As the world grows, at the same time it becomes smaller. We have reached a point in the developed world where everything is available almost everywhere, often at the touch of the ubiquitous button: the supermarket has long been the go-to place for most of us for easy one-stop food shopping, and now we have the option of online ordering and delivery right to our doorstep.
Visiting a supermarket is like taking a walk through the food stores of the world, but in a much more prescribed way. We will find loads of fresh food on the shelves, placed ‘just so’ to tempt us, but plenty of what is available will have travelled some distance. Whether it’s bananas from the Philippines, oranges from America, olives from Greece or cheese from France, we have relatively easy access to all manner of imported foodstuffs.
We’ve all become quite familiar with a whole variety of products we had once never heard of and foreign food terminology is now commonplace. One doesn’t need to speak French, Japanese or Italian to know what baguette, sushi and prosciutto mean, and these items have been readily available locally for some time. Products that enable us to cook Indian, Thai, Moroccan or Mexican dishes with authentic flavours are easy to find and there are many niche food stores offering us a myriad of exotic taste treats. Mustering up the courage to try something new that we may have misgivings about is a good thing, as is learning how best to prepare, cook and savour it. It’s a great way to stretch ourselves in the kitchen and whet our appetite for more food discoveries on our travels.
Having such choice at our fingertips is excellent for expanding our food horizons and encouraging creativity in the kitchen, but it can also be overwhelming and generate a wealth of questions. Aside from the immediate queries — what is this product… where does it come from… what do I do with it? — we might also consider one more: what exactly is involved in getting these foods from afar right here for us to buy and try?
A major issue in relation to all this epicurean opportunity is the matter of ‘food miles’, a concept developed by UK Professor Tim Lang in the 1990s to address the increasing trend for food to travel longer distances from farm to fork, in an effort to maintain year-round availability. The term triggered widespread debate, but one thing remains clear: there are many complex layers to the food supply chain before food finally reaches consumers via vendors.
With the advent of refrigeration — commercial, domestic and in transportation — the selection, availability, storage and immediacy of access to food from all over the world has improved and increased hugely. Yet scares like Mad Cow Disease, Bird Flu, and fruit-fly infestation remain. Further, blight, natural disasters such as floods and frosts, political upheaval and import/export restrictions can change everything — in which case, generating a reliable, appropriate and abundant local food supply is paramount.
The issues of climate change and environmental impact also come into the food miles equation, and various schemes track the energy used and carbon generated in getting a product from grower to consumer, from this country to that. Research has highlighted the impacts of all this food travel in the form of transport congestion and pollution, increased packaging, greater use of chemicals required for food transit, processing and storage, and loss of land and agricultural biodiversity. The inference is that the further food travels, the worse it is for the environment. But is this really the case?
Despite playing a part in generating many extra food miles, large food retailers and supermarkets aim to operate sustainably as a part of their business strategy. It is in their interests to work to improve energy efficiency, develop food sourcing policies and manage food products wisely. By aiming to meet consumer demands for year-round availability of food products, they are supporting the economies of other countries by importing their products, just as exporting our food helps our own economy.
In the interests of time, perishable food will usually travel by air, which means it is relatively costly for its weight as well as being a lot harsher on the environment than that which arrives by ship. It may seem hard to comprehend, but a fully laden ship can transport an item of produce across the globe for less energy than that used by a local consumer driving it home from the supermarket. Again, it’s a matter of the specific locations and means involved in food transportation.
However, as more and more consumers express a preference for ‘home grown’, there is now a big swing back to fresh local food being top of the shopping list. The increase in the availability of organic food adds another tier of choice for both growers and consumers and, in a world where people are becoming more conscious of chemicals and genetic modification, it’s an appealing, if somewhat pricey, option.
Small boutique food businesses and farmers’ markets are flourishing again, redressing the imbalance seen in the closure of many small country shops and the failure of small scale farms over the years as the direct result of powerful retailers sourcing lower-priced food from overseas. Many products that previously had to be imported are now being made right here to authentic recipes by immigrant food artisans. Combining their culinary heritage and skills with fresh local ingredients, they allow us to create favourite dishes of their homelands far away, and we are all the richer for it.
GROW, SHARE, ENJOY
Nothing compares to eating a fresh home grown tomato or freshly dug potato. A strawberry picked locally and eaten immediately is a far sweeter delight than one that comes from far away, requiring storage, refrigeration or forced ripening.
No one knows this better than Steve and Janet Michael, who have a 5-acre property on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia. They have lived with sustainability in mind and without mains power for many years, fishing, growing, hunting and living largely off the land. Steve has always worked at sea, so seafood has long been a mainstay of their diet. Janet, a former nurse, tends to fruit and vegetables rather than patients these days. At the Michaels’ property, olives, apples and feijoas grow alongside Tahitian limes, chillies, cumquats and nuts. It’s all chemical-free. Kaffir lime and bay leaves are snapped up and they can’t keep up with demand for their Russian garlic. They have chickens for eggs and bees for honey. They make their own juice and yoghurt. No food miles required.
Janet receives rave reviews for the relishes and preserves she creates with flair from fresh produce she has nurtured. The local Indian community declares her lime pickle the best they have tasted and chefs clamour for it. The Michaels’ passion for growing and sharing their produce led to them establishing a commercial kitchen, called Storm Haven Galley. Here they smoke fresh fish for wholesale and create a range of chutneys, sauces and condiments which they sell at the local farmers’ markets and through co-operatives in the Bellarine area. Sale of the produce supplements their regular income, paying for the running of the property and generating revenue for recreation and lifestyle. There have been many learning curves along the way whilst providing their family and community with great food. Using biodynamics and applying permaculture principles, they love the way this lifestyle opens communication with nature.
FEAST OR FAMINE
As suggested by the Michaels’ experience, the increased focus on fresh local food highlights that we are becoming more conscious of what we put into our bodies and more willing to put time and effort into creating good healthy meals for ourselves. In line with this, many of us have been inspired to plant vegetable gardens and fruit trees in our own backyards, and community gardens are also sprouting up, a real indication of the passion that exists for fresh local food and the mindfulness and community engagement it can engender. However, reliance on fresh local food requires adaptation and compromise and does have limitations.
Successful local growing does involve know-how and effort, and is very much governed by climate. Prior to all this global food exchange, a country’s geographic location largely determined what its residents would be eating. In the tropics, fruit and fish come from right outside one’s house, all year round. But with an unkind climate, limited planting options and difficult terrain to contend with, local seasonal eating in some parts of the world can mean erratic or marginal supply and may not always be highly appetising or sustaining. In either case, food can become more a matter of sustenance than gastronomy.
Whether at home or in a commercial market garden, production fluctuates with the seasons and relies on stable weather patterns and green fingers. Further, as we know, there are no guarantees that seasons will behave as they should, and droughts or floods can arise at any time. If a harvest fails, famine and starvation can result when dependence on local supply is the only option. This is generally confined to developing countries, but it does demonstrate that relying purely on fresh local food can be potentially risky and requires the development of strategies for when harvest fails.
On the other hand, sometimes an overabundance of food generates a glut that needs to be dealt with. In times gone by, food was pickled and preserved so that it would keep for longer and this would take care of excess perishable food without waste. Today, preserves and pickles are somewhat of a delicacy, the original need for their existence largely forgotten. However, having a few jars of pickles and relishes made with love and pride in the old fashioned way means we always have a flavour burst in our pantry. Thank goodness for people like Janet and Steve who help to remind us of that.
CELEBRATING SEASONAL CUISINE
With an ever-present pressure these days for consumers to have access to fresh local food even when the trees, soil and temperatures wouldn’t normally enable it, out-of-season local production is an alternative to importing. However, in an interesting anomaly, sometimes the energy that goes into this can be more than what is expended through importation. Glasshouses are a great mechanism for growing crops in colder climates, though this can be an energy-hungry system and therefore not hugely environmentally or economically efficient. Add to this the fact that not every type of foodstuff can be produced locally, even with today’s technologies, and we are back to square one: importing food, particularly out-of-season items.
There is certainly something to be said, then, for a diet that changes with the seasons, especially in a land of bounty. If we could devour cherries all year long, would they seem so decadent and delicious when summer arrives? The anticipation of knowing a favourite fruit is about to ripen or a great crop of winter vegetables is to be harvested is like hanging out for a long-awaited film sequel. There is great joy in taking a bite into the first tangy plum or juicy peach of the summer fruit season, and who doesn’t love a winter roast with freshly dug carrots and parsnips piled high?
Farmers’ markets are burgeoning everywhere, which gives local growers an opportunity to share their seasonal edible wares and consumers to get tip-top freshness in an authentic environment, picking out the very best of the bunch and supporting the local community. Restaurants around the world are also increasingly bringing in this farm-to-table philosophy, with strict emphasis on, and pride in, using fresh, seasonal local food. Getting the balance of imported versus local just right is a matter of understanding the big picture and being innovative and adaptable. However, at the end of the day there is an undeniable appeal to eating as locally and seasonally as possible. If we can purchase fresh coriander and home-cured meats from the local farmers’ market, dine out on freshly-caught fish accompanied by a world-class local sauvignon blanc, make a salad with veges picked from our own garden, pull a tasty home-made chutney from our pantry, buy a beautiful cheese from the neighbourhood foodstore and squeeze fresh local lime juice into our G&T, life is bountiful indeed.
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