Politics on the Plate

Food now demands conscious choice and is becoming a highly political issue

We live in complex times and nowhere is this more evident than in regards to food. Food used to be a simple thing, alas my fellow food lover, no longer - it's hot politics and a multitude of decisions now awaits you each time you eat. Take Strawberry Icecream for example.Does the flavour actually come from real strawberries or a chemical? If not a chemical, is it "natural" or "nature identical" flavour? Chemicals are bad, the second two options not that much better.If it actually has strawberries in it, are they organic? Conventional strawberries are one of the most heavily sprayed crops and appear on many a list of conventional fruits to avoid. Crops from other countries can have a cocktail of chemicals on them with little regulation. (Especially the case with developing countries used as a dumping ground for chemicals banned in the West.)Are the strawberries local or imported? Whether conventional or organic, do you want to eat a product that consumes a large amount of energy in food miles (especially frozen food)?What about the milk? Is it made from a full cream, non-homogenised milk (actual milk) or is it actually reconstituted from milk solids (mostly imported), or manipulated and refined with milk solids to thicken up a low fat product? (And I haven't even touched on whether it's raw or pasteurised).Is it made from imported or local milk?Is it made with real eggs, "egg product" or egg powder (good, bad and terrible respectively)? Local or imported? If real, are they from barn or cage laid eggs? Free Range (which means very little) or organic eggs? If organic, are the chickens simply fed organic feed or are they free ranging?The pink colour? Is that from actual strawberries or from food colour (many of which are banned in just about every other country in the world except Australia)?The white colour? Ice cream is naturally a creamy colour; it's made whiter with food colour because that's what the producer thinks you want.The consistency? Has it been stabilised with additives (including anti- freeze)?

Phew! A mighty lot of decisions before you even get to things like sugar! The decisions fundamentally break down to:

What do you want to put in your body? Do you want chemicals in the form of additives and from how the raw product was grown and raised, or not.

What do you want to support? Organic and sustainable farming systems, or chemical and petroleum based, and the issue of local versus imported? This question of what you want to support is especially complex; if you buy organic, you know you are supporting more acreage of sustainable cultivation even if imported. But if it is imported, how much energy is going into bringing it to our country, especially when it's frozen? And if we buy an imported organic product (even if it's just from interstate) do we lose the few remaining farmers we have in our own state? Even though they may be conventional?

It is now an unavoidable truth that everything we eat has an impact - on the soil, water, atmosphere, energy resources and local culture. I read a most interesting story in The New York Times recently about the impact that selling Quinoa to the wealthy Western world is having on the local population. (www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/world/americas/20bolivia.html?_r=1)Because it's fetching such high prices (along with other influences of a Western lifestyle), the local population is no longer able to afford it, and are turning to processed foods. The ripples of our actions are everywhere.

I started this article with a view to the debate going on this past few weeks about the role of meat in our diets. After the revelations about the slaughter of our cattle in Indonesia, many have called for a vegetarian diet. While I absolutely respect a person's choice not to eat meat, the questions here are also deeply complex and I don't believe becoming a vegetarian is the answer. I couldn't even watch the Four Corners program on this, I knew I would be too distressed, as I have been for the past 20 years with how we grow, treat, feed and behave in general to our animals here in Australia, but also to all our food.

I have for the past 20 years felt very strongly that we should only be eating animals that have been able to live their pigness, cowness or sheepness (or whatever), allowed to eat the food they are meant to eat (and for many that is grass/pasture and not grain), that do not have their lives devalued and disrespected by the accepted value that any means justifies the financial end, that are loved and respected in their lives, and in their death. That all parts of the animal are eaten, and that thanks is given. I love that first scene in the movie The Last of the Mohicans where the deer is killed, and before anything else is done, respect is given to its speed, thanks is given for its life and gratitude for the exceptionally nutrient-dense food it will provide.

In the debate, I think we should consider the vital role animals play in organic and biodynamic farming systems and the exceptionally nutrient-dense foods they provide. One of my favourite books in the last year has been The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. I found this hard going, but very interesting, reading and can highly recommend it. A reader also recommended Meat: A Benign Experience by Simon Fairlie and I intend to get this also.

The question to eat or not to eat meat because death is involved, or because of the impact of animals on ecosystems, is enormously complex and deserves a good deal of thought. I am a huge believer that to eat is take life - no matter what we grow, some death is involved - pests, microbes and the concept of consciousness applies just as much to vegetables as to animals in my book. I do however absolutely agree that we cannot continue to eat meat how we have been - frequently, and picking out choice bits while discarding others, and I'd like to see respect and honour re enter our farming and food production systems. One of the easiest ways to know you are using this kind of meat is to buy Certified Organic or Biodynamic, as many of these principles are part of the certification, and I prefer to buy from the farmer.

I'd like to leave with a few positives, and suggestions to make the issue of eating less complex.

Eat organically or biodynamically where possible, or from a sustainable farming system.Get to know your farmers and how they farm, and make decisions. For example I buy non-organic apples (in season) from a grower who I know farms sustainably and without chemicals.Eat as local as possible - while not exactly the 100 mile concept, at least from your state, or country.Eat seasonally - if organic carrots from your state are not available, use something else.Don't buy imported frozen organic foods.Grow as much food as possible.Preserve, preserve, preserve. This is the way we take the bounty of a season and store it for later.

Read Jude's recipe for Power Breakfast Quinoa in our Recipes archive