Before you eat, ponder the miracle of food

We should never take a hearty meal for granted. [1 January 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Far reaches of the food chain: Hobart ecologist Dr Klaus Meiners (pictured) has found that the thickness of Antarctic sea ice is a key factor in the ocean’s food chain. PHOTO WENDY PYPER

This is the season for food, and lots of it. Celebrating times of plenty with a feast is a tradition as old as humanity. Who would want it otherwise?

I was brought up to pause before tucking in, to thank God for good food. With a waning belief in the almighty, saying grace dropped off my agenda, but before each meal I still find myself privately reminding myself of my good fortune. One day I might go back to saying it aloud.

Before you embark on your New Year feast, I suggest you too pause for a moment to consider what it takes to bring food to your table.

Our food comes from living things, all of which depend on an unchanging sequence of natural events — bacteria and fungi doing their stuff, insects pollinating flowers, rain and sun at the right times — to reproduce and grow. We take this for granted, but it’s nothing short of a miracle.

Here’s another miracle: year upon year in Australia and other prosperous countries, food keeps coming to the supermarket shelves and the fast food outlets, where the small matter of how it got there becomes secondary to how much we’re having to pay for it.

The Australia Institute has calculated that each year in this country we discard over three million tonnes of food: as much as a quarter of the national food supply. Our disregard of such statistics, repeatedly aired in the media, suggests a supremely complacent attitude to food.

Once, everyone knew how fickle a food supply could be. When people prayed their foremost plea to God was to “give us this day our daily bread”. Now, sophisticated economies, technologies and delivery systems keep everything flowing smoothly.

We keep hearing about bad harvests, scarcity and famine, but our smart systems keep hidden from us, the end users, the difficulties involved in keeping us all fed. Problems are heavily disguised, but they’re still there.

Unlike the farmers and others whose toil brings the raw produce to the retail market, most of us remain oblivious of the fickleness of natural and human processes that can make food production such a difficult and uncertain undertaking.

Australia is a big exporter of wheat, a major global staple. When the massive drought that ended in 2009 caused multiple wheat crop failures, people in poor countries suffered food shortages, as they have from subsequent failed Northern Hemisphere harvests caused by droughts and floods.

A US scientific analysis of nearly 50 years of global key food harvests published a fortnight ago found that the so-called “Green Revolution” has stalled, with serious yield declines in China and India, and that wheat and rice yields are declining more than those of corn and soybean.

The study found that in the past decade, corn and soybeans have increasingly been serving livestock feedlots and ethanol production. That is, crop improvement efforts have been focused not on feeding people, but on fattening animals and fuelling cars.

News isn’t all bad. A massive Australian government study released just before Christmas showed that more than 90 per cent of stocks of key Australian fish species are sustainable. The report was the world’s most comprehensive fish stock assessment ever, compiled by nearly 80 scientists.

But not all good news: the report also found that two species — southern bluefin tuna and school shark — are overfished. We should keep them off the menu until further notice.

Two exclusively Tasmanian items off the menu are east coast scallops and rock lobsters. Both fisheries were victims of a toxic algal bloom this spring, a result of rapidly warming sea water. With warming expected to continue, once-rare algal blooms are set to become more frequent.

Just as with individual species, each of Earth’s ecosystems is inextricably linked to other systems. Predators have an important role in ecosystem health, but they are also vulnerable to even tiny changes in the systems. Count humans among those vulnerable predators.

Science is ahead of the rest of us. Biologists know that no species, food or otherwise, should be seen in isolation. All life forms, including humans, depend on what’s happening with a multitude of other species — and not just the ones in close proximity.

Antarctic krill serves as prey for virtually all the Southern Ocean’s larger animals. Its well-being is a good indicator of the health of the whole ocean ecosystem, including those parts from which we draw sustenance. Its survival through early spring depends on algae growing under sea ice.

Ecologists led by Dr Klaus Meiners from Hobart’s Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC have amassed a dataset of 1300 drill cores from Antarctic sea ice yielding for the first time a full picture of the distribution of under-ice algae, among the most difficult species on the planet to study.

This international study, venturing deep into Antarctica’s sea ice zone, has highlighted ice algae’s critical dependence on sea ice being between 0.4 m and 1 m thick, and its vulnerability to changes in the ice’s thickness over time. Such are the vagaries of Earth’s ecosystems.

Our future depends absolutely on the sustained well-being of agriculture and fisheries, along with the ecosystems on which they’re based. Each is exceptionally vulnerable to climate change, yet neither rated a mention at the 2012 UN climate meeting just ended. They deserved better.

That shouldn’t stop the rest of us from giving them and all the world’s natural systems some attention of our own. Here for your consideration is my offering of a “grace”:

“We acknowledge the labour of many people that brought this food to our table. We recognise that it is a gift of our planet’s functioning natural systems. We pledge to do all that we can to protect and enhance these systems, and we give thanks for all the many blessings they bestow on us.”

• THE DEATHS of Del Weston and Gavin Mooney at their Mountain River home last month brought a tragic end to their lifelong efforts to build a culture of questioning and a society that is more equal, just and environmentally-aware. They leave a rich legacy in thought and deed, in Australia and around the world.

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