Environmental News Archive

An almost weekly update of environmental news, particularly marine updates, with occasional splatters of transportation, indigenous, ideas of sustainability and sustainable development from around the world.


Move up the food chain

October 30, 2007 (Sydney Morning Herald)

Ethicurean. It's a new word to describe a new kind of eater - diners whose ethical concerns take priority over epicurean whims. According to the website ethicurean.com, they like their food as tasty as everyone else but they insist it falls into sustainable, organic, local or ethical categories - SOLE food, for short.

Choices are informed by a grab-bag of ethical concerns, not all compatible. How do I save the planet from global warming, show concern for factory-farmed livestock or help Third World workers?

There are no simple answers when it comes to the ethics of what we eat. Our food landscape is a moral minefield. It's no longer enough to carry a green bag to the shops. Do you buy the organic apple or the conventional? And if you opt for the organic, should it be local or can you justify the imported?

Products sold under the Fairtrade label further tangle this web of ethical problems. Buying Fairtrade from overseas growers may lift them from poverty but the goods travel long distances to get here. Wouldn't the local product be better? Alternatively, why not buy imported rice when cultivating it is water-intensive, Australia is dry and countries such as Thailand are awash with it? And what about all that landfill-bound food packaging?

Then there are quandaries most consumers avoid. Has your plastic-wrapped pork chop been raised and killed humanely? What sort of life has your cheap takeaway chicken had?

Confused already? Here's a comprehensive guide for the ethicurean.

Eat unprocessed

Food sage Michael Pollan - author of The Omnivore's Dilemma - advises us not to eat anything that our great-great-great grandmothers wouldn't recognise. For Pollan, the antithesis of natural eating is yoghurt squeezed from a tube directly into the mouth - a recent hit with US children. Pollan is a champion of the ethical superiority of small, local organic farms and believes industrialisation has caused the organic movement to lose its soul. He cites the microwaveable organic TV dinner, saying this bastardisation looks and tastes like airline food. The more processed or refined a food is, the more energy and water are used to make it.

The lesson Eat food, not food products.


Choose local

Food kilometres are a measure of the distance food is transported between production and consumption. The more kilometres, the more greenhouse gas is used. Britain's leading organic certifier stirred debate earlier this year when it announced it was considering denying organic status to food arriving by air. In Australia, a report by CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne in July found that the contents of a typical Australian weekly shopping basket travelled an average of 70,803 kilometres and included four imported items. The debate became more complex when, at about the same time, a Lincoln University, Christchurch, report called the concept of food kilometres "simplistic". The report studied the energy efficiency of food production. It found some goods, such as dairy and lamb exported from New Zealand to Britain, produce less carbon dioxide per tonne than the same goods produced in Britain due to less intensive farming.

Even the mode of transport creates angst. Is air freight cleaner than refrigeration on a cargo ship, for example? The fresher the food, the more nutrients it retains.

The lesson Kilometres count.



Embrace the seasons

Seasonal food doesn't usually travel great distances. Environmentalists suggest not buying items such as strawberries in winter, when they travel long distances. Buying at farmers' markets also ensures seasonal purchases. Internet sites such as yates.com.au or horticulture.com.au list what's in season. Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life chronicles a family's experience eating food they had grown or that was local, and learning to live without the rest.

Allan Campion and Michele Curtis's newly released Seasonal Produce Diary provides monthly lists, recipes, wine tips and details of farmers' markets.

The lesson There are reasons for seasons.


Unpackaged food

The Australian Conservation Foundation suggests buying fresh vegetables and unbleached flours rather than food with high-embodied energy such as snack food with aluminium-lined packaging, freeze-dried instant coffee or individually wrapped sweets or biscuits.

One of the worst offenders is bottled water. According to environmental group Worldwide Fund for Nature, 2 million tonnes of plastic water bottles go to landfill each year in the US alone.

The lesson Keep it simple.

http://en.wikipedia.org (search "bottled water")

Reduce waste

According to the Australia Institute, Australians threw away $5.3 billion of food in 2004. Apart from squandered money, the ACF says this throwaway culture wastes water, energy and other resources used in food production. The wasted food that each Australian household contributes to landfill produces 15 tonnes of greenhouse gas each year, says environmental group Planet Ark.

The lesson Audit what you waste. Set up a compost bin to reduce landfill and don't buy vegetables in unnecessary packaging.


Eat less meat and dairy

The world slaughters about 60 billion animals a year for food (excluding fish). The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that between 2001 and 2050, global meat consumption will double and global milk consumption will almost double. By eating four fewer serves of dairy a week you can save 26,000 litres of water and cut greenhouse pollution by up to 500 kilograms a year.

The lesson Find alternatives to meat.


Choose fish wisely

The number of local species classified as overfished by the Bureau of Rural Science, Fisheries, rose from five in 1992 to 24 in 2005. The ACF advises avoiding farmed fish as these often need more fish caught from the wild to feed them - anywhere from one to 12 kilograms of fish meal produces a kilogram of aquaculture fish.

The Australia Marine Conservation Society's sustainable seafood guide is available from marineconservation.org.au or 1800 066 299. You also need to know what species the fish is and where it came from as they are often sold under different names. Imported fish is not subject to the same regulations as the local product.

The lesson Buy local produce from a reputable fishmonger.


Have a social conscience

During the past decade, prices paid to coffee farmers fell to a 30-year low, with as little as three cents from a $3 cup of coffee reaching the farmers who grew the beans. With Fairtrade, farmers - including those in the Third World - get a fair and competitive rate for their beans. Coffee production can be a threat to the environment because some plantations have replaced rainforest. Some manufacturers now have chocolate and coffee that helps conserve forests, doesn't use child labour or chemicals and gives the farmer a fair price.

The lesson Look for the logo.


Buy organic or free-range

Organic farming uses no synthetic chemicals and focuses on soil health. There is also reduced run-off of water-soluble nitrogen from fertiliser into rivers and lakes, meaning less algal blooms, proliferation of weeds and pests such as mosquitoes.

Organic food is free of genetic modifications and its farmers adhere to humane production methods allowing animals to behave naturally.

The downside is organic food can cost from 15 per cent more to three times the non-organic price.

The lesson Seek organic alternatives.


Consider animal welfare

According to Compassion in World Farming, each year 47 billion meat or broiler chickens are slaughtered and 5 billion laying hens live mostly in cramped battery cages.

More than 1 billion pigs are reared for meat, many in confined environments.

Such intensive farming produces cheap milk, meat and dairy but the animals suffer.

The lesson Know the origins of your meat.