Oranges, Italy, and a few other things

I’ve been spoilt. Earlier this year, I spent a week savouring some of the best oranges I’m ever likely to taste. The oranges of Sorrento, Italy, were beautifully sweet and easy to peel because they were local. Citrus groves were the passing scenery on many walks and train rides.

Citrus Groves Sorrento Italy

Sorrento oranges felt like an indulgence because they were so far removed from their Australian counterparts in texture and taste. Australian oranges have clearly been bred for transport because, to put it bluntly, they are a motherf**ker to peel. But how do we know these ‘Australian’ oranges are Australian grown? Although Australia has many citrus-growing regions, it’s likely that many of these crops are exported. California is an iconic orange-growing region, but San Diegans were puzzled to find that the fruits of their labour were not necessarily the ones they were eating. It seems there’s a kind of musical orange chairs around the world.

In Venice we rented an apartment with a full kitchen, and enjoyed making our own meals. From a small fruit and vegetable stall in a quiet side street we bought a few items to accompany a lamb roast. “Per favore, cinque pomodori, e due… uh…questo” (this was usually accompanied by some sheepish pointing at the vegetable we did not know the name for). As we sat down to our Italian-style meat-and-three-veg, I became aware that I was experiencing tomato, potato and eggplant in a way I simply hadn’t before. In Sorrento, the magic was in the volcanic soil around Mt Vesuvius, but other factors were also at play. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, Italians have standards; they would turn up their noses at the weak and watery sorry excuses for an Australian tomato. Another factor is food miles. A 2008 study by Brunswick environmental group CERES found that fruit and vegetables (excluding juices) travelled an average of 463 miles (745 kilometres) from farm gate to shop. The average in Italy was 27 miles (43 kilometres) according to one estimate.

(Before I rose-tint my time in Italy too much, I need to make a disclaimer. For most of the trip, we were hard-pressed to find breakfast fare that wasn’t insubstantial sugar-laden crap. We ate our fair share of shit tourist food, not because we chose to, but because, in some places, that’s all there was.)

Recently I popped ‘Food Inc.’ into my DVD player and, within the first five minutes I was hit by some disturbing statistics. The modern American supermarket has on average 47,000 products. However, the notion of ‘choice’ is largely illusory: there’s only a few multinational companies involved, and only a few crops involved. Michael Pollan has written extensively on the food system, and he suggests that so much of our industrial food turns out to be clever rearrangements of corn. 30 percent of the US land base is planted with corn. Farm subsidies are entering their fifth decade, and allow industrial-scale farms to sell their harvest below the cost of production. Of the $20 billion in agricultural subsidies that the US government spent in 2005, 46 percent went for corn production. [1]

All of this excess corn has to end up somewhere. High Fructose Corn Syrup is a sweetener that finds its way into almost every packet on the shelves of US supermarkets. It seems the human metabolism is not well adapted to all this highly-processed fructose. Since 1985, in parallel with the rising ubiquity of HFCS, there has been a six-fold increase in cases of diabetes globally.[2] For farmers who are unlucky enough to have missed the corn, soybean, cotton or wheat bandwagon, things can get desperate. The rate of suicide among US farmers is three times higher than for the population as a whole.[3]

And here’s another ‘whoa’ moment, courtesy of Food Inc: The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than it has in the last 10,000. If this is true, then the way we shop today compared to 50 years ago is also drastically different.

In the early 1950s my mum was kindergarten-aged, and the milk bar and butcher were a few houses down. Farm supplies, chook feed, and fruit and veg, were sold at a big shed known as the ‘Cressy’, only a block away. Pantry items like flour and sugar were a 20 minute walk away, at the SSW supermarket on Latrobe Terrace. Biscuits could be bought individually. Broken ones were not destined for landfill, but rather were kept in a separate tin, and used for lemon slice or hedgehog. Customers would place their hand-written list on the counter, which would then be prepared and packaged by staff (a far cry from the self-serve shopping of today). The SSW could also do deliveries by bike.

Service was personalised; families were familiar with the people who served them from week to week. Likewise the man who delivered loaves of bread to your back door. Leave your empty bottles at the front door, and the milkman would replenish them. To top it all off, a van selling fresh fruit and veg made the rounds of the neighbourhood once a week or maybe more.

‘Family’ blocks of ice-cream were encased in cardboard. There were only two flavours to choose from – vanilla or neapolitan. One block would provide one night’s dessert for a large family. This was a rare, ephemeral treat, and there were no seconds. Ask for an ice-cream at your local milk bar and one would likely be scooped into a cone for you – this was a time before packaged ice-creams as we know them. Some of the first brand-name ice-creams were Eskimo Pie and Streets’ ‘Heart’, and they often came wrapped in paper.

Grocery shopping, for most Australians, now involves getting in a car, and driving to one of two giants: Woolworths, or Wesfarmers (the conglomerate that owns Coles). (It is interesting to note that where Coles and Kmart now sit in High street, Belmont, there was formerly a paddock used for agriculture – my mum can remember a little market garden that was developed by a Chinese family living there). The Coles/Woolies face-off is a Goliath vs. Goliath battle, as each tries vainly to cast the other in shadow, for however brief a time. But are they really trying that hard? Perhaps behind our backs they’re winking and tapping their noses at each other, thick as thieves? Last year, they ganged up on farmers and suppliers, by dropping the price of a litre of milk to $1.

(Aldi has a 7 percent market share of the grocery sector in eastern capitals. Although they have some of the best supermarket chocolate I’ve ever tasted, they are not regarded as a place where a family can do a ‘full shop’.) Apparently $8 out of every $10 spent on groceries is not enough for the big two. In petrol retailing, they have a combined market share of more than 45 percent. They hold at least 60 percent of the liquor, clubs and hotels industry and 60.5 per cent of department stores through Big W, Kmart and Target. Wesfarmers’ Bunnings controls upwards of 56 percent of hardware retailing.

So what is the solution to all this concentration of (super)markets? Age journalist Michael Short suggests that we can boycott the big two supermarkets. Vote with our wallet, and all that crap. But in the suburbs of many Australian towns and cities, it is nigh on impossible not to get sucked into their vortex.


[1] R Albritton, ‘Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry’, in L Panitch & C Leys (eds.), Morbid Symptoms: Health Under Capitalism, The Merlin Press, London, 2009, p.185

[2] ibid, p.186

[3] ibid, p.192.

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