Paucity of Choice

By Rob Symons

This is my 38th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life

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I cannot help noticing whenever I go shopping or eat out, the steadily diminishing variety and diversity of food. Everything has become generic, homogenised, standardised and franchised.

I still have a memory from my school days of being taken by my parents to the old Roma restaurant. The menu was of biblical proportions compared to today’s average. I still remember all the various national restaurants with their wide range of cuisines and ingredients.

Seafood featured strongly on all menus and I remember the seafood grills on Durban beachfront. There was a wonderful diversity of fish to choose from. Now you are lucky to get Norwegian farmed salmon as your fish of the day.

I am also seeing decreasing diversity in the stores. Vegetables are being reduced in variety to a few generic potatoes, tomatoes and cabbages. The desired characteristics in a vegetable are no longer those of taste and nutrition, but rather those that suite the distribution chain, such as tough skins and resistance to bruising. This has resulted in an increase of tasteless conformity on the shelves.

As a farmer I see another threat to the diversity of our food choices. The availability of seed is now being threatened. Lettuce is a case in point. Not so long ago there was a healthy variety of seed to choose from, but now our choices are limited. Many varieties have simply been discontinued while most lettuce seed is now processed into a pelleted form that is unsuitable for organic farming.

The rationale for this homogenisation and simplification is one of efficiency. Under the present industrial paradigm this makes sense, but it leaves us poorer and results in a more vulnerable food system. Bananas these days are mostly a single variety and this lack of genetic diversity is starting to be problematic. Viral diseases and pests are starting to have significant impacts on banana farmers worldwide. Costa Rica has declared a national emergency as its bananas are devastated by disease.

Organic farmers are now responding to the lack of seed varieties by starting their own seed saving schemes. The older crop varieties are open pollinated and therefore viable for seed saving. Newer varieties are increasingly being protected under intellectual property rights and cannot be resown by farmers.

If we can protect the diversity of our seed stocks we will be able ensure a richer and more varied harvest. Hopefully this will result in more interesting and diverse shop shelves and restaurant menus.

While there is hope in fresh produce production there is sadly not much hope with seafood. A combination of environmental mismanagement and overfishing has resulted in our fish stocks being depleted. Conventional farming has been one of the main culprits in polluting our rivers and and affecting fish breeding in our estuaries.

Opting for more sustainable farming and food production could turn this bleak situation around. Diverse shelves and menus will be an indicator of a healthier environment.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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