Fes­tiv­i­ties and food miles

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE - PAULINE D. LOH CHI­NESE WHISPERS

This week, we de­mol­ished about 4 kilo­grams of baby pork ribs, two whole lamb legs and about another kg of chicken wings. To be fair, we had a lot of help to eat them, and it was over four meals through Christ­mas Eve, Christ­mas and Box­ing Day.

Even so, the prover­bial cold meat sand­wiches will be se­ri­ously tax­ing our culi­nary cre­ativ­ity.

I’mhome in Sin­ga­pore, and this rare oc­ca­sion alone is rea­son enough to cel­e­brate, somy son and I are hap­pily bond­ing in the kitchen, in real time. The rest of the year, we mostly talk through iMes­sage and WeChat, shar­ing our culi­nary tri­umphs and fail­ures with pho­tos sent over the won­der-apps.

It’s good to be home, and one of the first things I did was to visit our neigh­bor­hood su­per­mar­ket.

Its abun­dance al­most over­whelmed me.

There were fresh cran­ber­ries di­rect from the United States, per­fect per­sim­mons from Is­rael, sweet tan­ger­ines from China, grain-fed pork from Aus­tralia, beef from Ja­pan, and chick­ens and tur­keys from neigh­bor­ing Malaysia. There was a cor­nu­copia of fruits and nuts for the Christ­mas ta­ble, and lit­tle pack­ets of fresh herbs that made me sing out “pars­ley, sage, rose­mary and thyme”.

It struck me then that Sin­ga­pore prac­ti­cally im­ports ev­ery bite of food it con­sumes.

We are a lit­tle na­tion, where econ­omy of scale nat­u­rally loses all ad­van­tage and we are used to mak­ing the best of ev­ery­thing, how­ever poor the re­sources. I think we have been marginally suc­cess­ful.

The only thing we can­not do is to eat lo­cal, ac­cord­ing to the prin­ci­ples preached by Carlo Petrini. Each Sin­ga­porean con­sumes prob­a­bly more food miles than the av­er­age world cit­i­zen, and there is pre­cious lit­tle we can do about it.

We pro­duce some eggs, some hy­dro­pon­i­cally grown veg­eta­bles and a few mush­rooms and herbs. But that’s about it. The weather is hot and wet, and most of us live in high-rise apart­ments where it takes great de­ter­mi­na­tion to per­suade veg­eta­bles to grow.

I still re­mem­ber a sad lit­tle pot of co­rian­der. The shoots grew up spindly and pale, and then died af­ter I for­got to wa­ter them one day. The heat sim­ply fried them.

Now con­trast this with Bei­jing.

It has a rea­son­able amount of arable land in the sub­urbs, a pool of farm­ers with tra­di­tional knowl­edge on how to till the land and coax an abun­dant har­vest out of

Farms in China are en­cour­aged to pro­duce huge amounts of ce­re­als and veg­eta­bles to feed a huge na­tion. Some­times, ev­ery­thing goes over­board in the man­age­ment of pes­ti­cide and fer­til­iz­ers that will help in­crease yield.

it, and four sea­sons that al­low con­sumers a wide va­ri­ety of choices from spring to win­ter.

There is no rea­son not to eat lo­cal in Bei­jing. My ayi (house­keeper) is har­vest­ing a crop of gar­lic shoots right in the mid­dle of sub-zero tem­per­a­tures, and our per­sim­mon trees were fes­tooned with orange ear­lier in au­tumn. Al­ready she is plot­ting out cab­bage patches, bean poles and a canopy of grapes.

So why are we still strug­gling so hard to pro­mote good, hon­est food that is grown and bred lo­cally?

The an­swer lies in econ­omy of scale, al­though of a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Farms in China are en­cour­aged to pro­duce huge amounts of ce­re­als and veg­eta­bles to feed a huge na­tion. Some­times, ev­ery­thing goes over­board in the man­age­ment of pes­ti­cide and fer­til­iz­ers that will help in­crease yield.

Pro­duc­tion quo­tas linked to the vil­lage, city and county GDP goals also in­flate the prob­lem. It also digs up that ugly is­sue of food safety.

Many farm­ers, too, do not have the so­phis­ti­ca­tion to pre­dict de­mand, so if radishes fetch a good price this year, ev­ery­one starts plant­ing more radishes, re­sult­ing in a glut which pushes prices down.

In many agri­cul­tural ar­eas, co­op­er­a­tives are start­ing to make their in­flu­ence felt in con­trol­ling prices, and help­ing farm­ers plan bet­ter.

There are no in­stant an­swers, of course, other than to pro­mote bet­ter aware­ness that the pro­duc­tion of food is a sa­cred mis­sion, and that you must pro­duce food you would feed your own chil­dren.

Then, and only then, will our din­ing ta­bles get back their nat­u­ral equi­lib­rium. Con­tact the writer at paulined@ chi­nadaily.com.cn.

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