Food corporations argue that consumers drive the food industry. Indeed, consumers have become used to being able to buy all foods at all times of the year, regardless of seasonality, and at cheap prices. Consumers are buying food produced by people who they do not know, and probably will never meet, making them less concerned about their welfare. This lack of consumer loyalty adds to the fickleness of westerners’ food choices, rendering them easy prey to the marketing strategies of multinational corporations, and making farmers’ livelihoods increasingly insecure.
The geographical separation of consumers from food production renders shoppers ignorant of the many abuses of the environment, farm workers and farm animals, which might not be tolerated if they were going on in a neighbouring field. However, demand for fair trade and organic foods is now a significant force in the UK food market – organic sales in this country are increasing by 40 per cent per year – reflecting that many consumers do care about how their food is produced.
To address the multiple issues around food miles, change needs to happen on many different levels, from new consumption habits to government policy. On an individual level, consumers can choose to buy local, seasonal or fairly traded foods and ask shops and supermarkets to stock these products. Another option is to grow food in gardens or allotments.
Groups of individuals can set up local food schemes, such as community growing initiatives, vegetable box schemes and farmers’ markets. Buying direct also re-establishes the links between producer and consumer and can mark the beginning of a constructive dialogue towards more diverse and organic production. In particular, consumers can ask their local farmer to use more sustainable production methods and to grow a greater range of crops to satisfy local demand for diversity. Local authorities can support such initiatives through funding, advice and making land available for community food schemes.
National government can introduce policies to internalise the environmental and social costs of transport, such as introducing a weight distance tax for air and road freight. Compulsory food miles labelling for products should be introduced and advice and financial assistance given to direct marketing schemes. Food From Britain, the dti and industry sponsored body which promotes exports of foods, should be transformed so that its emphasis is on import substitution. Aid and debt relief for developing countries should be linked to sustainable development initiatives such as diversification and sustainable agricultural production. Pressure needs to be exerted for the multilateral adoption of minimum standards for working conditions, environmental protection and animal welfare in the production of goods and services, at regional and international levels.
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