Many of us have bought into the food stories spun by the glossy magazines, celebrity chefs and local restaurants. We no longer simply purchase ingredients for recipes. Rather, we source them. Some shoppers want to know the provenance of their produce. They insist on organic and refuse to purchase food that's been transported to our shores from halfway around the world.
Food, these days, has become less about eating and more about ethics and environmental concerns. But a book by journalist Jay Rayner called A Greedy Man in a Hungry World questions these (and many other) beliefs we hold about food. He takes pot shots at farmers' markets, organic produce and the "doctrine of local food".
Underpinning this book is the idea that the sustainability of food production matters far more than fashionable posturing about "modern food culture". It says that "we will soon have nine billion mouths to feed" and "[a]ccording to the United Nations, by 2030 we will need to be producing 50 per cent more food, and a system built around that holy trinity of local, seasonal and organic simply won't cut it".
Food grown locally may have long been prized by foodies but Rayner says that "the committed locavore, who thinks that buying food produced as close by as possible is always the most sustainable option, has been sold a big, fat lie." In fact a 2006 study found that "lamb, apples and dairy produced in New Zealand and shipped to Britain have a smaller carbon footprint than the equivalent products produced in Britain".
Specifically, "Britain uses twice as much energy per tonne of milk solids produced as New Zealand, and four times more than New Zealand for lamb." More than just transport costs must be included in the calculation. The petrochemicals used in fertiliser as well as the energy required to erect farm buildings and to manufacture and run farm machinery also need to be taken into account.
At weekends farmers' markets are held in various Auckland locations such as Britomart, Grey Lynn and Parnell but Rayner claims that such enterprises are "merely a lifestyle choice for the affluent middle classes". They offer "expensive, bespoke produce aimed at the affluent" who "convince themselves that by shopping there they are doing something to revolutionize the food supply chain. They aren't. It is a lifestyle statement" that "comes with a greasy veneer of false self-righteousness".
Clearly not a big fan of organic food either, Rayner says that "'organic' has become little more than a marketing label past its sell-by date" and "I have seen nothing to convince me that the organic tag is proof of anything other than what you are buying is likely to be more expensive than if it were not organic."
And, he says that growing your own fruit and vegetables "will never be more than a lovely hobby". He accepts it has community and educational benefits but it doesn't usually make economic sense by the time you have factored in the cost of seeds, compost, land, equipment and labour. "[I]n no way can it be the route to breaking the so-called stranglehold of the industrial food process ... and supplying the masses with cheap food".
This is Rayner's key preoccupation throughout the book. He feels that while many people in the developed world have come to view food faddishly (as something akin to a fashion accessory or personal branding statement) they've become disconnected from its core purpose as sustenance. Rayner suggests that our appetite for organic food and local food has not only obscured the bigger picture but it may, in fact, have hindered us from finding credible ways to produce enough food for nine billion people.
While large-scale agriculture is likely to be the solution to feeding the world, "the story of big agriculture is far less compelling ... than the story of small agriculture" - which is why so many of us have willingly bought into that romantic ideal of choosing fruit and vegetables that have been grown locally by boutique producers.
I'll know I'll be rethinking some of my views in this area. And, I'm glad that I need no longer feel guilty about not growing some of my own food. I've tried to produce the occasional tomato and lettuce but, while I understand the benefits (freshness, convenience and connecting with the land) that are supposed to be associated with harvesting your own salad ingredients, I'm not a gardener at heart and the whole exercise leaves me feeling underwhelmed.
What are your views on organic and local food? Do you shop at farmers' markets? Do you grow your own fruit and vegetables?