Why we have to change the way we eat


Photo: Getty images

“We want to encourage a love affair, a renewed commitment and love affair, with the domestic culinary arts. Why is it that the latest belly-button piercing in celebrity culture is a bigger deal than what’s going to be the flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone?”
— Joel Salatin, an “ecstatic” and “lunatic” American farmer addressing an audience at Sydney Town Hall, February 2013

I’m streaming some alt-country, some Wilco and Lucinda Williams, a bit of Johnny Cash. I’m thinking about putting on my old Blundstones and digging out the Akubra gathering dust. Got to get that down-home-on-the-farm mood right to talk about Joel Salatin — “America’s most famous farmer”, as he was described in a Good Weekend magazine article late last year.

But Salatin is not your average farmer. Your average farmer might struggle to recognise Salatin as a fellow compatriot of the soil. Salatin describes himself as a heretic for his unorthodox views about farming. He’s written books with titles like Folks, This Ain’t Normal, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, and Getting Your Hands Dirty: How to Teach your Children to Love Work.

Joel Salatin rants. He bellows, howls, spits and shouts his message out. A message of local, sustainable, chemical-free, of eggmobiles and controlled grazing and food-production prototypes. You might have seen him in the film, Food Inc. I saw him speak in Sydney last month. It was hard to listen to him. Exhausting to listen to him. Depressing, and fascinating and funny:

  • “In the US, twice as many people are incarcerated in prisons as there are farmers.”
  • “A pig should be allowed to express its pig-ness, a chicken its chicken-ness.”
  • “I think supermarkets should be just treated like a bad addiction, like a drug addiction. Who needs ’em?”
  • “In America, there are 35 million acres of lawn.”
  • “We have abrogated historically moral intimacies and visceral interaction with food. … We’re a lot more interested in the fuel for our vehicles than we are in fuel for our bodies.”

Salatin’s message: Our food system is screwy (the American food system catastrophically so). We can’t go on like this. Our alarm bells should be ringing.

Need some convincing? Spare some thought for the horsemeat epidemic, crisis, scandal. Doesn’t affect Australia? Does that matter? We’re all in this together. Couldn’t ever happen here? Don’t bet on it.
And make no mistake, this isn’t about the nature of the flesh involved. Indeed, since the story broke, sales of horsemeat have actually spiked at specialty butchers in France and Britain. (I polled my followers on Twitter to find out who had eaten horsemeat: “Yes. And donkey too. Delicious! Get over it Australia,” replied chef Steve Manfredi. “Sure, every year in Verona #giddyup,” said wine importer Matt Paul. I tried it years ago, in a Hong Kong restaurant serving Uyghur food, and recall it being perfectly palatable.)

The problem isn’t that it’s horsemeat that has been identified as a “contaminant” in these frozen lasagnes and raviolis and burgers in English supermarkets. The problem, beyond dodgy labelling, is about the source of the meat in these products: distant, remote, unknowable. How was the beast treated before it died? Was it slaughtered humanely? Where was it slaughtered? How was the meat handled afterwards? How far did it travel? If we make the decision that we will eat meat, these are things that matter. And, whether you’re shopping in Kensington High Street or Indooroopilly, Brisbane, if you’re buying processed food like frozen lasagne, these are questions that are impossible to answer.

So you’re not sure yet that something’s wrong with the system? How about this: an audit of New South Wales waste going to landfill has revealed that 40% of the average “red bin” content is food waste. FORTY PERCENT. That’s 800,000 tonnes of food going to landfill in New South Wales a year. EIGHT-HUNDRED THOUSAND TONNES.

In his Town Hall talk, Joel Salatin threw another figure out: 70% of all landfill volume in the world is decomposable. “That’s immoral, it’s evil,” he said.

It’s also the thing that we as individuals can do the most about. Only someone with miserably low intelligence could fail to work out how to reduce their contribution to this travesty. Need some help?

1. Buy less food or shop more frequently for food as you need it;
2. Learn some simple, SIMPLE, ways of using food that’s past its best. Roast ageing vegetables like carrots, pumpkin and sweet potato in olive oil and sea salt and make a roasted vegetable salad. Or make a soup with your limp vegetables. Turn past-its-best bread into garlic bread and freeze it in tinfoil or whiz up some breadcrumbs and freeze them. Cut spoiled bits out of bad fruit and poach what remains. Don’t take “best-before” dates as gospel: have a little taste before you throw something out.
3. Get a compost bin or worm farm. (Mine gives me the absurdest pleasure.)
4. Grow your own herbs so you can pluck what you need at will rather than buying whole bunches that wilt and die.

As Ipswich doctor Jason Maloo decided this week, it’s not enough to sit on your hands when it comes to our screwy food system. After he drove past a Woolworths’ billboard advertisement on the Warrego Highway near Ipswich earlier this week, he posted a note on Jamie Oliver’s Facebook wall. The billboard he was unhappy about showed a photograph of a doughnut with a bite out of it. The accompanying slogan read: “Proudly supplying Ipswich with fresh food for over 43 years.” “I’m appalled to think a large international company like Woolworths would promote donuts as ‘fresh food’,” Maloo wrote.

After Maloo’s complaint started to spread across Facebook, Woolworths said the billboard would be removed. But not without an audaciously disingenuous, even patronising, response from a Woolworths spokeswoman: “While our intention was to show one of the products that we bake fresh everyday in our in store bakeries, we appreciate that this may have been confusing for some people.”

The billboard wasn’t confusing in the least. It was however miserably cynical: Ipswich has more than its share of disadvantage and a high rate of obesity — the reason, apparently, Jamie Oliver chose the city to be the location for his first Ministry of Food branch in Australia.

“An integrity food system needs participants,” Joel Salatin told his Town Hall audience. Go and visit the farmers in your area, he said. Add to that: get a compost bin, stop throwing food away, think about where you buy your meat (and your fruit and vegetables), stay away from processed gunk, try growing things, and think about giving the finger to the supermarkets.