Multicultural London provides food for thought

An event celebrating the capital's ethnic diversity and looking at environmental issues from a multicultural perspective knuckled down to debate food this week.

The fourth annual London Multicultural Environment Fair was held in Hackney on Tuesday, itself home to a vast array of nationalities and ethnic groups.

Speakers considered the wide spectrum of dietary requirements and culinary preferences of the capital’s population and how this ties in with environmental concerns.

Nitin Mehta, from the Young Indian Vegetarians, described how the meat-free diet advocated by the Hindu and Buddhist belief systems has now become an environmental issue.

Outlining the standard environmental arguments against meat-eating, Mr Mehta claimed the land used to raise and feed the world’s 55bn head of livestock could be put to better use supporting four billion humans, more than half the world’s population.

The waste of land and shocking quantities of water used to raise animals was, he said, unacceptable.

“The ecological damage we’re doing is fundamental,” he said.

“It’s a criminal waste in an already thirsty world.”

If people truly cared about the environment, he said, they were duty bound to make real changes in their own lifestyles and put their money where their mouths are.

“In the words of Gandhi,” he said, “let us be the change we want to see in the world.”

The issues of food miles and the energy used to transport exotic crops to British markets were also touched upon.

The London Food Link told edie that it encouraged people to buy locally-sourced food where possible but accepted it would be a long time before you could grow mangoes in Kent.

“We’re not talking about stopping people from buying food that can never be grown in England,” said a spokesperson.

“But we are asking people to ask more questions about how that food is produced. It’s down to sustainability. We would ask how is it grown, who is growing it and how is it transported.”

She went on to say, however, that many crops associated with foreign cuisines could in fact be grown in the UK and, as demand grows, agriculture will adapt and we will see fields growing fenugreek and sweet potatoes alongside the more traditional crops.

Kenyasue Smart of the Caribbean Peoples Network said we must be aware that the everyday choices we make in the UK have an impact elsewhere in the world.

This was particularly important for those who could trace their roots back to developing countries, she claimed.

“The industrial revolution was fuelled by the enslavement of my people,” she told delegates.

And now, she said, those living in Africa, the Caribbean and other parts of the developing world, are paying the cost of the industrialised world’s excesses, as climate change begins to hit them hard.

“You can see the devastation,” she said, “And by buying the wrong things and not recycling we’re affecting what’s happening there.”

In London, and other urban centres, children are becoming increasingly detached from the food they eat, she said.

They don’t understand agriculture and have little idea of where their food comes from.

We need to educate children about the environment, said Ms Smart, and in the developing world furnish them with practical skills such as farming.

The Muslim community also had its own particular concerns when it came to diet and the environment, said Khalid Sharif, who runs a socially and environmentally responsible halal food company, Ummah, which operates under the slogan going green in Islam.

“The planet has always been important in Islam,” he said.

“We’re not allowed to waste food, and we’re not allowed to waste water.

“But halal has its own environmental issues – you cannot get organic meat that is halal because the certification bodies do not approve of the way the animals are killed and the debate is only just starting about whether GM food can be halal.”

It was, however, difficult making inroads into the Muslim community to persuade people to make environmental concerns a priority.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot more to worry about than our food at the moment,” he said, pointing to statistics that show that, taken as a group, London Muslims are disadvantaged in terms of education, unemployment, poor housing and poverty – all this before taking into account the fact that they are often viewed with suspicion in today’s political climate.

“You can’t expect a community to deal with environmental problems if they are struggling with their own problems at home,” he said.

“It’s pure survival.”

Sam Bond

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