Thursday, January 21, 2010

Food Waste

I was aware a number of years ago when the price of bananas in Melbourne reached $12 a kilo in the wake of a North-Queensland cyclone that there had been no real shortage of bananas. Instead most were being pulped or sent to zoos because supermarkets would not stock them on the shelves due to the imperfect nature of their skins. I was appalled at the food waste on the one hand, and the assumptions about consumer behaviour on the other, which this practice represented. I had no idea of the extent of this practice until reading Chris Middendorp’s article in this morning’s Melbourne Age. Rather than summarise it, I reproduce it here in full. Do we really need the "perfect" fruit or vegetable?

A blight on us for a perfectly fruity fetish
Our obsession with perfect fruit is a symbol of our consumer culture and greed.
When it comes to the critical problems facing humanity, there is one issue that does not command our attention the way it should, but in its own quiet way is every bit as compelling and troublesome as climate change or the global financial crisis. It's our flagrant abuse of fruit and vegetables.
Sounds like a bit of a parody, doesn't it? But the fate of the banana, the tomato and the carrot have a lot more to do with our environmental and economic woes than many would at first suspect. How we grow, depict and treat produce in the West is a stark representation of the pernickety, self-destructive consumer society we have become.
For some years, the major supermarkets have behaved like a phalanx of door-bitches fronting exclusive nightclubs. They have decreed that the fruit and vegetables they sell must meet stringent standards of appearance, or no entry.
Although this quest for perfect-looking produce is driven by what customers want, it raises some serious agricultural, not to mention ethical, problems.
The issue has been festering for some time at the Victorian Farmers Federation, which in December doled out some home truths about consumer expectations. A frustrated Andrew Broad, the federation's president, said the expectations were unrealistic and growers were going broke.
The problem is simply stated: people only want to buy produce that looks attractive. Any fruit and veg with a few blemishes or a slightly unorthodox shape are shunned. In some cases, growers have had whole crops rejected by supermarket buyers.
The banana provides an instructive example. In Queensland, Australian Banana Growers Council chief executive Tony Heidrich recently admitted to a high level of wastage that he described as "disappointing".
A more apposite d-word would be disgraceful. At least 100,000 tonnes of bananas are deemed not attractive enough for public consumption and are sent to the shredder and buried. Unattractive fruit won't sell. Customers will only take home the perfect specimens.
This objectification of fruit satirically echoes many debates feminists have had about society's objectification of women. In the quest for some totally artificial construct of an ideal, many people are overlooking the single most important fact - that it's what's on the inside that matters.
Where is it written that wonky looking fruit isn't good for you? It is frequently remarked upon that the flavour of those perfect-looking tomatoes in the supermarket is perfectly bland. Any home gardener will tell you that a rough-looking home-grown tomato, blemished though it may be, is utterly delicious next to an insipid, store-bought example.
This is mildly amusing until you think about the implications. Fruit that fails the appearance test is rejected; thrown away or ploughed back into the ground.
This happens to up to 25 per cent of all produce.
When you consider how many people on earth are starving, and that industries are looking to minimise carbon footprints, it is totally unforgivable to throw away carefully grown and tended food just because it isn't pretty enough.
But human behaviour is often perverse. It's frequently said that what the West spends on dieting could, if re-directed, end starvation in the world. Our inexorable quest for perfection - for beautiful bodies, fabulous homes, shiny cars, breathtaking holidays, perfect meals - is largely responsible for the pollution and damage we have wreaked on earth. You don't have to be Al Gore to apprehend that our lifestyle is screwing up the planet.
It's enough to make one pessimistic. What hope is there to solve complex human problems when half the planet is so hung up on appearances that it refuses to eat food that doesn't have the right look?
It's not just the fault of supermarket managers. Until last July, the European Union had set specific cosmetic standards for most produce and oddly shaped fruit and veg were effectively banned from sale. The prohibition has been lifted largely because of the global recession, which has partially recalibrated some of our commercial decisions.
But supermarkets worldwide still insist on crazy notions of perfection and, of course, they blame us, the customer. We've asked for it. No one really knows just how much food around the world is rejected and wasted in this way. It could be billions of dollars worth each year. Is Western culture even more decadent than anyone imagined?
Under the pretext of preserving the planet's finite resources, the media and government often try to whip us into a frenzy of guilt and accountability. We're implored to get roof insulation, to invest in solar power, to recycle our rubbish, to ride a bike to work, to buy drought-resistant plants and let the lawn die. Tell it to the turnips. Until society learns to value and manage food responsibly, what's the point?
(published 21 January 2010)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Perspective is an Interesting Thing

Our first day in Helsinki – day one of the trip, assuming you don’t count the day sitting on an airplane – was… cold. One degree Celsius was in stark contrast to the warm summer behind us in Melbourne. As we meandered around this beautiful capital, wandering in and out of shops, gaining our bearings, and beginning to appreciate the city’s culture and architecture, one of the shopkeepers remarked that the weather was “unseasonably warm!” It was a comment that pulled us up in our tracks. I don’t ever recall thinking that one degree Celsius could be considered warm. And with the wind chill cutting our ears off at the base, the depiction of warmth was furthest from my mind. But when the forecast for the days ahead included top temperatures lower than -10, and our later journeys in the UK keeping us in temperatures below freezing for days on end, it may be unsurprising to note that when we resurfaced into above-freezing temperatures someone commented on how “warm” it was!
Ah, perspective. What can seem easy to one is a struggle to another. What challenges one person bores someone else. What one embraces as beautiful, another shuns.
The artist John Constable once noted: “I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, - light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.” Life’s richness is rooted in the depth and breadth of perspectives offered by difference. When we experience something on the way up, we are more appreciative than in times of decline.
The tendency to absolutise particular perspectives robs us of learning experiences. To be pushed out of our comfort zones is not something many of us yearn for, yet such experiences teach us to appreciate what we have.
A journey up the Eiffel Tower in January offered us temperatures in the wind which hovered between -10 and -15. At that stage I would have welcomed a single balmy degree above zero. By then I had learned the beauty of many things which had previously been alien to my experience. Perspective is a wonderful gift which has encouraged me in the journey towards deeper understanding…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Falling Out

The trials and (self-inflicted) tribulations of Tiger Woods have been well documented in the media, but it was 15 minutes in Madame Tussauds in London that underlined his fall from grace to me. Of all the sporting figures on display in the waxworks, not one picture was taken with Tiger during the 15 minutes we tarried in that section. Sporting greats of the past and present all had people stop for photographs, but poor Tiger was alone. The fact that I saw people having photographs taken with Adolph Hitler in a shorter space of time says something about the fickle nature of our memories. What is it that leads us to hold people up in such high esteem on the one hand, and then abandon them when their human frailties are exposed, only to laud others whose dastardly acts bear remembering only in order that we never repeat them again?

Monday, January 18, 2010

In Surprising Places

Settling back into Melbourne after six weeks travelling Europe, there is now unhurried time to reflect upon the journey and upon the many experiences which were ours during that time. The distance is clearly epitomised by the difference between the last two Sundays - last night worshipping in our small community in West Melbourne was a stark contrast to the previous Sunday night in Sacre Couer, listening to the liturgy in French.

My first reflection comes from London - Westminster Abbey, in which only two scientists are found memorialised. I sat for a little while to watch the reaction of passers-by as they paused for a reality check at the name carved into the stone on the floor. One of the two scientists is an Australian, Howard Florey, who was responsible for the development of penicillin. The other, however, has been the source of much controversy within the church for nearly two hundred years: Charles Darwin. In the era in which fundamentalism has carved its voice, it is hard to imagine that Charles Darwin would be welcomed in such hallowed halls as this, and for this reason many people stopped and called to associates to come and examine the inscription. Darwin and the church have a chequered history, but not so chequered as to be outside the embrace of at least one faith community.

I wonder how many people are written off for the public profile they hold... people whose positions remained largely unexamined because of popular opinion. If Darwin’s Origin of the Species was so anti-Christian, how does he end up memorialised in such a place as this? Perhaps it is more what those who came after Darwin did with his theories that shape our perceptions.

Darwin wasn't the first and won’t be the last one to be misunderstood. When people challenge our perspective on the world, they are sure to be wildly opposed. Maybe even crucified.