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Festivities and food miles

2013-12-29 10:24:01

(China Daily) By PAULINE D. LOH


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'm home in Singapore, and this rare occasion alone is reason enough to celebrate, so my 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 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.

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