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Robyn Francis – walking the talk

Robyn Francis writes on the art of being a conscious consumer to reduce your eco-footprint, save money and enjoy better health.

Wendell Berry once said that it’s not an environmental crisis we face but a crisis of character. He was referring to the fact that the solution to the crises in our environment begins at a deeply personal and individual level, which involves accepting responsibility for how we live, the resources we use, the pressure we put on others to supply our needs, and the legacy we leave for future generations. Have we unwittingly become slaves to convenience?

Permaculture arose from a similar philosophical base, of reducing our footprint on the earth, of cooperation with nature, and leaving our environment in better condition for the next generation. Permaculture is based on three core ethics, Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. This third ethic is particularly important, as it inherently requires accepting limits to growth and consumption, living within our footprint, and dispersing any surplus in a socially and ecologically responsible way.

The unprecedented affluence and corporate greed driving contemporary society into the 21st Century was powered by cheap oil and an economy based on the fantasy of unlimited growth and ever increasing consumption. Perhaps one day we’ll be telling our incredulous grandkids about the economic irrationalism that ended the era of ‘affluenza’, the biggest consumption binge of all time. In the past 50 years we, as a species, have consumed more resources than during the entire history of the human race, that is, for the preceding 200,000-plus years.

As we reach and breach numerous converging thresh-holds and tipping points (climate chaos, resource depletion and economic instability are simply the tip of a now rapidly-melting iceberg), what we are witnessing is a transition between major eras of human civilisation. However we are not just passive onlookers, we are all players in shaping the future of society, of our environment, and of life as we know it on planet earth, whether we like it or not.

I’d be a fool to deny that some things will get worse before they get better, however if we’re smart enough and make the right changes soon enough, we can survive the collapse of “things not sustainable” as we work together to shape the transition to a new society, move towards a more sustainable or perma-nent culture.

It’s inevitable that some aspects of a life based on earth-stewardship will involve a kind of ‘back to the future’ scenario, living a much simpler life, living better with less. Some aspects of transition living may be more like that of our grandparents and great grandparents, who were much richer in terms of sense of community, and derived joy and satisfaction from growing, making and mending.

However, it’s not a matter of simply turning the clock back as a reactionary return to the past. We live in a different world to our great grandparents and need to draw from the knowledge of traditional societies as well as contemporary science and human insights to support our understanding and inform our decisions. Survival very much depends on our ability to embrace the shift to collective consciousness and earth-stewardship with our heads, hearts and hands.

The way we feed ourselves is one of the most immediate things we can change, and one area of survival we can take some degree of control over. Being a conscious consumer and growing some of your own food are some of the most powerful political statements you can make – food is politics, food is power.

It’s more than coincidence that societies facing crisis or collapse that have best survived have been where food security has been quickly attained. Cuba’s urban food revolution averted starvation during the Special Period and the city of Havana continues to produce around 60% of the fruit and vegetables consumed by its 2 million population. The victory gardens in the USA during World War II produced 30-40% of domestic food consumed, Russia also achieved 40% food production through home gardens and garden allotments.

melcookingThe best news is that changing what we eat to fresh local and organic foods, and growing some of our own food, can reduce our footprint and sequester more CO2 from the atmosphere than any other individual act. Food can be responsible for up to 26% of our greenhouse gas emissions and 44% of our overall ecological footprint. And the bonus about adjusting your food consumption habits and getiing a gardening going is that you’ll be much healthier and happier for the effort. (see Why Gardening Makes You Happy and Cures Depression) With Permaculture you don’t need loads of space to garden, you simply use the opportunities around you, no matter how small, you can create a micro-eden to turn some of your food miles to food meters. Gardening and growing your own is just one way to be a part of the solution (which we’ll go into in another article). However there are numerous other ways to develop new food habits as a conscious consumer to reduce your eco-footprint, save money and enjoy better health.

Permaculture is more than a gardening system, its about making conscious decisions in all aspects of our lives to support sustainability and equity. Its also about eliminating waste, using non-renewable resources wisely, valuing our renewable resources and considering the short and long term impact of satisfying our needs on the environment and other people.

 

Slaves to Convenience

In this era of ultra convenience we are suffering a plethora of inconvenient consequences, which will only compound into the future. In western nations we have the irony of the diseases of affluence (obesity, diabetes, heart disease) most impacting on the socio-economic poor, especially in societies like Australia and the USA, largely triggered from overeating highly processed food. The consumption of highly processed food is not only costing health, it’s responsible for a substantial portion of the environmental impact of food in terms of energy and resource use plus the volume of waste generated from excessive packaging.

Then there’s all the wasted food. Food marketing systems are designed for waste. There’s the waste on the farm where perfectly good food is trashed because it’s the wrong shape, size, colour or has a small blemish. Apparently to get one perfect banana to a supermarket shelf 15 perfectly delicious, edible bananas are trashed because they’re too big, too small, too straight or too bent – its all about cosmetics, not nutrition or flavour or edibility. Then there’s the waste from the supermarkets, fresh fruit and vegetable are thrown out more often for superficial cosmetic reasons than because the produce is degraded, plus there’s all the waste of processed foods that have reached their ‘best by’ or ‘use by’ dates.

On top of all this are the unnecessary food miles generated by trade-for-trades-sake. I was teaching a permaculture course in France recently and was told about a major accident on a French freeway where 2 big trucks carrying fresh tomatoes crashed into each other — one was carrying tomatoes grown in Dutch greenhouses to Spanish supermarkets, the other was carrying Spanish tomatoes north for Dutch supermarkets. How much more crazy can this era of economic irrationalism get?

Okay, you cant control what happens on the farm or in the supermarket, but you can control the decisions you make as a consumer. It doesnt mean you have to spend a lot more, its really about making wiser choices. The volume of food waste by consumers at the household level is startling. In the UK a third of the food purchased is thrown out in the trash bin. Australians have an even greater propensity to food waste throwing out 40% of food purchased.

In Australia, nationally we waste 3 million tons of food each year worth $5.2 billion. Not just that, we are also trashing all the resources that went into producing, processing, transporting, and everything else involved in getting it to the store and your kitchen, which puts 11,400,000 tones of CO2 equivalent emissions into the atmosphere–plus the hidden costs of water, soil and biodiversity loss, pollution.  See Food Waste Fast Facts

 

Supermarket culture encourages over consumption.

Cheap imported or mass-produced perishable produce is often bulk packaged for a ridiculously low price.  How often do you see a bargain 2kg bag of long food-mile tomatoes costing half the kilo price of loose locally grown tomatoes? How often do you go for the 2 for the price of 1 (when you didnt even really want one), or some other impulse item on ‘special’, taking home much more than you can consume–then chuck most of it out when it goes off in the fridge because you couldn’t get through it all?  It takes a bit of retraining oneself as a consumer to develop immunity to the big con.

We also find the opposite extreme with processed and pre-packaged “for convenience” foods costing much more per kilo than the fresh whole product. A recent study by Choice, Australian consumer watch-dog magazine, found that consumers are paying absurd prices for excessively packaged foods. Packaged and partially prepared fresh produce for the convenience of saving a couple of minutes in the kitchen is also a big con–paying 50% more for pre-sliced mushrooms in a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. How long does it take to slice a few mushrooms? One, two minutes? People complain about the cost of organic and local food compared supermarket prices, then by-pass the $2 whole lettuce for bagged loose lettuce leaf at $11/kg –makes the certified organic $3.50 lettuce seem like a comparative bargain. Sometimes it’s a matter of another extra minute to select what you need or wait a few minutes to be served rather than grabbing the prepack from the shelf. In Australia 1.9 million tonnes of packaging end up in landfill every year, that’s 200kg per person!  The global food packaging industry is worth $100 billion a year – what a waste.

“Excessive packaging is something that should no longer be tolerated. Even though a wide range of packaging can play a key and vital role in preserving foodstuffs, we are drowning in a sea of cling film, wrappers and Styrofoam trays” – Jon Dee, A waste of packaging.

The mass food commodity system is fraught with not only environmental and economic cost but artificially cheap food is perpetuating social injustice on a global scale. Farmers around the world that havent been bankrupted are struggling financially, dying out through old age (average farmer age is 58 in Australia, 63 in the UK) or taking their own lives — farmer suicides rates are disproportionately high and rising globally. Much of the cheap food on the supermarket shelf has been subsidised by exploitation of the poor, including child labour, in large plantation monocultures owned by multinational corporations. The price war on pineapples in Europe in October, 2010, well documented The Gardian article and video, The True Cost of Cheap Pineapples in UK Supermarkets, is no isolated example of how “supermarket price wars are wrecking lives in the developing world”. The people who grow the cheap food for supermarket chains are lucky if they receive 4% of what you pay at the checkout. Your local grower can’t compete with a price war based on exploitation, injustice and wholesale environmental degredation

 

The Art of being a Conscious Consumer

As conscious consumers we can make a difference and send a clear signal to retailers – we don’t have to be the victims in this. Over recent decades there’s have been many changes influenced by consumer demand or resistance that havent been driven by corporate interests and advertising, but by public concern. Two decades ago you couldnt find anything organic on the shelves or recycled toilet paper in a regular supermarket.

I decided some years ago to willingly pay a little more to buy only what I actually need, buying less and being more selctive about what I buy–like choosing organic, local or fair trade options. As a result I’m not spending more, but spending more wisely and eliminating waste. I think twice before going to the shops–can I go another day without shopping? what do I already have that needs to be eaten?

I also give storekeepers feedback, thank them for stocking local fruit, veg, cheeses, olives and coffee, or ask them why they dont stock local produce if its conspiciously absent. Its crazy that the big supermarket chains in my local city, Lismore, dont stock any of our local Norco dairy products but truck in milk from over 1000km away. That’s why I prefer to do most of my shopping in my local village, a short bicycle ride away, at our independent locally-owned supermarket, local butcher and organic store who source what they can from local producers.

Another thing i’ve trained myself to is eating what’s seasonal – having a garden helps. But really, I dont need  to buy cherries all year round–part of the magic with seasonal foods is the fact that they are only around for part of the year. I also enjoy preserving some things when they’re in season for the ocassional treat at other times of year, like preserving some of those summer cherries in rum for winter desserts, or pickling winter red cabbage for summer salads.

 

Easy things you can do

• Buy only what you need and think twice before you grab a ‘special’ deal, especially of perishable goods with a limited ‘shelf-life’ (your fridge and kitchen shelf in this case)

• Reduce food waste and use the money saved to purchase locally grown —  local organic is even better.

• Eat more fresh food and less processed foods—you can prepare a delicious nutritious meal from scratch without being a slave to the kitchen.

• Avoid overpackaged goods and give preferance to items in recyclable packaging

• Adapt your diet to what’s locally in season – get to know your seasons and what grows when

• Support your local farmers market or join a CSA—Community Supported Agriculture subscription scheme.

• Support bulk food stores and take your own recycled bags and containers

• Support local independent supermarkets in preference to big chain stores and ask them to label the source of fresh produce (local, interstate, imported) to support your choice to be food-mile-wise

• If you do have food waste create a solution-oriented way to deal with it, like a worm farm, bokashi bucket, or keep a few chickens in the backyard to turn it into eggs.

 

I came across this great US poster from the war on The Smithsonian website:

FOOD:

1. Buy it with thought;

2. Cook it with care;

3. Serve just enough;

4. Save what will keep;

5. eat what would spoil;

6. Home-grown is best

Dont waste it

 

These were the principles my folks lived by and I grew up with in the 1950’s and 60’s. For me, living by these directives is a normal thing to do.  While I’ve always been relatively waste/consumer conscious and enjoy growing my own, I continue to find new ways to reduce my footprint, develop new habits, and strengthen my resistance to the consumer con. The latter is acheived through maintaining an open mind to being informed about things i’d often prefer not to know about–human nature has a propensity for avoiding uncomfortable information that challenges our habits and comfort zones.

Its not an impossible task to think more consciously about our food as more aware consumers and make a real difference. As Wendell Berry said “it’s not an environmental crisis we face but a crisis of character”. Good character is something we need to cultivate through considerate behaviour and that includes the choices we make as conscious consumers.

 

Robyn Francis, Nov 2010

For those interested in taking the next step to actually growing their own, check out these other posts by Robyn Francis

Micro Eden Series with Robyn Francis

#1 Going potty permaculture style – Container Gardens

#2  Harvesting the Suburbs and Small Space Gardens