Opinion piece: 'Reality check in aisle nine', by Professor Phillip O'Neill

Date: 30/10/2009

Eating food is more than bite, chew and swallow. From the first days of life, instinct tells us to see and smell before we bite. As we emerge from childhood, we understand how powerful sight and smell are to the enjoyment of food.

Increasingly, though, we add thinking and valuing to the task of eating. We are concerned about what goes into our bodies for health reasons. Ideally, we want foods to be as fresh and nutritious as possible. We are also concerned about the circumstances in which our food is produced. We want decent conditions for the animals we eat, good conditions for the workers that grow and process our food, and a minimal amount of natural resources expended on its transportation and packaging.

Given that we each eat about 35,000 kilograms of food in our lifetimes, a lot of physical, intellectual and emotional effort goes into getting the eating gig right.

Sydneysiders call on food to do many things. When we eat out we select our beverages, clothes, companions, even our means of transport, on the basis of the food we are about to eat. We consult friends, books, magazines and websites to guide our choices. We are proud if the choice reflects a commitment to multiculturalism, ethical sourcing, sustainable supply chains or fair working conditions. We stare admiringly through the window at Kylie Kwong as she sorts her fresh local produce on tables we later queue at.

We select fish from the menu at Pier according to claims about the few square kilometres where the wild prey was line caught. When we eat at home we carefully reproduce the appearance of a peasant kitchen, heaping about fresh produce with seeming nonchalance but a keen eye on whether it complements the granite benchtops and European appliances - the actual cooking delayed while watching a television cooking show, and a high chance of much of the produce finding its way into the refrigerator en route to the bin.

At home, then, our aspirations - including our desire for food that feeds us well, shows our values and creative self and a desire for an inclusive society and global equity on an unthreatened planet - have the half-life of bagged lettuce.

Our food aspirations should see us buying food from growers that seek to supply tasty, fresh produce, ideally grown locally; and we would pay these growers a fair price sufficient to warrant their staying in business. At the same time we would avoid fresh food from those supermarket chains that drive these small specialist growers out of the food chain by unscrupulous purchasing and marketing practices. We would also avoid the processed food products of the branded food multinationals and their disguised sourcing and processing practices. And we would shun visits to the fast food-ish chains.

But we don't.

Unfortunately, Sydneysiders' food desires are little more than fantasies. Each week the average Sydney household spends nearly five times more on takeaway or eat-out food than it does on fresh vegetables. Each week it throws out fresh food with a retail value equal to the amount that Sydney's fresh food growers get for their entire farm gate output.

Conveniently, though, Sydneysiders construct an excuse for their hypocrisy. Their consciences are appeased by the tale of the supermarket oligopolist. Here we hear an extraordinary coalition of voices, from inner-city Greens wanting domestic garden plots across the sunny lawns of Callan Park to Alan Jones's daily rants.

The enemies in each case are Woolworths and Coles and their apparently unsustainable and unfair wholesaling and retailing practices. The monopolists rule, each group says; they fill our shopping trolleys with inappropriate food, they force us to buy junk for our kids, they drive small independent retailers to the wall and they lock small independent growers out of the food supply chain.

There is a good deal of fact that supports this manifesto. Last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry into grocery prices in Australia found evidence of heightened degrees of market concentration and unconscionable market conduct, although it said that this was not to an extent requiring intervention.

But why does this coalition of complaint cede power to the supermarket chains? Don't the Greens stand for lots of little steps as the pathway to achieving big things? Don't Alan Jones types believe in the power that consumer choices have to improve market efficiency?

We live in a rich, educated society, which is why we can elevate food from a daily dietary requirement - as it would be in, say, Sudan - to a lifestyle category, alongside fashion clothing, designer furniture, short-break holidays and European cars.

It would cost Sydneysiders a minuscule amount of their weekly household budget to pay a proper price for locally grown produce. The vast majority of us can afford to pay more.

The problem might be that we don't have the time to make the effort, to seek out alternative food sources and encourage them with our interest and loyalty until they become more mainstream, until the market monopolies of the supermarkets and food brand manufacturers are eroded.

The problem might also be that our personal belief systems are thin, easily manipulated by the media and advertisers, and our principles of diversity, equity and sustainability easily overrun.

Which are we, then: biters, chewers and swallowers? Or thinkers and valuers?

Professor Phillip O'Neill is Director of the University of Western Sydney Urban Research Centre.




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