man holding a bunch of black grapes

Is there a choice in what to have for dinner?

If you shop in a supermarket there seems like an endless choice of tasty food options. But let’s look a little closer…

More than ever society is struggling with the age-old balance between control and liberty. Exactly how much of my life is my own to decide upon as I wish and how much of this freedom must I concede to get the benefits from the collective?

This is democratic politics in a nutshell. 

Well, it used to be what politics was all about. Political parties vie for government by telling voters what their balance of liberty and social conformity would look like. Crudely, the typical two-horse race becomes big government and social services versus tiny government and the mighty market. 

Take your pick. 

Then along comes a pandemic. In a flurry of public health orders and government spending, big and small are befuddled.

Most people will get vaccinated, wear a mask and socially distance to help get COVID under control. The reduced risk of illness and even death to our fellow citizens is worth it. Most of us will even stay at home when the government tells us to, at least until it all seems like too much and our cabin fever and financial woes give us pause. 

And this is good tension. 

No future society is likely to be either wholly free or totalitarian and the balance will shift with time and circumstance. Civil liberty should always be discussed, teased out and tested in the real world. 

But there is one liberty that we think we have but perhaps do not.

man free running down a large sand dune
Photo by Rémi Jacquaint on Unsplash

What to have for dinner?

Hold on, that is always my choice. I know what I like and that is what goes on the plate. No government tells me what to eat for dinner.

True, there is an everyday kind of choice and looking forward to fish on Friday or a beer at sundown. And the average modern supermarket carries 30,000 items; more than enough choice for anyone.

But exactly how free is this food choice?

I can remember that every Sunday during my childhood my mother would roast a chicken. It went in the oven before we all went off to church and came out on our return perfectly cooked with all the trimmings, a miracle. My piece was always a leg and for decades I didn’t know that there was white meat on a chicken.

moist roast chicked right out of the oven
Photo by Amanda Lim on Unsplash

Clearly my parents dictated at least some of my early food choices. Although, an addiction to full-fat biscuits was probably my fault.

Back in the 1970s when roast chicken was a Sunday treat was still just the start of a revolution, the intensification of agriculture that has further constrained my choice.


Intensification of agriculture  

Intensification of agricultural production across the world that began with the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s has developed through my life with ever more sophisticated technology and energy inputs, along with commodification of the core foods into that dizzying array of supermarket items. And it has changed the food choices. 

Intensive agriculture has honed in on the crops and livestock best suited to the high input systems, the commodities that deliver the largest profit, including chickens.

Some 60% of all dietary energy is derived from just three cereal crops – rice, maize and wheat. 

Almost every item on the menu of the local cafes here in Sydney has one of these core ingredients in them. Add sugar to the list and they all do.

Intensification has grown massive amounts of food but from fewer and fewer varieties. A,t the high-end restaurants and delicatessens the diversity persists at a price but not for the bulk of calories consumed. Profit from intensification comes from volume.

UNEP is not so sure about intensive agriculture either. It has 9 ways that food systems are failing society

UNEP sees that the global food system…  

  1. is not quite the bargain it seems given there are $3 trillion in environmental costs from greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution air and water, and wildlife losses 
  1. can facilitate the spread of viruses from animals to humans given intensive livestock farming reduces genetic diversity within flocks and herds 
  2. has been linked to zoonotic diseases by reducing natural buffers between humans and wildlife
  3. fosters antimicrobial resistance given the use of antibiotics to prevent deases and promote growth in livestock.
  4. use of pesticides may be sickening people given some pesticides are proven endocrine disruptors, potentially affecting reproductive functions, increasing the incidence of breast cancer, causing abnormal growth patterns and developmental delays in children, and altering immune function.
  5. contaminates water and soil and affects human health.
  1. has been blamed for epidemics of obesity and chronic disease because industrial agriculture produces mainly commodity crops, which are then used in a wide variety of inexpensive, calorie-dense and widely available foods that fail to meet nutritional recommendations. 
  2. is an inefficient use of land 
  3. entrenches inequality as large farms dominate and there is little incentive to develop technologies that could benefit resource-poor small-hold farmers, including those in developing countries.

In other words, there are external costs to the consolidation too. A handful of profitable crops are making hay for big agriculture at the expense of resilience, the environment, and, ironically, food security. 

Remember that intensification relies on energy inputs, especially oil, and this source of cheap energy is about to run out.

And we have little choice in this trend. 

Indeed we support it by our inevitable eye for a bargain. It takes courage to pay the extra dollars for the organic carrots or the grass-fed yearling rump. Most people simply cannot afford the diverse options.

And this further eases the variety out of the market. But even if we had such largesse it is hard to find beef from a Belgian Blue. Nobody can afford to rear them.


What sustainably FED suggests

These days I still like chicken. It has become a staple rather than a Sunday special and it usually goes into the weekly shopping basket. Not least because today chicken, thanks to those nasty mass production techniques, is a cheap source of protein. 

I forgive myself because I am on a budget too and chicken is delicious.

The reality is that my food choice is preconditioned by legacy and by access. What I remember as good and what is available to me within my budget. It is hard to blame consumers when these powerful emotional triggers are in play.

As a society, we have to accept that intensification of production has simplified variety in food choice even as the food systems have become more complex.

Simplification saps resilience in natural systems and in markets too. A choice needs to come back.


Hero image from photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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