PIGS kept in tiny cages, chickens fed antibiotics, tomatoes that won't ripen and apples stored for months before they hit the supermarket shelves.
It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi, but in fact, these are the realities of global food production, where farm-fresh food is increasingly difficult to source.
With the vast majority of fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish now produced by multinational agribusinesses, many consumers feel they are losing touch with the source of what they eat.
“People feel insecure about their food sources, and there are a range of reasons for that,” explains organic farming supplier Frances Michaels, from Queensland-based group Green Harvest.
“More and more people are suffering ill health, there is evidence that cancers from pesticides are going to increase, and there’s a general environmental and green movement that is encouraging people to take responsibility for the impact that they’re having on global warming.”
To help ease their food fears, many consumers are joining movements that pursue alternative ways of eating. The aim is to promote good eating and environmental wellbeing. Here are some of the options.
THE SLOW-FOOD MOVEMENT
Formed in Italy in 1989, Slow Food was created as a protest against fast food and to encourage people to eat locally grown, sustainable produce.
Now one of the world’s most prominent food movements, it has more than 100,000 members in 132 countries and has been instrumental in raising awareness of disappearing food heritage.
Slow Food Australia chairman Nick Padol says the group encourages consumers to be aware of the globalised nature of agribusiness and to buy goods that are local to where you live.
“Becoming part of Slow Food makes you more aware of what you’re eating, what you’re buying to eat and what you’re taking home to feed your family,” he says. “You become very aware of food labels.”
SUSTAINABLE FOOD MOVEMENT
Like Slow Food, sustainable food warriors campaign for consumers to eat only goods with a guaranteed viability in the future. “Take orange roughie,” says Padol.
“You still have fish like this at the fish markets, but it is being fished out. Eventually, there won’t be any of it left.”
Padol says sustainable produce might cost slightly more but it is worth the investment.
“There are members of Slow Food who farm sustainable rare breeds of animals [pork and beef, for instance].
"Yes, they are a little bit more expensive, but they’re not twice the price or anything like that. You pay for quality, so maybe just buy a little bit less.”
Sustainable products also tend to be less factory-produced, meaning less exposure to chemicals, production and packaging, which is good for the buyer and the environment.
Locavores are those who eat only those products that can be farmed or produced in their immediate area. Some put a 50-kilometre cap on that radius, while others widen the range to 100 or even 250 kilometres.
The point is to ensure that everything eaten is fresh and has not incurred excessive “food miles” by being transported from interstate or overseas.
Michaels, who lives in Maleny in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, says whole communities in Australia – especially those in regional areas – are converting to a local way of eating.
“Although I support organics, I would rather buy a local, non-organic jam than an organic jam from France,” Michaels says.
“Many people in places like Maleny are a combination of locavore and organics advocates, mixing a bit of both. It’s ridiculous to buy something from France when it can be made down the road.”
Although it might limit the variety of foods people can eat, buying locally ensures freshness and maximises exposure to the nutrients in food, which decline as produce ages.
No pesticides or herbicides are used during organic farming, therefore preserving produce, and the ground in which it is grown, from the effects of chemicals.
Studies have failed to prove that, when eaten, there is a great deal of difference in the health benefits between organic and non-organic produce, but advocates staunchly believe in the natural approach.
They say American studies have linked excessive chemical use in food to cancer and other serious medical problems.
Michaels says it is clear that organic food, especially that which is grown at home (thus eliminating the need for transportation) is best for the body.
“There are pesticides in use in Australia that have been banned for 10 years in other western countries,” she says.
“There are health issues there that people are worried about.”
The term neutraceutical comes from a combination of the words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical” and indicates those foods, or food supplements, that are meant to boost health.
Followers eat diets that are high in natural antioxidants or flavanoids and so consume large amounts of foods such as blueberries, tomatoes and broccoli, which are believed to have health-giving properties and are considered by many to be cancer fighters.
About two-thirds of Americans are thought to be following some form of a neutraceutical diet, so it probably won’t be long before the trend catches on here.
Vegetarianism is probably as old as the human race, but more consumers are taking up forms of vegetarianism in response to environmental and health concerns.
“More and more studies are showing the benefits of this form of diet,” says Mark Berriman, director of the Australian Vegetarian Society.
Plus, an ever-larger number of consumers are worried about the environmental impact of mass animal production, especially because livestock are huge producers of methane gas.
Animal welfare concerns and the soaring cost of meat are also turning more people on to a meat-free lifestyle.
“Thirty years ago, I went to an Indian restaurant and there was only one vegetarian dish on the menu – all that’s changed now,” Berriman says. “There’s certainly growing interest.”
Freegans are people who attempt to eat as much as possible for free.
Billed as an anti-consumer group, this fringe organisation claims it is helping to reduce carbon output by consuming what others have rejected.
A 2006 Australia Institute report found an increasing number of young, educated urban dwellers are interested in the practice.
Typically, freegans eat packaged food that shops throw out. The produce should be unopened and within the use-by date.
With about 15 per cent of food produce going to waste, the practice may have benefits.