Bring back ugly fish and dirty lettuce: calls for a sustainable, healthy diet

Top chefs and gastronomic experts are campaigning to clean up our eating habits Food activists say the choice lies with consumers

Cádiz-based chef Ángel León uses discard fish at his restaurant
Cádiz-based chef Ángel León uses discard fish at his restaurant

What's the story behind the tomato I am about to slice for my salad? Who grew it and how? Were they paid fairly for their work? Does it come from a nearby market garden or did it travel thousands of miles? Is there justice in this tomato?

The Repsol Foundation and the non-profit group Alianza por la Solidaridad try to answer these and other questions in their joint publication Recetas para un mundo mejor (Recipes for a better world), a fair trade project supported by celebrity chefs Joan Roca, Carme Ruscadella, Paco Roncero, Martín Berasategui and Andoni Luis Aduriz.

This is just the latest example of gastronomical activism, which aims to encourage fairer forms of food production and consumption. The movement is slowly spreading across Spain, aided by social networks and renowned chefs who lend their name to the cause.

But they are not the only ones to participate in this movement. Growers, fishermen, bloggers, cooks... the crisis has raised across-the-board social awareness of how food is part of a nation's economy, health, culture and environment.

Figures show that there are more than enough reasons to create a critical mass of responsible producers and consumers: nearly one billion people are going hungry in the world, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. Basque chef Martín Berasategui believes this is the first problem that should be tackled, because it mostly affects children.

The sea is a great pantry that we should use if we are smart about it"

The rational use of natural resources is one of the main fronts in this battle. The Cádiz chef Ángel León is a pioneer as one of the first people to cook with discard fish - the unwanted catch that is often thrown back into the sea dead because EU quotas have been reached - at his acclaimed restaurant Aponiente, in Puerto de Santa María. León works actively to create awareness about the work of fishermen.

"I'm trying to blaze a new trail, to get people to accept the sea the way it is. It's a great pantry that we should use if we are smart," he says. He himself cooks with fish which are considered ugly or don't even have a name. The chef underscores the effects of passing trends: " Carabineros (large, deep-red prawns) used to be thrown to the cats, and now they cost 65 euros a kilogram."

The campaign Ni un pez por la borda (which began in Britain as Fish Fight), has received significant media coverage because of its alarming figures: 1.3 million metric tons of fish are tossed overboard either dead or badly hurt in the EU.

But wasteful practices are also on display on an everyday basis at distribution plants and households everywhere. "For absurd motives we want to buy perfect food. We throw out things that could be consumed," says the journalist and popular food blogger Mikel López Iturriaga.

Farms are disappearing and Spain is losing its food sovereignty"

Other movements stress the importance of supporting local products. The Slow Food Movement (SFM), created in 1989 and now boasting around 100,000 members around the world, seeks "food diversity and quality, and respect for nature," says its Madrid coordinator Juan José Burgos. Secretary general of SFM International, Paolo di Croce, notes that "90 percent of the apples consumed around the world come from only four varieties."

People like the US chef Dan Barber, who feels that every cook is "by definition" an activist, and Spain's Rodrigo de la Calle, have made local products a key element on their menus. "Supermarkets sell us the fantasy that everything is available all year round. This has an effect on the quality of what we eat," adds López Iturriaga.

But the accessibility of local products depends on one's geographical location, explain bloggers and activists Jorge Guitián and Anna Mayer. In a conversation with El Comidista, the blog run by López Iturriaga, they said they ate well at home on 1.25 euros a day. One of their tricks was to "eliminate links in the chain." That is the same battle being waged by the Union of Small Growers (UPA), created 25 years ago. "We growers meet Brussels' regulations, then the major chains trivialize our products and use them as lures," says association member Diego Juste.

There are a lot of rip-offs; I´m not sure organic products are a panacea"

"Farms are disappearing and Spain is losing sovereignty over food. The countryside is losing its population and nature because of a lack of care," Juste adds. The UPA seeks to support alternative sales channels for small growers' products, bypassing intermediaries by using the internet. But Di Croce says the Slow Food Movement and others cannot compete as a lobby with major corporations.

"It is important to talk to politicians and draft working papers, but the real change lies in people. If consumers demand explanations and they are aware of where their food comes from, governments will have to act accordingly." Interestingly, he adds, the country that is making the greatest progress on the healthy food issue is the US. "Barack Obama himself has said that his favorite food is broccoli."

Spain is the leading European producer of organic products, but this does not result in good sales at home: the Swiss spend 150 euros per person a year on organic food, compared with six euros here. These products tend to be 20 to 40 percent more expensive due to higher production costs. And not everyone thinks they are worth the added cost. "There are a lot of rip-offs, and I'm not sure [organic products] are a panacea," writes López Iturriaga. The price issue is key in countries mired in economic crisis, such as Spain.

"A UN report shows that 40 percent of the world's food gets thrown away," says Di Croce, citing the example of pre-washed lettuces "which cost nearly 10 percent more and whose sales have increased." Why is that? "People do not spend time on cooking, which is essential to better, cheaper eating. We eat too much and we eat poorly. This has to change because there is no other option for the future."

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