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Choosing a more ethical way to eat
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|by Fairfax - Wednesday, 10 September 2008
At 16 Angela Crocombe chose to stop eating red meat because she was an animal lover. It was not the most informed decision, but one that felt right for a teenager who had always preferred fresh fruit to fish and chips.
Two decades later, with years of environmental research behind her, the Melbourne author has a much better argument for cutting meat out of her diet.
And she has laid it out in her latest book, Ethical Eating, which seeks to teach Australians "how to make food choices that won't cost the earth".
As far as Crocombe knows, it is the first publication to take a comprehensive look at ethical eating from an Australian point of view. It investigates where and how our food is produced, packaged and sold, attempts to untangle the complex debates about farming methods, food miles and product certification, and carries a list of Australian suppliers of organic produce.
It rides the wave of concern about climate change and the effects food choices have on the environment, but not in a way that preaches to the reader.
Seven months of research went into Ethical Eating and it has 175 footnotes referring to scientific studies, academic and government reports, meat industry fact sheets, Crocombe's interviews with industry representatives and newspaper articles to back up its matter-of-fact approach.
Crocombe's message is simple: individuals can have a local and global impact by scrutinising what is on their plates.
"It's all about increasing your awareness, making people think a little more about what you put in your mouth and the journey it has been on to get there, rather than mindlessly stuffing our faces with whatever we find," she says.
Among the more startling research on the impact of our food choices is a New Scientist study that says becoming a vegan would save more greenhouse gas emissions a year than switching to a hybrid car.
Crocombe also cites a study of food miles by the Melbourne environmental organisation CERES, which found a typical weekly basket of fruit and vegetables travelled 8730kilometres from the point of production to consumption. The study, which has since been updated, found the journey taken by the bananas, tomatoes and other produce generated greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving 1173 cars for a year.
Crocombe says doing the right thing by the planet usually means doing the right thing by your health. It can also be beneficial to the wallet, because the higher cost of organic produce is offset by the savings from spending less on meat and processed food.
But she acknowledges that making the ethical choice is not always easy or even possible. For instance, have you ever found yourself torn between a mass-produced product that has been made locally or the organic version that has been flown from overseas?
"It's very difficult to weigh up," she says. "My stance, I guess, is if you can buy a product that's organic and Australian, that's great. But if you have to choose between a locally produced one that's conventional or an imported one that's organic, then you are probably better off choosing local."
The Sydney-born Crocombe spent part of her childhood on a property in Glenorie, in the Hills district, as well as in Singapore and Florida. She moved to Melbourne in 1989 to study economics ("so boring"), then political theory and publishing. Now aged 37 and pregnant with her first child, she is a vegequarian - eating fish,dairy and eggs - after experimenting with vegetarian and vegan diets.
She recalls the reaction of her father when she first gave up meat- "Ignore her; it's just a phase" - and she is pleased that vegetarianism and concepts such as food miles and fair trade are commonly recognised now. But it was not until she researched her previous book, a handbook on reducing one's personal ecological impact, called A Lighter Footprint, that she deeply considered how food choices affected the environment.
Crocombe's main job is writing educational books for children, and her latest project is a book on climate change.
"I really feel that kids are some of the most important ones to educate," she says. "They aren't set in their ways; they don't have all these bad habits that we as adults do. If we can convince a kid of the worth of doing some of these things, you can really have a big impact."
Watch your mouth
How to eat more ethically:
- Reduce or eliminate red meat and chicken - mass production of meat to keep up with the Western world's insatiable appetite is harmful to the environment and animal welfare.
- Choose organic meat and produce wherever possible - the food will be fresher, tastier and more nutritious and the use of harmful pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser will be diminished.
- If eating fish, choose sustainable seafood species.
- When it comes to drinks, tap water is the cheapest and best choice. Look for fair-trade tea, coffee and cocoa, organic wine and beer and, where possible, choose a locally made product.
- Buy seasonal produce or, even better, grow your own.
- Look for logos of certifying bodies on organic and free-range products to ensure they meet strict standards.
An advocate for eating locally … Angela Crocombe at the Veg Out community garden in St Kilda, Melbourne.
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