Food's Long Shadow

The interconnection between what we eat, personal health, animal welfare, environmental degradation − in fact the future of life on earth − is becoming more obvious.

We humans are a species fascinated by food. As an essential for life, that’s understandable. For hunters and gatherers, eons ago, it was all about survival. But these days − where do I start?

In our wealthy pocket of the globe, society’s preoccupation with food could be described as an obsession. At no other time in history has there been so much readily available, so many options. We’re wallowing in overabundance.

Some ‘first world’ city streets are virtually lined by takeaway outlets, budget restaurants and fine dining establishments. Supermarket chain stores bulge with packaged, pre-cooked, fresh, hot, cold and frozen morsels of indescribable variety that could be shipped from anywhere in the world. It’s all bolstered in a plethora of blatant and subtle ways from ‘indulge yourself, you deserve it’ advertising right through to regular prime time doses of competitive cooking shows.

A steady stream of celebrities adds to the mix by offering advice on one fad diet after another. Is it any wonder our self-centred and sedentary leanings have spawned an increasing flotsam of preventable health epidemics, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even some cancers?

Along with all this has grown shocking world-wide waste. Australian households and retailers alone throw out 15 million tonnes of food and drink every year. Although we produce enough food for everyone, millions of poor people in developing, or ‘third world’ countries, suffer severe food and water insecurity, are malnourished and many starve to death daily.

It’s a disgraceful disparity − but all is not lost. This gloomy picture is but part of a complete canvas. In fact, this year has hopefully marked a swing towards more positive outcomes. For a start, a high proportion of ordinary folk doesn’t take eating to extremes. We may not all fully understand the consequences of our choices, but as more of us become aware, surely we’ll do the best we can to improve our world, now and for coming generations?

Along with mainstream society’s obvious flaws, there has always been a groundswell of people who recognised wrongs and worked to remedy them. They grasp the connection between food, sustaining our environment, personal health and justice for all living creatures, including vulnerable humans.

One of 2015’s major turning points was a declaration acknowledging this relationship, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, a 200-page encyclical on care for our common home, the earth. Pope Francis invited an Italian, Carlo Petrini, to write an introduction to his statement because of what he had done for the planet during the past three decades. Among other things, Carlo helped found the Slow Food Movement. It sprang from a 1986 protest in Italy against a fast food franchise at the base of the Spanish Steps and has expanded to more than 100,000 members in 150 countries.

From a simple act to protect local food traditions, and fuelled by a bowl of pasta, the movement now backs sustainable food principles and small businesses, educates consumers on fast food risks, teaches gardening skills to students and prisoners, opposes globalisation of agricultural products, genetic engineering and excessive chemical use and  encourages ethical food buying.

The main project for the movement’s Hunter Valley group is protecting biodiversity by cataloguing plants, animals and local cuisine facing extinction. The group also supports fresh food gardens in three Indigenous communities about 600 kilometres from Alice Springs and works with Oz Harvest to gather food that has been previously wasted and provides up to 150 meals a week to community centres, men’s, women’s and children’s refuges.

Pope Francis wrote, “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every living person on this planet.” He described the earth as our sister who “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” Pope Francis said his “urgent challenge” was for the whole human family to seek sustainable development and that his statement echoed the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups. “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions,” he said.

He linked exhausting the earth’s natural resources, loss of biodiversity, irrational confidence in “the myth of progress”, intensive use of fossil fuels, exploiting other animals “merely as potential resources”, deforestation and other impacts from agriculture, and basic rights of all living things to adequate clean food and water. Most importantly, he said the most vulnerable people on earth were most affected by current problems and called on everyone to work together to deal with social degradation hand-in-hand with environmental restoration. “Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor,” he said.

The Slow Food Movement’s Hunter Valley spokeswoman, Amorelle Demptser, said, “The pope is a world leader, and for him to make a statement on climate change, addressed to all people, not one particular religion, is of real importance.“He talked about small communities all around the world, about everyday people, rather than big business or big issues like emission levels and that put things in perspective. He gave credibility to the voice of everyday people in terms of how climate change affects the lives of small communities, their livelihoods and so forth.”

Mrs Dempster said as climate change worsened, nutrition levels of some foods dropped, such as the level of protein in rice. “In Asia, for example, a small drop in rice protein can have a serious effect on people’s health because rice is such a big part of their diet,” she said.

“Small farmers produce most of the food in developing countries and they are under increasing pressure from multinational companies pushing large scale industrialised agriculture. In first world countries we’ve seen the results, such as diabetes and obesity, from the path we’ve taken and I don’t want the rest of the world to suffer in the same way,” she said.

It will be interesting to observe how far Pope Francis’ words reach and what action they engender. As we sit down to our next meal, I wonder what each of us will see on the plate?

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