Sunday, 5 January 2014

The nature of compromise

Cor and I consider ourselves to be reasonable exponents of eating well, that is, eating animals and vegetables and fruit that have been produced with a high level of care and consequently, a high level of flavour.  But we compromise.  Everyone does it, and on a recent road trip I was given cause to consider the drivers of compromise, staring down at the decidedly non free-range bacon and egg sandwich from a roadside café that was to be my breakfast.

We get a lot of lecturing.  People telling us we should eat organic, free range, biodynamic, RSPCA inspected, local, sustainably caught, responsibly farmed, the list is endless.

But all too often these lecturers don’t try to understand or respect why people compromise when it comes to their food.  As far as they are concerned, there is no excuse for not eating food that falls into the aforementioned categories.  Or if they do look for a reason, it is all too often blamed on the big food retailers, for stopping the march of the citizenry towards better food.  Actually, the first time I have really seen compromise even acknowledged was in this great Milkwood post: http://milkwood.net/2013/12/23/the-ethics-of-almost/#comment-22982.

The reasons we compromise, as I see them, are threefold.  I believe they are:
1.       Time
2.       Information
3.       Money

Time
So you are, like us, on a roadtrip, looking for a quick breakfast on the go.  You don’t have time to seek out the one backstreet café in town that serves locally made bacon on their sandwiches.

Or you have a couple of kids, you and your other half leave for work at 7am and get home at 7pm, eat, put the kids to bed, steal a couple of private moments in front of TV before falling asleep.  And weekends are no better, ferrying kids around to sporting or social engagements.  When are you supposed to have the time to seek out this wonderful food you are being told you should be feeding your kids?  If it isn’t packaged in flashing lights at the supermarket when you do the Saturday afternoon shopping trip, it doesn’t make the pantry or even the trolley.

Of course, like everything, this driver is one of choice.  You could spend your weeknight spare time tracking down these producers, or restaurants, or markets, but sometimes you would rather spend the time decompressing, or if you are the road, driving on (I personally love it when we “make good time”).

Start out with some herbs like we did....

Information
This one is related to the time driver, because it takes time to understand our food.  The way things are these days, with an endless stream of jingo-istic food phrases thrust at us, it takes time to follow each of them through to what they actually mean.  Organic?  When it comes to meat that doesn’t mean free range, just that it has been given feed grown with organic chemicals (though there are some approved non-organic ones too).  Free range?  That just means given access to an outside run, not necessarily for the whole life of the animal nor one that allows the animal to scratch, or root around, or do what it does naturally.  Most citizens don’t know this stuff.  The simple information they have been provided is: organic/etc = good & expensive; everything else = not so good & cheaper.  Hell, even people who sell organic stuff don’t know that an organic certification actually allows the use of chemicals and some drugs, nor how dangerous some 100% organic chemicals can be.

So if you don’t have the time to research all these things, you aren’t going to be informed.  And labelling, contrary to what the demagogues think, is not the be all and end all answer.  Labelling will never explain fully where a product comes from, the conditions it was grown or raised in, and whether the grower is receiving a fair price for the product.

Solving the information problem takes time, and I know that there are lots of people out there trying to help in this regard.  But I will make two easy suggestions for those not sure where to make a start.  The first is to borrow or buy a copy of the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  It is incredibly compelling while being very informative (think Bill Bryson), and goes a long way to explaining how food is produced in modern America, and many of the techniques that have been adopted elsewhere.

The second suggestion is to buy go back to buying your meat from the butcher.  It isn’t any more expensive than the supermarkets (unless you want it to be) and when you are looking in that glass case at those pork chops, you can ask the simple question “where did those chops come from?”  The butcher won’t be offended by your impertinence, he will relish the chance to share some of his knowledge of his supply line.  Whether it is from commercially farmed (confinement) large white pigs, or free range Berkshires, or something else entirely, you will have in a few seconds increased the amount of information you have about your food, and taken a valuable first step towards knowing your food.

The other important element of information comes to flavour.  Not knowing that certain types of produce taste better, and thinking that “a tomato is a tomato and a chicken is a chicken” is the one of the greatest information obstacles that we must overcome.

Money
I left this one for last, because it seems to be the most sensitive one.  The fact is that yes, food that is produced in a caring manner, and that gives a good return to the farmer usually costs more.  But, and here, is a big but, it doesn’t have to.  That’s right, it really doesn’t have to.

Sure, if you don’t have the time to make the effort or the information on where to go, and you want to buy your high quality food from the supermarket, yes it will always cost more.  However if you do your homework, and change your buying habits, you can get it for the same price as you would pay for the food you normally buy.

You find that person in your area with their own free-range chooks, you won’t pay $6.35 a dozen you will pay $4-$5.  You find a few people with a similar outlook, and you can buy a side of beef, cut up, for $8 a kilo.  There is no way the supermarket is going to beat that price.  Same thing works with pork.  Sure, you have to stock your deep freezer, and order in advance, and do some running about, but this comes back to the time consideration.  Find the market gardener in your area, maybe at your local farmers’ market (if you have one).  Buy a week’s worth of veges from them and then compare it to your normal bill.  Pleasant surprise almost guaranteed.

Overcoming the Drivers

So those are my thoughts on the compromises we make.  I will finish this post by charging my fellow food-lovers with a challenge.  When next you find yourself saddling up the high horse (as I too often do, I admit it) get down for a minute and think about which of these compromise drivers you can help your audience to overcome.  The more we all pull together to do this, the closer we will get to what I believe will be a “tipping point” in our society’s relationship with food, and restore the relationship between the citizen consumer and the farmer.  I am going to try and do my part, want to give me a hand?
...and end up making your own sausages!