Food waste: a Colombian/Australian perspective

In trying to get a better understanding of our food system, I find it helpful to look at different perspectives and see things through different people’s eyes. I remember having some fascinating conversations with a former colleague Asseneth Quintero, who at the time had recently moved to Australia from Colombia, about differences in the way that we purchase our food. Asseneth kindly agreed to write down some of these observations in a guest blog which I have shared below. “Food waste: eat seasonal, cook humble, be appreciative” “Food waste struck me when Susie invited me to share my personal observations on how fresh food is marketed, consumed and sold in Australia and Colombia. Thanks to their diverse climate, both countries enjoy the fortune of having fresh produce available all year round. Similarly, both countries’ produce are highly regarded in international markets. Australia is internationally acclaimed for its produce of beef, dairy, fruit and vegetables. According to Austrade, more than two thirds of Australia’s produce are exported each year. Similarly, Colombia has made its mark on the global map for its premium-quality coffee and bananas. 2013-07-17 02.51.39-2But where these two countries widely differ is on how food is wasted. Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food goes to waste every year, being the major causes for waste: production-to-retailing infrastructure and consumer behaviour, according to a study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food waste can then be distilled into how fresh produce is marketed, consumed and sold in each country. Little advertising vs MasterChef-level marketing In Colombia, fresh food consumption is driven by seasonality rather than by marketing. Buying fresh food is so deeply embedded in Colombian culture that it needs no marketing. I can only recall advertising from peak industry bodies. For instance, Fedegan, the nation’s peak body representing livestock producers, regularly promotes beef over other mutually-exclusive products, just like Meat & Livestock Australia’s latest campaign ‘You are better on beef’. Otherwise, very little advertising goes into promoting fresh food. On the contrary, a great marketing effort goes into driving demand for fresh produce in Australia. Peak industry bodies, cooking television shows, renowned chefs’ cookbooks and specialty magazines actively promote home cooking. These efforts incentivise the use of fresh produce at heart. However, these marketing efforts also put a price tag on fresh produce by elevating its status—making it unaffordable for many. Food waste starts when we give cosmetic and gourmet characteristics to fresh produce. According to Food Wise, an estimated 20% to 40% of fruit and vegetables get rejected due to cosmetic standards. Not all produce meets the catalogue-look standard to make it to the shelves of supermarkets, let alone the award-winning look to make it to the consumer’s dinner plate. The bruised apple and the weird-shaped carrot have just been sentenced to rejection. Humble home cooking vs sophisticated eating Certainly, roulades and three-way dishes do not find a place on the average Colombian cook’s recipe book. Colombians instead cook humble meals that are quick to prepare and do the job: relieve hunger, a basic human need. Juggling tight budgets and with large families to feed, most Colombians recall their mothers or grandmothers saying: ‘eat it all! Don’t leave anything on your plate’. Colombians are taught to be appreciative of food, as you never know when you will be unable to put some on the table. The MasterChef-level marketing has left its footprint on Australia’s eating behaviours, especially on generation Y. Research has found that popularity of television cooking shows has sparked the purchase of household cooking items. Similarly, this trend has also boosted the complexity of dishes prepared at home. This trend contrast starkly with the reality of everyday life. Full of inspiration, supplied with only the best fresh produce and equipped with all kitchen utensils, Australians venture into recreating amazing dishes at home—a home cook’s paradise. Contrarily, research found that Australians reach for more takeaways and out-of-home meals than for the fridge door. No blame. This new benchmark is disheartening. With long working hours, hectic lifestyles and inflated expectations, home cooks are surely better off picking up some food on their way home. And this very reasoning leads to $2.67 billion worth of fresh food being thrown away every year in Australia—33% of all food wasted in a year in Australia. According to Food Wise, one of the top reasons for fresh food waste is buying takeaways at the last minute. Australia is not alone on this trend though. Food waste is an epidemic issue in the developed world. Down to being appreciative Consumption of fresh produce is endemic in Colombian major cities. Fresh produce is available virtually anywhere. Colombians can easily reach for fresh ingredients to put a meal together. Almost every suburb has a market where cooks can indulge in fresh ingredients at very reasonable prices. The convenience of having fresh produce at hand influences purchase behaviour. It’s not unusual to buy dinner ingredients at lunch time of the very same day. This flexibility also allows Colombians to buy in small quantities. You can easily buy $0.50 worth of thyme just before you start cooking. Flexibility in quantities and availability aid to give access to fresh food to many—even those trying to make ends meet. Low prices and abundance seems like a home cook’s paradise. However, it is not without putting a strain on farmers. The agricultural sector in Colombia is fragmented with farmers producing low volume. Since not much attention goes into cosmetic traits, most fresh produce doesn’t meet international standards. Farmers therefore become dependent and vulnerable to local demand. During high season of any given crop, selling price might not even cover for transport and distribution costs. Sadly, it results on food going to waste without even have left the farms. While Colombians are very appreciative of food, we might not be as appreciative of our farmers—a contradictory behaviour among many in this country. Australia’s reality in this area seems quite different. Farmers have the latest production technologies. Supported by well-developed infrastructure, fresh produce excess makes its way to international markets. In the local demand arenas, chain supermarkets dominate the supply chain, and make sure consumers pay a fair price for fresh produce. However, —as in any relationship—the bargaining power of the dominant party increases exponentially when power is unbalanced among the parties. This is the reason some farmers have turned to develop their own brands and distribution channels to bring their produce to consumers. As in many areas of my life, being a Colombian-Aussie has brought the best out of me. I have become more appreciative of food and farmers alike. I now turn weird-shaped apples, bought at the local fresh market, into amazing-looking apple tarts. Most importantly, I make sure my husband eats it all, so no food goes to waste. Despite good intentions, I have to admit I still run to the closest takeaway shop all too often as my busy lifestyle kicks in. Another great difference that I can’t let pass is apple and pear production. Unlike Australia, Colombia’s production doesn’t meet local demand. They are therefore imported, mostly from Chile and the United States. I hope the yummy South Australian apples and pears find their way to Colombia one day. For those who want to learn more about food waste, here is a list of useful resources:

Harvest delights

I’ve written before about the joys of an orchard during autumn. As I was jogging down our valley yesterday evening, I was hit with a warm rush of air laden with the scent of ripening fruit and all my senses were overwhelmed at once by what lay around me. I was reminded once again of just how lucky I am to be a part of this life and this industry and to live in such a beautiful part of the world. I am compelled once again to try and share the experience.

Harvest on an apple orchard in the Adelaide Hills goes on for several months, beginning in the warm days at the end of summer and stretching right through to the very end of autumn. Different varieties ripen progressively over time, making the orchard a patchwork of colours, flavours and smells.

Picking of the first main variety here, Gala, is nearly finished. This is a deliciously sweet apple that to me has flavours that have been soaked up in the warm summer sunshine. It tastes of summer!

IMG_3647An orchard is a hive of activity during harvest; with a sense of busyness but also of care and camaraderie rather than rush; gangs of workers hand picking the fruit into picking bags, then gently emptying into storage bins. Every bit of care is taken to ensure the fruit is handled as gently as possible, looking after the fruit and also protecting the buds that are forming next year’s crop. Workers from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities make for fascinating conversations that ensure a long day of manual labour is never dull. Long standing friendships are often formed with people from all around the world.

IMG_3632During picking season, the low, gentle tones of tractor engines and the hum of trucks provides a background noise that is not intrusive, but acts as a reminder of the constant activity. Tractors with fork lifts keep bins close to pickers and full bins are transported as soon as possible to cool rooms, where the fruit is cooled straight away to maintain its quality. Trucks are constantly on the move, transporting fruit bins between properties and packing sheds.

At the moment the days are still quite long and warm, but they are quickly drawing in and the nights are developing a cool, crisp chill that signals the arrival of autumn. Dust hangs in the air during the day from the dry tracks, while in the cool of the morning, the thick, green grass within the orchard is laden with dew. In the shadows under the trees, the sun’s rays may not reach the ground for much of the day, creating cool pockets of air that contrast with the surrounding warmth.

Conditions over the coming weeks will change quite quickly. The harvested trees will soon begin the process of senescence and the leaves will begin to develop a golden hue. Discarded fruit will begin to ferment on the ground in the damp conditions, creating beautiful smells.

IMG_3262In the meantime, as the weather changes along with the leaves, so the next varieties will mature and ripen. The juicy, yet tart flavours of the very traditional Australian variety, Granny Smith …..

IMG_3152The juicy, sweetness of a crisp, crunchy Fuji, with it’s unique purplish skin ……

IMG_3523And as the growing season draws to a close, the sweet yet acidic flavours of the much loved Pink Lady gradually develop in a complex balance that reflects a perfect combination of warm and cool autumn weather conditions over the long period of maturation.

IMG_3235The sensations of an orchard during harvest period are all consuming and difficult to capture adequately in words and pictures alone. If you can have one experience in life, spending time in a fruit production area is one well worth considering. And I mean a real amount of time. Enough time to meander, relax and truly absorb. Enough time to experience the changing weather patterns. Enough time to soak it all up!

Celebrating a true Aussie Christmas

Our two boys are at that wondrous age (4 and a half and nearly 7) where Christmas is a magical event. The excitement of putting up the decorations and the Christmas tree, the countdown to Christmas that at that age seems to last forever (still 8 more sleeps to go), the sharing of special food and treats, and of course, the wonder and mystery of Santa and the gifts that he brings.

The joy of Christmas was put into a whole new perspective today when my four and a half year old loudly piped up with the statement to a few of his friends that “sometimes Santa gets his presents from China because he is too busy to make them all himself!”

My friend and I rolled around in laughter at his instinctive comedic timing, acerbic wit and insight beyond his years; but as we dried our tears I was also struck with a sense of sadness. My child’s experience of Christmas is partially consumed by the inevitable cheap, plastic toys made for pittance in a country where labour standards are far lower than ours. My husband and I take full responsibility for meeting their demands, and as Christmas rolls ever nearer, undoubtedly the Christmas stockings will again this year be partially filled with light sabers and plastic figurines.

However, it has made me take stock and think about whether this is really the kind of Christmas experience I want our family to have. I know for sure that for me Christmas is much more than presents. It is about sharing with family and friends. It is about a celebration that is largely expressed through food that is prepared and cooked with love. Good, wholesome food shared around the table with laughter. For many, it is the one time of year when the family get together and all contribute. We take the time to prepare and take care to ensure that all have plenty to eat. We bake special treats, we take time and reflect.

So the one thing that I am going to make sure of this year is that the food that we share does not reflect the toys that find their way into the Christmas stockings. I will not be serving cheap, imported ham that we end up eating for weeks on end. Instead, I will buy a smaller, carefully smoked local ham packed with real flavour. I will take the care to source produce from local farmers and growers, who are all busy working hard at this time of year; barely with time to stop for Christmas. My Christmas this year will be a celebration of what is near and dear to me – local, Australian produce prepared and served with love, affection.

Merry Christmas to all!

Cherries on the tree

Value of food

Weekends are a special time for me. On weekends life slows down enough that I have time to be creative with food. During the week my main priority is ensuring that my family’s nutritional needs are being met, generally with quick and easy meals. But on weekends, I take great pleasure in cooking at least one special meal for my family, where I take time to plan and source the freshest of ingredients. For me, the meal becomes the centre-point of my day. Often my children will help me with the preparation and the process itself is just as important as the finished product. It all culminates in a wonderful sharing of food, conversation, love and sense of togetherness and belonging.

Today’s special meal will be home made pasta served with slow braised pork belly. I have browned the pork, sauted seasonal vegetables and now it is gently simmering on the stove top in a flavoursome broth of red wine and stock. As the dish gradually develops its rich flavours and the meat slowly tenderises, I take time to reflect on my own personal food values and what it is I look for when I go shopping.

20130713_130740-1Primarily, the food I buy has to taste good. If I have an unpleasant eating experience, I will tend not to repurchase. Secondly, it has to fit within my food budget.I do allow extra money to spend on quality produce, but I have to make sure that I have enough money left over to pay all the other bills. I am sure these are qualities shared by most.

I also take great pleasure in sourcing local produce where possible. There are a range of reasons why this is important to me. I have a much greater sense of connection to food that is produced locally, because I can see the fruit hanging on the trees or the animals grazing in the paddocks and I can relate to what I am eating. Further, by buying local I know that I am supporting local businesses, infrastructure and people, which in turn contributes to a much more vibrant and healthy society for my family to live in. It also helps to secure our future. I also can’t see the sense in growing food locally and sending it half way around the world only to import the same product to serve our own needs. What a waste of energy!

I embrace the concept of seasonality, enjoying the variation of food between seasons and savouring the diversity of flavours and dishes. I love the hearty, rich dishes dishes in winter that lend themselves to winter vegetables and look forward in anticipation to the delightful array of fresh fruits and salads in summer time. Sometimes going without something for a while makes it that much more special.

If buying local isn’t possible, I like to ensure it is at least made and grown in Australia. I have a much greater sense of trust in food that is Australian and on a macro scale, it feels worthwhile to support the broader community in which I live.

However, I also understand that not everyone shares the same food values that I do. For some people, affordability is key. For others, access to a key ingredient at any time of the year, whether or not in season locally, is a great thing. Many people just want to ensure that their food needs are met in the most convenient, affordable way possible. Some will not eat meat, choose organic options or have specific dietary restrictions. That doesn’t make their values any less worthy than mine. In fact, that contributes to the rich diversity of our culture and who we are.

In our society, we are incredibly lucky to have so much choice and consistent access to high quality food, to the point that our food supply is more often than not taken for granted. I take great pleasure in sharing information about where our food comes from, because I would like consumers to continue to be able to make choices about their food based on a real understanding, not just heresay. I feel that it is important that collectively we continue to recognise the diversity in people’s requirements and ensure that our food choices are not taken away from us.

As consumers, we don’t want to allow these choices be taken away from us by large suppliers who want to dictate market terms. As suppliers, we want to ensure we continue to meet all the different market needs.

This certainly is food for further thought as I start preparing the pasta. What are your food values? What drives your decisions when making purchases?

20130713_161933 20130713_180010….. and by the way, the meal was worth the wait and loved by everyone!