At One with Nature

Sustainable Food - there’s a lot at steak

Sue Parker looks at dilemmas facing the food industry

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, March 27th 2015. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve. More information about Algarve Resident...

Maronesa cattle in Portugal
Above: a breeder and his cattle- Sr. Daniel Filipe Sanches Ribeiro with two young Maronesa cows

Change: it’s what made the present so different from the past and will make the future quite unlike the world we know today. Whether we like it or not, some changes are either unavoidable or solely matters of chance: we will age; we might win the lottery. We accept the inevitable, the unavoidable as outcomes beyond our control. Other factors that determine our future are, at least to some degree, the results of our choices.

One option always is ‘wait and see’- do nothing and hope for the best. Despite recent disasters and continual climate-change warnings based on scientific evidence, within six months of vast areas of England’s Somerset Levels being submerged people were again buying properties there at pretty much pre-flood prices. They have chosen to wait until the future happens to them - a matter of when, not if.

Often we have another option. We can help make the future more acceptable by taking the initiative and changing something. All too often what needs changing is our own behaviour, and that’s when things get difficult. Do nothing and the situation could get either worse or better, but we will always wonder whether things would have turned out better if we had acted decisively rather than let Apathy rule our behaviour.

Take food, for instance. Research indicates that production of key staples has peaked. That does not mean output is now plummeting, but the drive for ever higher yields has ground to a halt. Our ability to produce people has not slowed, however, and so the food available per head of population will reduce. Public information campaigns have raised awareness of how much food is thrown away each year, fuelled in part by supermarkets’ buy one, get one free inducements to purchase more than we really need.

Even small herds of cattle make paths which can act as fire breaks
Above: Even small herds of these rugged cattle will forge paths through forest to create vital firebreaks

Responsible restaurants have taken this matter onboard too, but for them waste is only part of the problem. Sustainability is a word increasingly on the lips of some of our most famous chefs, as more and more restaurants across Europe take unsustainable beef off their menus. And now there is a new organisation, The Sustainable Restaurant Association, supporting the growing number of establishments keen to polish up their environmental credentials.

Although sustainably sourced ingredients are a big part of the work, other aspects of restaurant management are also included this movement for change. Furniture is recycled; computerised systems help to minimise energy used in heating, cooling and air extraction; and work rosters are managed so that more disadvantaged people are able to find jobs in the industry.

A year ago I wrote an article about the True Nature Foundation’s Uruz Project, which aims to find and breed cattle as closely related as possible to the ancient Aurochs that feature in Neolithic cave paintings. These hardy beasts can graze marginal land that is of no use for other types of farming.  The grain grown to fatten cattle in America alone could feed 800 million people around the world rather than being just part of the diet of the wealthy few who can afford the price of beef. There is another price to be paid for such unsustainable cattle farming: the damage that it does to the environment.

Gonçalo Figueira, Project Manager in Portugal for the Uruz Project, says that three years into the project many rare primitive cattle have been traced, particularly within the Maronesa breed. The more closely related they are to ancient breeds the better they are at resisting disease, coping with inhospitable weather, battling predators and surviving on natural resources found in the wild.

Breeding and stocking these durable animals is of great benefit to the environment. While consuming rank vegetation and opening up paths, they help restore the quantity and diversity of native flora and fauna. In areas where wildfires do enormous damage to valuable land, these ancient breeds also create natural fire breaks.

Mama Mia Restaurant in Monte Carvoeiro
Above: Mama Mia Restaurant in Monte Carvoeiro, where the Proprietor and Chef try to source food and wine locally wherever possible.

And what of restaurants in the Algarve which may, one day soon, feed us some of this born-again ancient meat? I spoke to one of the region’s top restaurant owners At de Bruin, who for many years ran the famous Bon Bon restaurant in Carvoeiro. Today, both for the Mama Mia restaurant in Monte Carvoeiro and for his rapidly-growing outside catering operation, he sources ingredients locally whenever possible - as indeed do many other Algarve restaurateurs - and he is a strong supporter of local vineyards.  In the current economic environment he says that embracing the ideal of sustainable operation is very difficult for most restaurants in Portugal. The recent increase in VAT and escalating costs related to government regulation of the catering industry makes survival ever more difficult, leaving restaurant owners little choice but to go for the cheapest rather than the most environmentally sound and sustainable option. That may work in the short term, but it is a strategy with no long-term prospects.

When it comes to food and eating out, discerning customers are increasingly aware that they get what they pay for. Driven by fierce supermarket competition, the price of food in Europe is cheaper now than at almost any time in our history, but there is no doubt that someone somewhere is paying the price for it.

More information about the Uruz Project see: The True Nature Foundation...

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