“Let’s start to wash our own tomatoes,” Paolo Di Croce implored his audience last Sunday at the Harbourfront’s Hot and Spicy Food Festival. The Executive Director of Slow Food International was speaking about an experience that he’d had at a market in Australia. He described two displays of tomatoes, presented beside one another in the produce section. One display showed off the bright red tomatoes housed in plastic with labels that advertised that they’d been prewashed, while the display of tomatoes next to them sat unadorned, unpackaged and unwashed. The shrink-wrapped and supposedly clean tomatoes cost 30% more than their “unclean” counterparts.
“The food system that has been in place for the 60 years has collapsed,” Di Croce said. “It is broken.” Tracing a line from local issues to concerns of a global scale, he painted a picture that Slow Food supporters know well; issues of sustainability, environmental stewardship, health and labour conditions often can be traced back to food production.
Locally, Di Croce critiqued the proposed Melancthon Mega Quarry, which when completed would be the largest open pit quarry in Canada, would need to pump 600 million liters of water daily in order to be operational. The land in question, all 2300 acres of it, is where 50% of the potatoes consumed in the Greater Toronto Area are cultivated.
Globally, Di Croce spoke about land grabbing, a process in which transnational corporations and the governments of developed nations buy up cheap land in developing nations in order to grow food as a cash crop or to ensure national food security. Millions of hectares of land in Africa are bought annually to grow large-scale monocultures or for biofuel production, displacing native populations, damaging ecological diversity and leading to overwhelming environmental degradation.
From household kitchens to global landfills, food waste is an extraordinary problem to have in a world where 925 million people are malnourished worldwide at the same time that there is an obesity epidemic in North America. 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food is wasted by consumers in the U.S. annually. That’s 95-100 kilograms of food in the garbage per person, per year.
“Act locally, but think globally,” Di Croce told his audience. It is important to be educated about land grabbing in Africa, but to mobilize as an engaged citizen in your own neighbourhood by learning about the Mega Quarry and writing to the municipal government to affect change. It is important to act as a conscious consumer. By buying products that are produced responsibly and sustainably, “the consumer becomes the co-producer by influencing the market,” Di Croce explained. Big companies like McDonalds have to listen, because they are counting on appealing to consumers to sell hamburgers.
“We think about the cost of food, but we should think about value,” Di Croce said. Besides voting with your shopping dollars for groceries, it is important for us to think about cost versus value when it comes to our food. In North America, a 2.5 member family spends only 12.4% of their entire annual budget on food, of which 7% of that budget spent on food consumed at home and 5.4% on food consumed outside of the home. This same average family spends 17.6% on transportation.
“Everyone in this room can do something to change the food system,” Di Croce said. “It’s up to us to convince our friends, to convince the friends of our friends, to create a network of people who believe that something else is possible. To not destroy fertile farming land by building a wasteful quarry, to educate ourselves and others about land grabbing in Africa, to not waste food.” And amazingly, every two hours there is a Slow Food event across the world, a network of people working to make conscious food consumption and production a reality.
We can choose a food system of contradictions, where consumers are willing to pay 30% markups for prewashed produce shrink-wrapped on flimsy Styrofoam trays. Or we can choose to wash our own tomatoes.
By Grace Evans
Photo credit: Peter Madison