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25 March 2009

Food & Our Planet: The Irish Times Earth Hour

A piece written for The Irish Times Earth Hour supplement.
Earth Hour is at 8.30pm on March 28th: switch off your lights for 60minutes, and see

The fascinating thing about those people who think and write about the crucial, and much-stressed, interplay between our food and our planet, is that they’re a pretty upbeat bunch. Yes, they all agree, the problems are enormous. And they exist in every sphere.
Our cows are destroying the environment with their methane emissions. Our marine environment is acutely stressed due to the depredations of over-fishing. Our rivers and lakes are polluted, and our fields are dosed with chemicals.
The food we produce makes animals miserable and enslaved, and then makes us obese, prone to coronary illness and diabetes. It is a grim menu, and it is a grim global menu. And yet, the cooks and writers who muzzle on these matters couldn’t be chirpier.
Here’s how the great Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and America’s most celebrated cook, sees how we can fix the problem in her latest book, The Art of Simple Food:
“Eat locally and sustainably. Eat seasonally. Shop at farmers’ markets. Plant a garden. Conserve, compost and recycle. Cook simply, engaging all your senses. Cook together. Eat together. Remember food is precious.”
Well, that doesn’t seem like too much hassle, does it? Waters seems to be saying that you need only eat locally produced and sold food, which you have cooked with your family, and all will be hunky dory.
The anthropologist, Susan Allport, in her brilliant book The Primal Feast: Food, Sex, Foraging and Love draws this conclusion:
“We are not doomed to carry on as we have been, as members of a less intelligent, less flexible, less sharing species would be. Just as humans can figure out how not to overeat even when food is abundant, so we may be able to discover how not to overuse the world’s resources, how to satisfy our essential appetites for food, sex and love in a healthier way”.
That seems even better than Alice Waters: learn how to share what we have been given and you fall in love, eat well, and have great sex.
Just last year, Michael Pollan, probably the most important commentator on global food matters just now, boiled all of this outrageous optimism down into one little haiku:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.”
So, that’s it? That’s it?! Seven words to save the planet, improve our food and our environment, and make us feel better and healthier!
Actually, Mr Pollan is hopelessly verbose in comparison to the latest American pressure group, who want Barack Obama to plant the south lawn of The White House with vegetable gardens.
Their slogan? “Eat the view.”
Mind you, they wouldn’t have to say that here. Our President, Mary McAleese, is a keen cook – she did a Ballymaloe School course with Darina Allen – and grows vegetables and keeps chickens in the Aras.
Michael Pollan’s Septet Solution may be concise, but his words open like a Pandora’s Box, spilling solutions everywhichway.
To eat food means that you eat natural, unprocessed foods, and not foodstuffs.
Unprocessed foods have to be cooked, and when we cook we share, we dine together, and we know exactly what we are eating.
The not too much bit is equally important. The developed world consumes too much of the world’s resources in every sphere, from fossil fuels to transfats. Consuming less solves our obesity epidemic, and leaves more to go around. “Good. Clean. Fair.” is how the international Slow Food movement sums up this bit.
Mainly plants? That might be okay for vegetarians, but don’t we need the proteins from meat? And don’t we make a lot of money exporting all those cows that graze in all our fields?
Yes, we do have a lot of cows, and we have based our agriculture on meat production, which has skewed our diet away from plant foods and led us to consume too much animal protein.
But part of the solution to solving the stress between our food, our agriculture, and our planet is to change. And why shouldn’t we in Ireland not just play our part, but lead the way.
After all, if our President is several steps ahead of their President when it comes to food, why can’t we have a best-practice agriculture that signs up to Pollan’s Septet Solution?
The time for seeking ways to lessen the environmental stresses on our beleaguered planet caused by our food and agriculture practices is now. And we have a very good historical reason to be a world-leader in this field.
Just over 150 years ago, so not too long past living memory and within the span of folk memory, this country suffered a devastating famine. Back then, we reckoned the lumper potato would feed all and sundry, so we put all our eggs in the one basket. When the basket collapsed, due to environmental reasons, so did our society.
Does this seem familiar? If so, it’s maybe because we have just done the same thing all over again. This time, we put all our money, our hopes and our futures in a basket called “Property”. And you know what has happened to that basket.
When a problem is very, very big, it is best solved by looking for small, tiny solutions, and searching for lots and lots of them. Those little solutions begin with us, with how we shop and eat, and how we feed our families and ourselves.
If you are doing your bit by changing all your light bulbs and insulating your house, well done. But if you are not adverting to what is in your shopping basket and on your dinner table, then you are overlooking one of the most obvious ways in which you can lessen the environmental stresses caused by our food practices.
Like many of my favourite writers, I am both incurably optimistic about the planet, and given to seeing solutions in miniature haikus. My own is: “Cooking is magic”.
When you cook, you take local, seasonal, clean, healthy, tasty, simple ingredients, and in cooking them you create the magic of a meal. You shop and source carefully, because you want the best for those who will eat with you. You don’t choose foods that have traveled thousands of miles, because they no flavour and no goodness left in them. You don’t want foods that have used fossil fuels in their production, or which have been doused unnecessarily in chemicals that your body doesn’t like or need.
You want the food to be produced sustainably, because you remember that old Irish expression uttered when the first of the new season’s potatoes were cooked and shared: Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís”: “May we be alive at this time again”.

Tony Soprano Syndrome: Want Not, Waste Not
Whe Joanna Blythman revealed in her book “Bad Food Britain” that up to 40% of the food purchased in the U.K. was thrown away uneaten, she showed that the problem of food waste was far greater than many had believed.
Controlling food waste is just one of the many ways in which our domestic food economies can be improved radically, and simply. We might call the problem the Tony Soprano Syndrome: I have a very large fridge in my kitchen and I am going to fill it full of food.
Suffering from Tony Soprano Syndrome means you buy too much to begin with. Then as soon as the product hits its sell-by date, you bin it without ever taking it out of its plastic wrapping. Organic matter that could be composted then gets mixed up with non-organic matter in landfill sites, creating a pollution problem.
So, to avoid Soprano Syndrome, don’t buy what you don’t need, and don’t be seduced by BOGOFFs into buying what you will never be able to eat. And keep an informed eye on sell-by dates: a sell-by date on a cheese, for example, is utter nonsense, because a cheese that is at its sell-by date isn’t “off”, it’s simply mature.