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Why do we import food?

Asks food writer Cherry Ripe

Walk down any supermarket aisle and you will see a myriad of imported foods. And it’s getting worse. Even in the fresh produce sections, in June you can find cherries from the US, navel oranges from California in December, mangoes from the Philippines in July, garlic from China in July, sugarsnap and snow peas from Zimbabwe, garlic from Argentina, and soon apples from New Zealand.

Amidst the tinned vegetables on the shelves of “The Fresh Food People”, Woolworths, in a long-life shelf-stable, squishy, soft pack - not vacuum-packed nor refrigerated - is the absurdity of a “Stir-fried Vegies” mix. Made in China.

At a food summit in Adelaide on “The Future of Food”, part of the most recent Tasting Australia, a spokesman for SPC Ardmona, claimed that at that time the Coles group had up to 200 people “on the ground in China”, sourcing products for their own-brand range.

Eighteen months ago, SPC Ardmona, based in Shepparton, Victoria, was forced to dump 10 per cent of its tomato growers as the big retailers put the squeeze on local farmers by sourcing tinned tomatoes from overseas.

Thus you can find Home Brand Australian diced tomatoes for $1.58, side by side their Italian equivalent for $1.12 – ludicrously, despite transport costs, 46 cents (or nearly a third) cheaper!

Food miles

For anyone who has seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the less fossil fuel it takes to get food to the table, the better. That certainly applies to food grown at home in the back garden, which obviously attracts zero “food miles”.

“Food miles” are the cumulative distance built up all the way along the food chain, from transport of food within - or from - the country of origin, to processing or storage facilities, then distribution to shops around the (possibly another) country. Eating is becoming increasingly “transport intensive” and food now accounts for a hugely disproportionate freight demand worldwide.

While everybody has room for a pot of parsley on their terrace, for those who cannot have their own vegie patch, there are other food choices people can make in their daily lives which will make a positive impact on climate change.

Take something as simple as table salt. Why - in a country with a salinity problem - would we be importing salt? Why not choose the delightful pink-hued Mildura salt - an attempt at a partial solution to the salinity problem - which is tastier and more user-friendly than the hugely expensive, imported industrial Maldon salt all the way from the UK?

Organics

Then there’s organic food. Most of the chemical pesticides and fertilisers used in conventional agriculture are derived from the oil industry, so organic food reduces fossil fuel dependency by avoiding petrochemical-derived inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers (nitrates etc.).

Because organic farming tends to be produced on a smaller scale, it is less likely to be shipped around the country through a national distribution network, and therefore is likely to be consumed more locally, so it clocks up fewer “food miles” between farm gate and plate.

Carbon sequestration

Another environmental benefit of organic farming is that it has also been shown that in sequestering carbon, it further combats global warming. Last year the Rodale Institute in America determined that if only 10,000 medium-sized farms in the U.S. converted to organic production, they would store as much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road, or reducing car miles driven by 14.62 billion miles. Organic food is not only better for the environment, it is also better for human health. On average, produce grown in the United States has lower levels of several vitamins and minerals today than it did 50 years ago. On the other hand, organically grown fruits and vegetables are increasingly being shown in numerous studies to have much higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals than their conventionally grown counterparts.

Conventionally-grown foods, pumped up with artificial fertilisers such as nitrates, are forced to take in extra moisture, so you lose the concentration of the original, natural flavour.

Also, organic produce is more likely to be picked when it is ripe and ready, not designed (for instance, in the case of tomatoes, apples, onions and carrots) to be shipped to cold storage depots where it is held under energy-hungry (fossil-fueled) refrigeration for months on end. It is therefore likely to be fresher.

However in America, a bigger issue is emerging. In the US, to get organic produce from Florida and California to major population centres such as New York or Boston clocks up an inordinate amount of “food miles” and uses enormous quantities of fossil fuel to get it there. Increasingly in the UK and US there is a growing movement (through organisations such as Sustain in the UK) not just to eat organically, but even more important is to “eat locally”.

Another strategy for avoiding food miles is to shop at Farmers’ Markets. There, you can buy direct from the grower. Ten years ago there wasn’t a single Farmers’ Market in Australia: now there are estimated to be 120, turning over $40 million a year.

Among the benefits of buying direct from the farmer is that the shorter the time between farm and table, the fewer nutrients will be lost. Food from far away is older, and has sat in warehouses before it gets to you. Food bought direct from the farmer is in season, and hasn’t been subjected to months of cold storage. Wholesale prices for food barely cover the cost of production: the supermarkets make most of the profit. Cutting out the middlemen offers farmers a more realistic reward for their efforts. And there is likely to be a more diverse range of produce on sale - whether heritage tomatoes, or non-commercially viable crops, thereby encouraging food biodiversity.

But the best solution of all? Grow your own.

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