Archive for the ‘Sustainable diets’ Category

May 1: Celebrating Workers’ Day…with a twist

May 1, 2011

You might be wondering why I’m celebrating International Workers’ Day on a blog related to food. The answer is simple: Unless we are self-sufficient and produce our own food, we rely on hundreds, if not thousands of workers around the world to do it for us.

In Medieval Europe, the first day in May was celebrated as a general holiday to herald the coming of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. During the 1880s workers used the existing holiday as a day to celebrate workers’ solidarity. In 1890, Workers’ Day was recognised internationally for the first time.

Workers’ Day reminds us that all people who work deserve a fair wage and decent working conditions. It also reminds us of the importance of establishing justice and a sense of responsibility and caring in the workplace.

Well today in Malta it’s a beautiful spring day and I wanted to take the opportunity to link this special celebration day with our food choices… especially as they apply to our islands.

Do you ever consider where your food is produced and by whom?

A basic rule is to, as much as possible, opt for local food to sustain local farmers, producers and workers.

Where feasible buy directly from farms, wayside vendors, Farmers’ markets. Read the labels on the fruit and vegetable produce crates or price tags to check the origin; or ask  the vendor.

Make the effort to learn which foods other than fruits and vegetables are produced locally. Apart from the staple fresh products such as bread, dairy, cold cuts and pastries, check out frozen, canned and dried packaged foods as well. Tomato, vegetable and fruit products, as well as frozen pizzas, pies and pasta dishes are some things which come to mind.

And do not forget the myriad of tea-time pastries and preserves. The market is being flooded with imported cakes, muffins and cookies; yet we can boast a vast array of traditional tea-time sweets which are still being produced by local bakeries. These are available directly from the bakeries (where there’s nothing which beats the aroma of these freshly baked products – particularly qagħaq tal- ħmira [sweet dough rings], my downfall), from corner shops, supermarkets, mobile vendors, open-markets and now even the soon-to-open new Artisan Market in Vittoriosa.

This Artisan Market also selling food is a fairly new concept for Malta and will offer the opportunity for local producers to market their organic or ‘aiming to be organic’ fruit, vegetables, juices, cheese, herbs, breads, eggs, preserves, wines and honey….and for us consumers to buy them. Whilst it enriches our taste palate and cultural appreciation to consume foods from around the world, acknowledging and more frequently opting for the products of local workers is a sustainable action to consider.

Of course, buying only locally produced food is something which most of us Maltese cannot envisage and practically adhere to. So when it comes to choosing imported foods what can we keep in mind? In keeping with the Workers’ Day theme, I wanted to emphasise Fairtrade products.

Buying Fairtrade foods means that you are buying foods which have been produced in a way which respects the farmers’ and workers’ rights to a fair price, good working conditions and a healthy and thriving living community.

The basic standards for a product to be certified Fairtrade are spelt out in the Fairtrade Foundation’s website as follows:

– Ensure a guaranteed Fairtrade minimum price, which is agreed with producers

– Provide an additional Fairtrade premium, which can be invested in projects that enhance social, economic and environmental development

– Enable pre-financing for producers who require it

– Emphasize the idea of partnership between trade partners

– Facilitate mutually beneficial long-term trading relationships

– Set clear minimum and progressive criteria to ensure that the conditions for the production and trade of a product are socially and economically fair and environmentally responsible.

(http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/what_is_fairtrade/fairtrade_certification_and_the_fairtrade_mark/fairtrade_standards.aspx)

The availability of Fairtrade food products is still limited in Malta. Here I mean both physical and economic availability. A few of the larger supermarkets and one local Fairtrade speciality shop in Valletta (http://www.l-arka.org/) will stock items such as coffee, tea, juices, wine, beer, chocolate, pasta, rice, barley, couscous, biscuits, muesli, preserves, spreads, sweets, packet snacks, sugar and spices. (Actually whilst I’m writing I’m thinking this is quite a good range of products.) The reality is that these retail outlets are not convenient for all and, perhaps, what is more restrictive is that in many cases the prices may be quite high compared to non-Fair trade products. Still, whilst you might not include such products on your weekly food shopping list, it is worth considering buying some of the more longer-lasting items. Additionally, these products will surely make a meaningful birthday, Christmas, Father or Mother’s Day gift for anyone who believes in the principles of Fairtrade, sustainability and workers’ rights.

So today, as you are drinking your coffee or juice, or nibbling on a biscuit, give a thought to all those workers who have helped to bring that product to your table. Consider how you can contribute more to their wellbeing and to sustainable development. Start consuming more local and more Fairtrade products, and encourage others to do the same. In Margaret Mead’s words “Never doubt the ability of a small group of committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

(For more on Fairtrade you can also visit the DOLCETA Consumer Education website – www.dolceta.eu. Click on Sustainable Consumption and search for ‘fair trade’.)

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Good for you; good for the environment

December 28, 2010

(Image (c) Barilla; Source: http://www.barillacfn.com/en/pyramid)

As we approach the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, typically many of us are making their New Year’s resolutions.  A common resolution is to improve our diet – “I must cut down on those high-fat, high-salt packet snacks”. “I should really ban fizzy sugary drinks from our dinner table.” “I need to drink more water.” The goal is often to manage our weight and to safeguard against illness and health problems. Good for us!

But have you ever stopped to think that choosing to improve our diet as a New Year’s resolution might have additional value…beyond personal gain?  Well it does! It can also help to safeguard the natural environment.

You have probably often heard the food-related slogan “Good for you, good for the environment.” Some of you may already use it in your educational settings. It seems, however, that this food choice principle is now being given much more importance both by governments and by industry.

In 2009, the government of Sweden proposed a new set of dietary guidelines combining health and environmental impact. (http://www.slv.se/upload/dokument/miljo/environmentally_effective_food_choices_proposal_eu_2009.pdf) Recommendations in the Environmentally Effective Food Choices proposal included: eating locally produced meat, chicken, fruits, vegetables and berries, eating sustainable fish, avoiding bottled water and palm oil, and limiting rice consumption (as its production results in large amounts of methane). Unfortunately, these guidelines were not approved by the EU Commission who said that they would encourage Swedish consumers to choose locally produced products at the expense of products from other countries, which contravenes the principles of free movement of goods in the EU internal market. Although the original proposers (the National Food Administration) made revisions to the guidelines to address this criticism, the Swedish government eventually decided to withdraw the proposed guidelines.

Nonetheless, this interest in guiding consumers on the food and sustainability link is gaining momentum in Europe.

This past September the German Council for Sustainable Development published their updated Sustainable Shopping Basket guide. (http://www.nachhaltigkeitsrat.de/fileadmin/user_upload/English/pdf/publications/brochures/Brochure_Sustainable_Shopping_Basket_September_2010.pdf) With respect to food they recommend that the consumer’s shopping basket “should contain above all  healthy food products, organic products,  seasonal fruit and vegetables grown locally,  less meat and fish, fair-trade products and beverages in recyclable packaging units.” The guide also explains sustainability-related labels to look for when making food choices.

The above Swedish and German recommendations are in tune with a December 2009 report by the UK’s Sustainable Consumption Commission which mapped out synergies and tensions between public health, the environment, economic stability and social inequalities. ( http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications/downloads/Setting_the_Table.pdf) The Setting the Table’s priority recommendation for changes likely to have the most significant and immediate impact on making our diets more sustainable was: Reduce consumption of meat, dairy products, and fatty and sugary (low nutritional value) foods, and waste less food.

The food industry is also pitching in with their research and guidance. Just recently, in December 2010, the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) published what they called a Double Pyramid to graphically represent the link between the well-known food pyramid and the generation of greenhouse gases, water use and the ecological footprint. (http://www.barillacfn.com/en/pyramid) Although the food pyramid depicted is not the same as that of the WHO Europe CINDI Healthy Eating Guide, its concept is the same and food group placements are similar. Eat-often foods found at the base of the food pyramid, such as bread, pasta and wholegrains are shown to have a lower impact on the environment than meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and fats, oils and sweets found higher up in the pyramid. In other words, recommended foods for health are more environment-friendly and vice-versa.

The Double Pyramid and the rationale behind it was presented at an open debate at the European Parliament and discussed by a panel of MEPs and food policy experts. MEP Paolo de Castro warned: “The issue of food supply, fuelled in recent years by the exponential growth in demand, particularly in some areas of the world, is leading us onto dangerous ground. Food is destined to become an insufficient and costly resource. Today’s challenge is to increase productivity, with fewer resources and less pollution.”

These words echo those of Professor Joan Gussow, noted American nutritionist and environmental scientist, who nearly a quarter of a century ago, wrote ”Learning to view foods as more than just sources of nutrients may guide consumers toward sustainable food choices. A shift to sustainable diets would be an important first step in widespread adoption of a sustainable agriculture policy that promotes the conservation of natural resources and regional self-reliance in food production and consumption.”

So if you are teaching or writing about the food pyramid, food groups and healthy eating, there is very good reason to also emphasise the sustainability link. (For more on this you might also want to check out the Dolceta website on Sustainable consumption [http://www.dolceta.eu/malta/Mod5/spip.php?rubrique1], as well as Seasonal and Sustainable an interesting recipe book recently published by my Home Economist colleague Karen Mugliett [http://www.timesofmalta.com/life/view/20101211/news/healthy-cuisine-for-every-season].)

And finally, as you make your New Year’s resolutions, choose one or two related to sustainable food consumption. Remember that from the health perspective: What’s good for you is very probably good for the environment.