the place of origin or earliest known history of something: a carpet of Persian provenance
- the beginning of something’s existence: something’s origin: they try to understand the whole universe, its provenance and fate.
- a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality: the manuscript has a distinguished provenance.
Provenance refers to the important element of recognising something’s origins as a distinct value. There are many works of art that have been copied all over the place; it’s the original, with an attested provenance that has true value. So too with food. Merely looking at food as a collection of measurable nutritional values assumes several things:
1. that we are clever enough to measure everything that is of nutritional value. Given that nutrition is an ever-developing science, this assumption is clearly not correct. There are nutritional elements that have only been discovered in the last few years, take GI value, for example. A human requires much more than merely a collection of vitamins, minerals, fibre and so on to maintain health.
2. that we ignore entirely the greater values embodied in food, values we all recognise that may not be scientifically “measurable”. You’re in hospital, for example, and your elderly granny, at great personal effort, bakes your favourite cake for the first time in years and brings it in to you, beautifully wrapped and with a card wishing you a speedy recovery. Someone else brings you in a sponge roll from the supermarket. Granny may never have even been the best cook but which cake means more to you in your recovery? They’re both identical in terms of fibre (probably nil) and other scientific nutrients but if you’re talking about what’s going to make you get better, it’s obvious.
Sunday lunch surrounded by your favourite family and friends, looking out at a beautiful view, sun shining … or the exact equal nutritional values manifested in a frozen, reheated meal cramped alone on board an aeroplane? Food is obviously so much more than just a collection of nutrients and many of us value quite highly the values of how a food is grown (organic or biodynamic over conventional) and where it’s from (my backyard or Peru).
Following a questionable study on organic food out of the UK last week, the report of which had the flippant headline “Organic food is no better – but at least it’s expensive” (Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 31st July, 2009), I wrote a published reply:
Once again, a study reduces organic food to a measurable collection of nutrients with a high price tag. Such studies miss the vital point: organic food is a farming and food production method, not a nutritional value. The nutrient outcome may or may not be higher, but the values that food represents are equally important.
Organic food supports production methods that put soil health and land-care methods centre stage. With salinity and with rivers bled dry to produce cheap food and fibre, land health is vital to our long-term ability to feed ourselves. For many organic food supporters (I am a certified organic retailer), the amount of vitamin A in different units of food is irrelevant.
Society devalues food as we allocate less and less of our budget to it. This puts producers in the difficult position of producing similar ‘‘output’’ under constant pressure. Cramming more chickens into sheds leads to equal nutritional output, at better value to the consumer, but does nothing for the chickens, or for our sense of living reasonably and humanely. Such examples permeate our expectations of ‘‘cheap’’ food and explain why topsoil is rapidly disappearing while food insecurity rises for billions.
How I buy everything determines how I want society to be. Do I buy the cheapest clothes, knowing they come from sweat shops in Asia, or do I seek out more expensive, Australian-made clothes, knowing that keeps a fellow Australian employed? Do I buy Chinese pet food (much better value) or seek an Australian product?
If food is merely combinations of vitamins, minerals, fibre, GI value and so on, wrapped up in kilojoules, you might as well swallow a pill. For those of us who value food, such studies are odious. The implicit reasoning behind them suggests that obtaining daily nutrition should be run only through the filter of ‘‘economic value’’.
Peter Kenyon Turramurra (SMH, Saturday, 1st August)
The SMH summarized my letter with yet another flippant headline: “Organic food a lifestyle, not nutritional, choice”. Well at least they published it. The person who came up with the headline would seem to have not read my letter at all. “Lifestyle choice” is generally used in a pretty disparaging way to describe someone’s unjustifiable excesses which can’t be sustained with any logical explanation. It reveals, yet again, the mindset of the person for whom food is merely a collection of nutrients obtained at cheapest personal financial cost. There’s a distinct tendency (for some Australians in particular?) to want to “save” those of us into “organic lifestyles” from ourselves by pointing out that we’re being ripped off.
I wonder why those same people don’t run up at the traffic lights to every driver of a Mercedes, BMW or other luxury car and tell them that they’re also being ripped off. After all, a Merc costs considerably more than a Daihatsu and they can both get you reliably from A to B. What about a home with a view compared to a home without one? An iPhone over the cheapest mobile phone? It’s very likely those of you reading this already value food highly. Thanks.