It all started with an egg. Several, actually, from our neighbour’s chickens. My daughter Lily and I were pottering around our veggie patch when our neighbour invited us over to visit their chooks. Our neighbour’s garden is inspiring – huge and full of veggies and fruit, with a big airy pen containing three hens, who spend most of their time wandering around the garden stealing vegetables. My neighbour showed Lily the hens’ nesting boxes and offered her some eggs. I was stumped.
My husband and I were both vegans and we’d been raising Lily as one, too. But I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Why not?’ Here was a source of protein that had travelled almost nowhere to get to us, and while it did come from animals, I had no objection to the way these animals were treated. These eggs also had a lower environmental impact than our vegan sources of protein. This made them better for the biosphere and all its animals. I accepted the eggs, but my brain felt like it was exploding.
When I became a vegan at 15 I thought it was the most straightforward way of ensuring I made the most ethical choices when it came to food. I was already a vegetarian, having been horrified at age five by the idea of eating animals. Once I had full knowledge of the way animals were treated on factory farms, veganism was a natural transition.
At first I was like any born-again convert – I preached the good word and tried to convert others. I believed veganism was the pinnacle of ethical consumption and hoped others would come to understand this. Some did (guys who wanted to date me, mostly). Most didn’t.
As time passed, my militancy mellowed. I was keen for people to understand that vegan food was more than just lettuce sandwiches and tofu, but I had stopped caring so much about whether they wanted to join the club. But I still struggled to understand why people would choose to eat meat, and I still saw veganism as a ‘gold standard’ for ethical consumption.
My simplistic viewpoint began to unravel well before my neighbour and her chickens intervened. I began struggling with issues for which veganism provided no clear guide. It started with fair trade and organic food, both of which minimised the impacts of my food choices on other people and the environment. I also learned more about the increase of corporate control over the food chain. Responding to these issues added a new layer of complexity to my food consumption, but it was still mostly compatible with veganism.
Things started to get more complicated when food miles entered the picture. Reading The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, opened my eyes to the value of eating locally. It was a shock to learn that the average distance travelled by our food is typically between 2400 and 4800 kilometres from farm to plate. Not only does eating food that is grown so far from home create significant amounts of CO2 emissions in transportation, it also disconnects you from your environment and your local producers.
Our current disconnection from the local environment is significant. In The 100-Mile Diet, Smith and MacKinnon cite the example of an oil spill in a local river. The incident attracted only brief media attention and most people missed it altogether. The authors, however, were relying on fish from that river – fish that had now been wiped out. Suddenly the impact of this ‘minor’ event hit home for them. If even a decent minority of people relied on local food, no ‘local’ environmental incident would go unnoticed. The contamination of our rivers and soils would matter to us because it would have an immediate impact on our lives.
Another issue these books illuminated for me was a social one. Both families formed strong personal connections with the people who produced their food. This kind of relationship is not only valuable for society, it also has environmental benefits. Farmers whose customers visit their farms, and have personal relationships with them, find their commitment to sustainable and ethical production reinforced by the expectations of their customers. This local connection also lessens farmers’ reliance on corporate food giants, which pay less and are more interested in how produce looks, transports, and stores than the environmental and social impact it makes.
This brings me to another, more political element oflocal eating: it undermines the growing corporate monopoly over food production and distribution. In Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel carefully sets out the link between poverty, free trade and growing corporate control over the food chain. Patel demonstrates the ways in which we participate in this equation every time we shop in a large supermarket chain, and how this deprives us of any real choice over the food we buy and eat.
The global food market is dominated by just a handful of companies. Formerly these companies only included wholesalers (such as Cargill, Louis Dreyfus and Archer Daniels Midland) and agribusinesses (such as Monsanto, Novartis and Aventis), but now the large supermarket chains such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco – and in Australia, Wesfarmers and Woolworths – are challenging their dominance. These corporations have positioned themselves well to profit from the global rise of free trade. While free trade has provided a strong downward pressure on commodity prices – meaning they can now buy more food for less – their market dominance has relieved them of the pressure of passing these savings on to consumers. One example of this trend can be seen in the figures provided by agricultural economist Robert Taylor to the US Senate Agriculture Committee in 1999: ‘Since 1984, the real price of a market basket of food has increased by 2.8 per cent, while farm value of that food has fallen by 35.7 per cent.’
Local eating is gaining popularity now, but when it first entered my world in 2006 it threw me through a bit of a loop. As I came to understand the exploitation and suffering that lay at the heart of our globalised food chain, I started to question whether veganism was still a useful guide for navigating these issues. Thinking about the long (and often exploitative) journey my food had travelled to reach my plate opened up a huge grey area in my consumption choices where once I had only seen black and white. Previously, I had felt confident that if I was eating vegan food I was making the most ethical choice. I didn’t have to think about it, I just had to read the ingredients or reach for a familiar brand. Now, no product was a self-evidently safe choice; every decision involved a balancing act where I would weigh up impact on the environment, animal welfare, human welfare, and so on.
My trips to the supermarket (I still did most of my food shopping in a big supermarket back then) suddenly became complex philosophical exercises. Should I buy Australian rice because it’s grown nearby, or should I buy Pakistani rice since we really shouldn’t be irrigating rice from the Murray and Pakistani farmers could do with the income? Should I buy organic oats from the US or conventionally grown Australian ones – do pesticides and fertilisers or international shipping cause more pollution? And so it went.
My husband and I started calling ourselves ‘ecotarians’ instead of vegans. We figured where vegans make all their consumption choices based on whether or not animals have been exploited in the production process, ecotarians would make their consumption choices based on how those choices might affect the entire ecosystem. We also decided that this extra layer of complexity meant we would have to take a more flexible approach by recognising that there was no absolute ‘right’ choice. Essentially, ecotarianism was about becoming more aware of all of the impacts of our consumption and minimising the negative ones, rather than striving to be pure.
One of the most challenging obstacles we faced was when we realised most of our main sources of vegan protein couldn’t be purchased locally. People don’t grow pulses near Canberra. Even our ‘local’ tofu was made with Queensland-grown soybeans. Enter our neighbour and her chickens.
I took the eggs home, put them in the fridge and racked my brains for something to do with them. I couldn’t think of anything. I had been a vegan for 15 years (half my life at that point); my cooking experience was all vegan-oriented. I knew that eggs were used in omelettes and quiches, but the thought of these meals made my stomach turn.
The eggs sat in the fridge for two days while I pondered. Finally, my husband decided he had better cook them up before they went off (we really knew nothing about eggs). He made an omelette with vegetables and served it up to Lily and himself. Lily sat down and carefully picked out all of the vegetables and left the egg sitting untouched on her plate.
It could have been a non-event, but something clicked in my head about the eggs. I began wondering if eating some things that weren’t vegan would meet my new ethical criteria more effectively than a strict vegan diet. What about replacing the criteria of ‘veganism’ with one of ‘ecotarianism’ and being open to the idea that one might trump the other?
Initially, I felt overwhelmed by the idea. A big part of my identity was wrapped up in being ‘a vegan’; I was reluctant to completely abandon it – even if I wasn’t meeting my newly forming ethical position on consumption. I decided to let these ideas sit while we started doing more about making our other consumption habits a little more ecotarian.
Being ecotarians means that whenever my family makes a decision about our consumption (of food or any other product) we try to consider the myriad ethical issues that relate to the impact of our choice on the earth. These issues include: food miles; labour practices; packaging; animal welfare; use of chemicals; embodied water and energy; and whether the product is made or sold by a corporation that is unethical in its business practices. (Of course, we also must ask ourselves whether we actually need the product or whether we are simply consuming for the sake of it.)
To some people, this might seem like a pain and a waste of time (not to mention making one seem, on occasion, like somewhat of a control freak, to say the least!). Does it turn life into a constant reading oflabels and standing, frozen with indecision, in supermarket aisles? Yes, to be honest – that’s how it started. But it’s not like that now. Like any lifestyle decision, ecotarianism is something that becomes a natural part of your daily routine. Good brands and products become familiar and what you buy becomes second nature. And rather than being a pain, our new way of shopping for food has enriched our lives in ways that I never imagined.
We now buy all our fruit and vegetables from the local farmers’ market. As it is held only once a week, people make a special occasion out of shopping at the market and it has become one of the social highlights of our week. A recent study has shown that people have ‘ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as they do in supermarkets’. The market atmosphere encourages a sense of community that is often lacking in larger cities, and has been demonstrated to provide ‘positive social connections’, facilitating the development of ‘cohesive communities’.
At our market we tend to run into familiar faces at every stall and always stop for a coffee with friends or family while we’re there. Over the years we’ve also formed relationships with the people who grow and make our food, which makes shopping a more personal experience. The couple from whom we buy our tofu have been saving a special treat for our daughter every week since she turned one, and other vendors always throw in a little extra and make sure to let us know what varieties are especially good this season. Buying directly from local growers has also connected us to our food and environment like never before. It makes it easy to buy seasonally, and we know which farmers avoid using chemicals on their produce regardless of whether they are certified organic. We also know which foods grow well in our area, and are educated about horticulture (for instance, I now know that lots of rain is bad for cherries).
Supporting local farmers has obvious economic benefits for them, too. In the US, for example, farmers typically receive just 20 per cent of the consumer price of their produce – a statistic that is behind the significant decline in small family farms and the rise of corporate farming. In contrast, the money you spend at the farmers’ markets goes directly to producers, making small farms viable once again. This is supported by a 2004 submission by the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association to the Standing Committee of Environment and Heritage, which documents the significant local economic benefits of farmers’ markets.
For the purchase of non-perishables we use our local food coop. Shopping at the co-op is an experience worlds away from a trip to a supermarket, where I have to push the children around in a trolley while my daughter begs for a carefully displayed pink princess lunchbox or heavily processed snack food. At the co-op we take along our own jars and she helps me to fill them with wholegrains, pulses, nuts, spices, flours, oils and tahini. If she gets bored, there’s a kids corner, and often other children to play with. As we leave she begs me for a date and tahini cookie. How much better is that than a box of Smarties?
The origins of the food at the co-op are carefully labelled. They also highlight whether it is grown with organic methods, and they only buy rain-fed Australian rice (thus sparing me one of my dilemmas). What I like about the way the co-op labels its food is that it recognises that our consumption involves deeply political choices. It is easier to make good choices when we are properly informed. Large supermarket chains don’t have a lot of interest in providing this information, because informed consumers may demand more choice than they are willing to provide.
While I applaud some supermarkets’ recent efforts to stock more organic and fair trade options, and to move away from the more extreme forms of factory farming of animals, these concessions ultimately do little to change the problematic foundations on which big supermarket supply chains are built. The growing array of ‘ownbrand’ products that you see displayed on the shelves of Coles and Woolworths have nothing to do with saving you money and everything to do with increasing their control over the market. As they drive out their competitors, they also remove the little remaining choice available to us as consumers and strengthen their capacity to dictate the terms of trade in their own favour. Profit, not sustainability, is the driving force behind all their actions.
Although farmers’ markets and food co-ops made our ecotarianism viable, the vegan issue still lingered. So I started to experiment: I bought some local, organic, free-range eggs from our co-op. I did my best to use the eggs in recipes obtained online. At first I struggled as the smell and flavour turned my stomach, but for some reason I wanted to keep trying. I was waiting, I realised, for the psychological impact of this choice to hit me. And slowly it did feel right to me.
Two years later, we have managed to incorporate eggs into our diet. I’m loving freshly baked quiches and tarts, and Lily often takes a boiled egg to preschool with her. Last week we excitedly brought home a couple of hens for our own backyard – ‘Henny’ and ‘Penny’. They’re still growing at the moment, but I’m looking forward to collecting their eggs. So is Lily.
• Australia’s Farmers’ Markets Association, where you can locate your nearest farmers’ market: www.farmersmarkets.og.au.
• Food Connect is an organisation that connects farmers to consumers. If you live in Brisbane, Sydney or Adelaide you can sign up to receive weekly boxes of organic produce directly from local farmers: www.foodconnect.com.au.
• The Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies is a not-for-profit environment and education centre and urban farm located in East Brunswick, Melbourne. They hold a market on Wednesdays and Saturdays every week: www.ceres.org.au.
• La Via Campensina is an international movement of peasants struggling for food sovereignty. They are also the world’s largest social movement: http://viacampesina.org/en/.
• Food Inc was a 2008 documentary on the American food industry. The website contains a useful summary of many of the key issues and plenty oflinks for further reading: http://www.foodincmovie.com/.
• 100-mile Diet – the website behind the book: 100milediet.org.