It’s impossible to deny, we live in an era where cooking shows and restaurants pop up like daisies in Spring, celebrity chefs are as revered as actors and we find ourselves enthralled by some new grain or trendy ingredient each season. We are a little food mad. And yet despite all the good things, this growing curiosity with food gives us a better understanding of organic and sustainable food practices. This sort of culinary education gives us the tools to better combat such ills as obesity, diabetes and other such unsavoury topics.

food obsession

Does this mean then, that we are too enamoured with food and consuming too much of it irresponsibly? Or can this boom in food curiosity actually shape and drive social change?

In the Melbourne Town Hall on the 6th of March, this is exactly what they addressed. IQ2 and The Wheeler Centre organised for six well respected, heavyweights in the hospitality and food industry to debate the following proposition: Our Food Obsession Has Gone Too Far.

On the ‘For’ side, Mathew Evans a former chef turned Tasmanian farmer and Katy Barfield a CEO with a passion for social business and food wastage, painted a rather bleak picture. They argued our obsession with perfect, convenient food and consuming was worsening the obesity epidemic in the country, that it was decreasing our knowledge of cooking and where our food came from and that it was hurting the environment and our farmers. Barfield in particular hit hard with some disturbing numbers: four million tonnes of food being dumped per year because it doesn’t match supermarket presentation standards, and that all our food waste produces more ethane than all our motorised vehicles combined.

Also on the ‘For’ side, Wendy Harmer, a broadcaster, with some experience on Celebrity Masterchef,  ignited a few laughs with her take on ‘gastro-porn’, but proved a weak link in the team, harping on how foodies were too busy making food look sexy rather than treating it with love. Whilst her point is a valid one, it didn’t contribute as to how the obsession was hurting the bigger community. Surely there’s nothing wrong with a pretty picture?

Alla Wolf-Tasker, executive chef and co-proprieter of the award winning Lake House in Daylesford, Richard Conish, a senior writer for the Age Epicure and Fushsia Dunlop, a culinary journalist and the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, argued as a cohesive ‘Against’ team. They all felt that Australia as a nation was definitely not obsessed enough with food, drawing comparisons with nations they felt were. France and China came up, both with a long and healthy culinary history and, until recent times with introduction to Western fast-food influences, had no obesity issues. In these countries, food itself is the celebrity, with people traveling far and wide to find the best produce and, in China especially, using all of an ingredient with minimal wastage is the norm.

Wolf-Tasker shared a menu from France, which to the house, sounded like a menu from a cute Parisian bistro, but was in fact, a lunch menu from a school! Did you know as well that there is a Minister for Food in France? Why don’t we have one here in Australia, when we have so many farmers to look after?

Although the ‘Against’ team won the debate, it honestly felt as if the two teams were singing the same song, just from different sides of the coin.

It was clear that both sides were incredibly passionate about food, and felt that our current food chain was broken, and more understanding and education was needed in general, so that smarter food decisions could be made, both nutritionally and for sustainability.

Right now, although Melbourne, and the rest of Australia, is in the clutch of the food craze, a lot of it seems to be about image and not substance. It is a very superficial interest. Cornish highlights this point talking about reality cooking shows, that are actually about emotion and drama, and not food, and that if you wanted to see what our nation was actually obsessed about, look to see if any other countries shut down government for a horse race.

Although the ‘For’ team had some strong arguments and commented that we need to focus on solving the obesity epidemic, looking after our farmers and saving the earth, Wolf-Tasker mused, what would happen if we weren’t food obsessed? Would that help the farmers? Have people wanting to know where their food came from? Have people caring about what they put in their mouth? Make people invest in educating their children about smart and sustainable food choices?

From listening to these two teams, the impression I went home with was that we are obsessed with convenience, with aesthetics and with instant gratification. We’re not yet obsessed with food, where it comes from, how it’s been treated and how it effects our bodies. We’ve a long way to go yet.

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