My husband is standing in the kitchen peering at the label on a jar of honey. He is puzzled. “Why are we buying our honey from India?” he wonders out loud. I don’t answer because I’m listening to an ad on the radio about canned tuna and learning it can kill sea turtles. Wait, what? I knew some types of tuna fishing was bad for dolphins so I always buy dolphin-friendly brands. But turtles? Oh no! MY TUNA PASTA IS KILLING THE TURTLES.
The lady on the radio reassures me that the tuna in her particular brand is line-caught (“No nets!”) to save the lives of sea turtles. But what about the dolphins? She didn’t mention dolphins. Are the canned tuna people going to make me choose between these two lovable sea creatures?
Bloody hell, I’m going to be a breatharian by Christmas.
My husband diverts my mental aguish. “Why is our honey from India?” he asks again. I try to remember. “Oh! It’s organic!” I finally blurt. “Right,” he replies. “And how strict do you think their criteria for ‘organic’ is in India?”
Twitching slightly, I picture a sweat shop crammed with child labourers slapping bodgy ‘organic’ labels onto any old thing while working 20 hour shifts. Not ideal.
Have you noticed how food and groceries have become the new political frontier? Forget bumper stickers or slogan t-shirts, the modern way to show your political and personal beliefs is with food.
“I feel like these days if you go out to dinner, each element of food has a moral dimension,” observed psychiatrist and social commentator Tanveer Ahmed recently. “Like: ‘Where is this from?’ ‘Should we be eating meat at all?’; ‘Is the coffee free trade?’
It’s true. In some circles, your plate and your shopping trolley serve as a kind of political CV. “If you’re a vegan who drinks fair trade coffee this almost certainly means “I believe in ending third world poverty, I vote for the Greens” etc,” explains Tanveer. “It identifies your set of beliefs.”
And yet as I discovered with my honey, the idea of putting your politics on your plate can become complicated. With this new moral dimension overlaid onto everything we consume, it’s hard to be consistent. While you’re trying to buy local products to support the Australian economy, boost employment and reduce your carbon footprint, is this more or less important than buying meat from an animal that had a happy life and humane death? And how does a cow’s quality of life rank alongside the financial wellbeing of farmers? Packaging, anyone?
My friend Bec shares my angst, citing the recent push to boycott home-brand products because they’re often imported. “Now I feel too guilty to buy home-brand because I’m destroying the country. And you know what? I’m tired. I’m trying so hard to buy less packaged foods, and write a gratitude journal and go for a walk and consume less sugar and watch less TV and eat dinner at the table and buy Australian made and ring my parents more often and now I can’t even buy home brand bread to save money.”
Not everyone is so troubled. My colleague Rick describes himself as “a bleeding heart leftie who supports asylum seekers and practices The Gay” but insists his food sensibilities are about as delicate as a besser block. “We used to kill our own cattle and cut them up ourselves,” he explains of his childhood in rural Queensland. “I have no problem eating animals. If my stomach can digest it and it doesn’t offend my tastebuds, I’m going to eat it.”
But while many people don’t care about “the journey” food makes before landing on their plate, others care deeply. Another colleague once found herself stuck behind a lady in the McDonalds queue who was asking where and how the filet-o-fish fish was caught.
I know someone like that. This friend strongly believes what she eats reflects the kind of person she is and I’ve recently watched her beliefs become increasingly emeshed with her pantry. “I can’t dissociate meat from animals which is why I buy meat online from an ethical farmer,” she says. “I only eat free range eggs and will always ask at cafes if their eggs are caged because I want them to know that people care and be aware of less cruel options. If they don’t have free range I simply choose something else on the menu. No fuss but a subtle point is made.” She also refuses to buy imported fruit or vegetables and eschews packaging wherever possible. And yet she drinks, smokes and freely admits to being a compulsive clothes shopper. Vive la contradiction.
Interestingly, Tanveer points out that the politics-on-a-plate trend swings both left and right. “It’s changed with conservatives too,” he says. “Now if you go to a Liberal party function you’ll eat meat and you’ll celebrate it. Like ‘Goddamn it we’re red blooded white males and we’re eating Australian meat!”
I think I’m going to stick with Vegemite on toast. Wait, is Vegemite still Australian-owned? And is it sea-turtle friendly?
What do your food choices say about you?