Do your bit on World Food Day - cook a meal from scratch tonight
Food production has done more to change the natural landscape than any other human activity and most of these changes have occurred in the last fifty years. In Brazil, soy cultivation for chicken feed, particularly in China and increasingly to meet African demand, has grown from 14 000 to 60 000 hectares in 30 years, with plans to cultivate 180 000 hectares. World renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle echoes this growing demand on the world’s ocean resources in her response to where the best dive sites might be found. Anywhere, she says, 50 years ago.
In this half century, less than one life span, our diets have also changed dramatically. According to Michael Pollan in his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, human diets have changed more in this short period than in the last 10 000 years.
As our ecosystems have declined, so too has the nutritional value of our food. This can be attributed to the decreased nutritional quality in the produce of industrial farming practices as well as the dramatic increase in the availability of processed food.
South Africans, who are a prime example of this, are undergoing a nutrition transition, eating more fast food and more processed foods which are high in simple sugars, fats and salt but low in micronutrients and fibre. McDonald’s considers South Africa one of the most successful markets in its international history. A record was set when South Africa opened 30 restaurants in just 23 months, at one stage opening 10 restaurants in 78 days. Less frequent home cooking and increasing consumption of fast food has become a growing trend.
The results of this nutrition transition are evident in the growing obesity rates and the prevalence of non-communicable diseases like type-2 diabetes and heart disease and the disproportionate levels of nutritional deficiencies in young children.
The cruel irony is that South Africa demonstrates a high prevalence of hunger in urban and rural areas impacting 20% of the population – or more than 14 million South Africans.
The impact of these nutritionally low foods on our bodies is mirrored by the negative impact these highly processed convenience food have on the environment. Processed foods requires more energy and water for less calorific return and WWF research shows that processed foods have the highest freight carbon footprint across road corridors in the country. The food waste in processing and preparing this food, not to mention the disposal of uneaten food is also unnecessarily high. The changes in our food production has been so extensive that we cannot fully understand its myriad of interconnected demands and impacts.
There is no denying that healthier options like fish, lean meat and fruits and vegetables are more expensive than the processed alternatives like maize and bread. The poorest South Africans are spending 35% and more of their income on food every month and are still only able to buy the cheapest food.
But our food choices are as much a function of convenience and affordability as they are of preference and marketing. We can start by making informed choices, by reclaiming our kitchens and our ability to nurture ourselves and our children.
There is a powerful antidote to the transition we have unwittingly embarked on. Learn to love the kitchen. Cook more, waste less of what you buy and care more about what you put in your body. What’s cooking in your kitchen this World Food Day?