! I will leave the wine for you but I am sure there are plenty of other local drinks for me to try!

I saw you arrive online as I sit here in the early morning waiting for the forecast rain.

Patrick said...

Kate,

Since this post seems to be in response to previous comments I've made, and in part directed at me, I'll follow up on it one more time. This is going to be my last comment on the subject, but perhaps others will have something to say if you want to continue the discussion. It seems like this discussion will go on forever, unless I just stop participating.

If you do a little searching on the Internet, you will not only come across these same arguments as other people have already made them, but there are any number of blogs or discussion forums where these kinds of conversations take place over and over. Just search on 'vegetarian', 'protein', 'B12' and 'water used to produce meat'. You will find all the arguments, pro and con, for these and other vegetarian issues. There is little new in what we are discussing.

There is nothing more water intensive than animal products. In part it's the simple principle of eating high on the food chain. Since all plants and animals need water to survive, when you eat high on the food chain you are consuming all the water that was consumed lower down as well.

More importantly than the water used lower in the food chain is the water used to process meats and seafood. In order to meet modern standards of hygiene processing facilities need to be intensively cleaned with water, together with the workers who need to clean their work clothes and shower after each shift.

Water is often used directly while processing or storing meat, for example low grade hamburger is made with meat removed from bones using high pressure water jets. Fish has to be stored on ice.

Water and energy is also use to produce the packaging materials.

If there is enough water to feed all of Australia meat, there is five or ten times what is needed to provide a vegetarian diet for everyone. It may not include wine made from irrigated grapes, or other very water intensive crops, but there are plenty of crops better suited to your climate.

Also given your figures of the number of people living in your part of the world, if everyone started basing their diet on native animals, I find it hard to believe this would happen sustainably and without disrupting the ecosystem. The same goes with seafood. This is in direct contrast to locally grown cultivated crops.

While I have a lot of respect for indigenous communities who want to eat traditional foods and live traditional lifestyles, and even for people who just have an affinity with them and want to join in, in my mind this includes the traditions of hunting and gathering too. I can't picture you out in the bush with a spear hunting down your next meal, nor would I guess you regularly slaughter your own animals or clean your own fish. In my mind, if you go to a store and buy a package of meat, you are not really participating in local traditions.

In one of Michael Pollan's recent writings he suggested that if everyone had to cook their own french fries (chips), almost no one would eat them in an unhealthy way. By the time you went through all the trouble to cook them, then clean up, it would be so much work that you would only want to do it once or twice a year. In part this is the problem with any food you buy, it's just too easy to eat large amounts of it without thinking.

Really, it's fine with me, whatever you decide to eat. It's also fine with me if you think eating meat or seafood is good for your health or the environment, or eating feral animals makes you feel more connected to where you live. You don't need my permission or approval! I have no desire to change who you are or what you eat, that's a choice you have to make for yourself.

I honestly hope you feel good about and enjoy what you eat, I know I do!

At the same time you are unlikely to convince me of the validity of your arguments, or even interest me in much more discussion. You eat meat and seafood because you like to, it makes you feel full and perhaps you misunderstand it's impact. For me there are no other reasons.

I also hope you can respect and accept these differences in opinion between us, and move on. I'm ready to move on!

joco said...

Hiya Kate,

I was quite surprised to see the mood change inside this discussion. A bit sad really.

Anyways, I am outside this, as I genuinely have never enjoyed eating meat, poultry or fish. No idea why, but there it is. No convictions one way or another, nor hang-ups on the subject.

I simply prefer whipped cream and ground hazel nuts and strawberries when in season or raspberries, when ripe in my garden.

Can I have coffee from abroad please Kate :-)
Ground chichory or dandelion roots are not doing it for me. And I'm afraid I also need my 10 grams of bitter cooking chocolate every day. Purely for medicinal purposes you understand.

That and cheese omelets is what I live on. Weird, but it keeps me sane. (-ish).

If you are what you eat, what must I look like :-)

You know we have a blanket year-round garden hosepipe ban in the UK, don't you? Even when it is bucketing down week after week and floods in abundance. Now that is something I could easily get really cross about ;-)It is simply for the administrative convenience of the water companies, and even provides them with extra income from the exorbitant fines if they find you watering your petunias at midnight. Bizarre world we live in.

Kate said...

Dark chocolate, coffee, food from the garden, cheese omelets, the whole lot - count me in Joco. In fact we just had omelets for dinner - onion, mushroom and cheese. Now for some chestnuts on the fire and a cup of tea. Perfect.