Research conducted by The Australia Institute in 2009 found that Australians throw out $5.2 billion worth of food every year. Worldwide, 1.3 billion tones of food are lost or wasted, according to a recent study. This is at a time when people living in the Horn of Africa are again facing famine.
An article in Scientific American magazine in 2009 predicted food shortages would bring down governments and affect global civilization. Another asks if high food prices are a factor fuelling the Egyptian revolution we have been seeing this year.
Food production, transportation and land use change for agricultural purposes significantly contribute to our carbon footprint, with a 2010 report indicating that as much as 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK are from the food eaten.
Deforestation and habitat loss are consequences of international food demand. Take palm oil for instance. Orang-utans are facing extinction and palm oil production is the single biggest threat to their survival. 80-85% of the palm oil bought into Australia is used in food and food processing. Palm oil is not labelled as an ingredient on food packaging, making it very difficult for consumers to know the impact their food choices are having.
Evidence of the negative impact of industrialised food production to our health, the environment, the welfare of animals and the rights of workers is increasing. Films like Food Inc expose issues such as the use of pesticides, genetic engineering, factory farming and fast food production methods in the US. Australia too faces issues like these and again, labelling can be misleading.
Unfortunately, there is little protection from worker exploitation and child slavery in some countries. Fair Trade accreditation aims to ensure better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.
What can be done?
It makes sense to start with the easiest thing first. I’ve bought an app that assists me in the supermarket to find out about the ethics behind the products I buy there. There’s also a printed guide available.
My first trip to the supermarket using the app took a very long time – about two hours. I went down every aisle and checked all the products I would usually buy. What an eye opener!
I also noticed more generic branded products. Especially in the organic varieties, there doesn’t seem to be much other choice. Avoiding these, I then went to the local food market across the road to buy some organics and free range ham – my supermarket doesn’t stock that.
Later that night, while checking my Twitter feed (the main way I get news now), there was an article about the major supermarket chains and their strategy for more generic brands on shelves, and the effect this has on local manufacturers. What a coincidence!
Have you changed any of your supermarket shopping habits on ethical grounds?
PS – another related and interesting article popped up a few days later