Friday, December 16, 2016
You may think that something you do on a daily basis and the most basic of choices, such as the type of food you choose to eat, has no effect upon creating poverty in countries half a world away from you. You are wrong, and here is why.
Firstly, I am not talking about food Brands and how the companies that create them may differ from other companies in their environmental and social records. Much of this is well-documented and the appearance of environmental logos such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Country of Origin logos and Dolphin Safe have made it easier to choose between various brands of pre-packaged and processed foods. We may choose organic, free-range and locally grown, thinking that we are doing our best to put our money into food systems that will benefit both ourselves and the local community. These may be good steps towards ensuring better standards of animal welfare, supporting local growers and ensuring that you are choosing the healthiest options – but in the end you may still be supporting an industry which is ultimately unsustainable and thereby relying upon the same systems that have world-wide implications.
Our choices begin before we first walk into the supermarket. The very act of walking into a supermarket is a choice we make when we decide to shop for food and other consumables. The rise of the modern supermarket and pushing out of local businesses has been met with mixed reactions by communities. Most communities welcome large supermarkets as for them it may mean the promise of jobs and availability of products that may have been hard to acquire before in their local area. What it also means is loss of community connections, making it harder for local farmers to sell their produce within the communities in which it is grown and forcing them to adapt to broader market trends. For example, a farmer may have been supplying a range of products to a local fruit and vegetable market, and had been able to provide both quality and diversity. The opening of a supermarket in competition to this locally sourced market may mean that in order to continue to farm and earn at a similar level to the past, that farmer may have to do one of two things. He may have to enter one of the niche markets, or he may have to further commercialise his system and inevitably lose some of the farms diversity in order to concentrate on supplying a certain demand in the wider food system. He may decide that farming is no longer for him and his farm may be swallowed up by a larger enterprise.
If he chooses to grow certified organic or free-range, he will have another set of problems to overcome. Organic or organic free-range farming may have been what he had already supported, but in order to sell his produce outside of local markets, he must undergo certification in order to prove that his methods meet a certain standard. Likewise, he may find that the broader market has different levels of demand for certain produce and will be forced to follow that demand and the diversity of his produce may also decline.
He may decide that to meet the demand of markets outside his community, he needs to intensify production of a certain crop or animal product. Loss of diversity on his farm will lead to further problems such as poorer soil health, animal welfare issues and loss of alternative markets. It will mean more initial outlay and broader methods of cultivation and weed control. Intensifying of livestock systems will lead to out-of-community sourcing of livestock feed. Intensive livestock markets such as pigs and poultry are often dominated by large established corporations, and he may need to buy into one of these larger bodies in order to find a market for his produce.
So here we see how the creation of a supermarket has impacted a local farmer and has changed not only how he sells his produce but what he is able to produce on his local farm. He may still be able to provide produce to the local market, and you may still choose to buy locally instead of at the supermarket, but unless he already has a self-sustaining system (such as a permaculture garden) set up, then it is likely that he will not be able to offer the diversity of produce that he was able to earlier provide. Even if the produce he sells locally remains diverse, he still must set aside enough produce for broader markets in order to continue to make a profit, so much of his farm will have been converted to meet their demand.
Farmers who produce food for profit are destined to be shaped by broader market influences. These influences include the financial benefits of cheap mass production, sourcing from overseas producers and the buying-in to corporations through seed and fertiliser purchases and animal feeds. Organic farmers are able to remain relatively free of corporate influence, but the hassles of ongoing certification and having to compete with mainstream farmers means they will always be a niche group that will have the hardest struggle against broader market forces. These market forces are often controlled by consumers who put little thought into where or how their food is sourced. Most consumers value price and convenience over ethical choices and may not even understand how their food buying decisions impact their local community or how their choices impact the world-wide marketplace and drive environmental and humanitarian issues in other countries.
When food systems are abused in this way, both people and the environment suffer. The world demand for livestock products is an example of ultimate unsustainability. The Western world consumes animal products at a rate which cannot be met without intensive methods of farming, leading to a continuation of poverty-driving production systems in other countries, environmental destruction and degradation and increasing animal welfare issues. The loss of diversity in all food production systems leads to similar problems. Relying on world markets to meet our expectations of choice lead to less choices for local farmers and dramatically affect the availability of local food sources.
So what can we do to reduce our impact? Buying locally grown produce is clearly one of the answers, but we need to not only take care with where we buy, but with what we buy. Unless you have direct access to locally grown, organic and free-range animal products; then it is better to give up these items altogether and follow a plant-based diet. When buying foods, whether locally grown or from the supermarket, choose a variety of wholefoods and steer away from processed foods. Processed foods have not only proven to be bad for your health, but contribute to world problems because most of the ingredients are sourced as cheaply as possible and from countries that have a poor record of environmental, human rights and animal welfare issues. If you cannot buy something locally, buy food that is produced in your country from local ingredients. Choosing a diverse range of plant products allows supporting of diversity in the farming system, which in turn leads to supporting of local farms that produce a variety of products and steers them away from investing in intensive single-crop systems.
Perhaps the most important contribution that you can make is by breaking free of the profit-based food system. If you can grow your own food, do so. Do it in a way that mimics natural systems. Not only is this a great way to connect with and learn about the importance of soil and nature, but it is the most sustainable way to produce food for yourself and can be used to help food diversity in your local community if you trade/give away what you do not need yourself. Most average backyards can be turned into a food forest, food forests are a way of mimicking natural systems and are a form of permaculture, a sustainable form of agriculture that has the potential to transform modern farming techniques and create a better system of food production across the world. Becoming a part of this system yourself is not only of benefit to you, but to the environment and ultimately the planet. There is also the option of creating community based farms and gardens, changing the way we source food at the local level. The growing free food movements are important grass-roots movements designed to allow communities the benefits of food sovereignty outside of the financial system and show us that there are viable alternatives to profit-based systems. Maybe, instead of voting with our dollars, we should instead vote with our actions and support of an alternative food production system.