Tuesday, June 1, 2010


It's hard to believe that it is a whole year since I started writing here and I haven't saved the world yet or become famous.

It was last year that I wrote about having seen Food Inc at the Sydney Film Festival and it is only now that it is being released in cinemas here. Talking about this film with friends who are interested in going to see it has made me reflect on what effect, if any, the film has had on me. Certainly I have made a conscious effort this last year to try to make more informed decisions about what we eat as a family, although I would have to admit to not necessarily knowing that much more about the Australian food business than I did before seeing Food Inc.
Last week I attended a session at the Sydney Writer's Festival hosted by Griffith Review and listened to a panel discussion on ethical eating. The panel members – Pauline Nguyen, Tony Barrell, Rebecca Huntley and Sarah Kanowski – were all contributors to the Griffith review Food Chain edition. As with most sessions at the SWF held on a weekday, at lunchtime, the audience were predominantly female, middle aged and middle class. Not surprisingly the panel were talking to the converted and there was much nodding in agreement with what was being said. What concerned me is that simply being earnest and interested is hardly enough. What can you actually DO to make a difference?
Tony Barrell's piece on Nile perch 'How many miles?' I think nicely encapsulates the sort of problems faced by anyone serious about trying to eat ethically and responsibly. The Nile perch on sale in supermarkets in Sydney is fully imported from Uganda. Although the fish isn't native to Lake Victoria it now represents 90% of Uganda's fish exports and the livelihood for fishermen from Kenya and Tanzania. The fish has become so popular that stocks are being depleted, fish processing plants are closing and there is a moratorium on fishing.
As an individual I can choose not to buy Nile perch (I don't think I have ever knowingly eaten any) but that won't stop it being available in the supermarket. Woolworths could make the decision not to sell the stuff, surely customers would buy something else if Nile perch were not available. But what about the poor Tanzanian fisherman – who is going to find him another source on income? And isn't is all too late anyway now that the Nile perch has eaten its way through all the indigenous fish in Lake Victoria?

Too many of the issues surrounding ethical eating involve these damned if you do and damned if you don't scenarios. For example, Walmart is now the biggest seller of organic produce in the USA but giant agribusiness comes at a cost – pollution, food miles, food security, work practises – whether the product is organic or not. (See here for a report on Stonyfield Farm the manufacturers of the organic yogurt featured in Food Inc.). At a household level eating ethically also involves a fair degree of commitment, a certain amount of confusion and can be time consuming and expensive. Just trying to get your head around the multitude of issues is daunting but there are some very good sources of information, like Barry Easterbrook's blog The Politics of the Plate , which at least keep you up to date.
 In the end though I think that all we can do is remain optimistic - if everyone took a small stand, made incremental changes in their eating and buying habits then big changes would be possible. If more people questioned the big supermarkets as to their policies and required them to justify themselves perhaps they would be forced to make some changes themselves. I was interested to discover that Woolworths do in fact have a Sustainability Strategy but I haven't seen it available in any of their stores. In the UK at least consumers do seem to think that supermarkets have a responsibilty to make it easier for consumers to shop ethically (here).

For my part I I have made the commitment not to buy any fresh fruit or vegetables or any meat from the supermarket. Not buying from the supermarket is partly a protest against the control the two big supermarkets have over what Australians eat and partly because I want to support my local retailers and buy real food from real people. This is an easy decision for me to make because I have four independent butchers, five independent green grocers and two weekly growers markets all within easy distance of home, and I don't have to worry over much about the extra I might be paying for the goods that I buy. Not everyone in Sydney is so fortunate.


  1. Hello Allison
    Your thread is such a complicated issue perhaps I can offer just one small perspective.
    The business of food is in the end just like every other business but some enlightened legislators understand that when things get tough in the financial sector or the labour market, in housing or in the natural rescources areas the one common denominator that keeps a country civilised and calm is its access to good fresh food. I belive that our obscession with developing the Information Technology and Mining sectors needs to be matched by inspired large scale political/fiscal investment into the food production and food manufacturing industries. Modern Australian politics is dictating greener solutions so real investment into these areas in a country like Australia is slowly getting more sustainable.
    Most green/ethical/sustainable food producers at the moment target the wealthy middle classes with products that are not produced efficiently and sell at a greenwashed premium. These products will develop anyway I urge the Rudd administration to give real rescources to attract expertise to inovative food technologists, farmers and such- and to invest heavily into these areas. If this initiative is allowed to flourish the doctors, engineers, technology workers would be also encouraged to come to this country. Education and inovation in long term large scale moderately green food production is I believe a very good financial and political policy. Imagine if the green bats had been green vegetables?
    Happy Birthday.

  2. George, welcome back! and thank you for your thoughful comment. Do you know of any examples of government investment either current or planned? And is there anyone writing regularly on food policies and innovation in this country? It seems to be hard to find well researched articles in the daily press.