The rationale for organic and local foods

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Organic production refers to agriculture which does not use artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and animals reared in more natural conditions, without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers common in intensive livestock farming. Consumer demand for organic produce has risen enormously over the last 15 years in the UK, growing from a niche activity to a mainstream consumption choice (Smith, 2006). Sales of organic products in the UK amounted to £1.213 billion in 2004, a rise of 11% on the previous year (Soil Association, 2005b), and the most commonly cited reasons for consuming organic food are: food safety, the environment, animal welfare, and taste (Soil Association, 2003). Simultaneously the area of land within the UK certified (or in conversion) for organic production has risen dramatically: in 1998 there were under 100,000 hectares and by 2005 this had risen to 690,000 hectares (DEFRA, 2005c). In its efforts towards a sustainable food and farming system, the UK government has pledged to support the growth of organic farming by promoting organic food in schools and hospitals, providing cash for farmers to help them transfer to the new organic farming system, recognising and valuing the social and economic benefits of organic farming, as well as environmental gains, and encouraging supermarkets to source more organic food from the UK (DEFRA, 2002). The main environmental rationale for organic agriculture is that it is a production method more in harmony with the environment and local ecosystems. Proponents claim that by working with nature rather than against it, and replenishing the soil with organic material, rather than denuding it and relying upon artificial fertilisers, then soil quality and hence food quality will be improved and biodiversity will be enhanced. A second rationale for organic food is to protect individual's health by avoiding ingestion of chemical pesticides (Reed, 2001) Additionally there are increased economic and employment benefits from organic farms compared to conventional farms (Maynard and Green, 2006). Supermarkets currently dominate the organic retail sector, and they have been quick to respond to the changing demand for local and organic produce. Between 2003 and 2005, the proportion of key organic staples sold in the eight main UK supermarkets which were UK-sourced has risen from 72% to 82% (Soil Association, 2005b).

One consequence of the growth in organic farming from a green niche to a mainstream system of production, highlighted by Smith and Marsden (2004), is the 'farm-gate price squeeze' common within conventional agriculture, which limits future growth and potential for rural development. Farmers keen to diversify into organic production as a means of securing more sustainable livelihoods in the face of declining incomes within the conventional sector are confronted with an increasingly efficient supermarket-driven supply chain which sources the majority of its organic produce from overseas. Currently 56% of organic produce eaten in the UK is imported, and 75% is sold through supermarkets (Soil Association, 2005a), representing an overwhelmingly mainstream distribution channel. A key challenge for small organic producers is therefore to create new systems of provision to bypass the supermarket supply chain, and organise in such a way as to wield sufficient power in the marketplace.

Organics has until the 1990s been a niche environmental interest, expressing a desire to bypass intensive agriculture and return to small-scale production, and grow a new sense of connection with the land, through a concern for the authenticity and provenance of the food we eat (Ricketts Hein et al., 2006; Holloway and Kneafsey, 2000). In other words, it is a social as much as a technological innovation (Smith, 2006). As such, it has been representative of a movement towards the (re)localisation or shortening of food supply chains, and explicitly challenges the industrial farming and global food transport model embodied in conventional food consumption channelled through supermarkets (Reed, 2001). Localisation of food supply chains means simply that food should be consumed as close to the point of origin as possible. In practice, this will vary from produce to product, and the construction of 'local' is both socially and culturally specific, and fluid over time and space (Hinrichs, 2003); in the UK, consumers generally understand 'local' to mean within a radius of 30 miles or from the same county (IGD, 2003). A recent poll found that 52% of respondents with a preference want to purchase locally grown food, and another 46% would prefer it grown in the UK (NEF, 2003), and the growth of direct marketing, regional marketing and other initiatives has supported this turn towards 'quality' and 'authentic' local food (Holloway and Kneafsey, 2000; Murdoch et al., 2000).

The principal environmental rationale for localising food supply chains is to reduce the impacts of 'food miles' - the distance food travels between being produced and being consumed - and so cutting the energy use and pollution associated with transporting food around the world. Much transportation of food around the globe is only economically rational due to environmental and social externalities being excluded from fuel pricing (Jones, 2001). This results in the sale of vegetables and fruit from across the globe, undercutting or replacing seasonal produce in the UK. Pretty (2001) calculates the cost of environmental subsidies to the food industry, and compares the 'real cost' of local organic food with globally imported conventionally produced food. He finds that environmental externalities add 3.0% to the cost of local-organic food, and 16.3% to the cost of conventional-global food. Furthermore, by avoiding the use of petrochemical-derived fertilisers (producing nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas), the climate change implications of organic production are significantly below that of conventional agriculture. Goodall (2007) estimates that UK annual per capita CO2e emissions related to food are 2.1 tonnes, from which the main contributing factors are artificial fertilisers, methane from animals and slurry, landfill gas from rotting food, food and drink manufacturing and processing, and packaging manufacture. This figure can be reduced to 0.35 tonnes through a radical shift in consumption patterns, switching to locally produced, organic food, and adopting a vegan diet.

A report commissioned by the UK government to investigate the utility of the 'food miles' concept for sustainable production and consumption finds that the direct environmental, social and economic costs of food transport are over £9 billion each year, of which over £5 billion are attributed to traffic congestion (and the value added by the agricultural sector is £6.4 billion and by the food and drink manufacturing sector £19.8 billion) (Smith, Watkiss et al., 2005). Although some deeper examinations of the food miles idea exposes contradictions and counter-intuitive complexities in terms of life-cycle energy use, food production and transport (see for example

Born and Purcell (2006) and Schlich and Fleissner (2005)), the 'food miles' concept has nevertheless become an easily communicated idea to rally local food activists, and is here employed for its utility in capturing consumer motivations.

In recent years the major supermarkets have increased the availability - and visibility - of local produce within their stores. Observation in a local store shows that produce such as locally-brewed beer, honey and preserves, biscuits, cheese and sweets are grouped into a separate 'locally produced' section of the supermarket, and sold in folksy packaging in a clear attempt to win back customers who might otherwise buy from a farmers market or other direct marketing outlet (see Figure 5.1). Asda supermarket (the second largest in the UK with 17% market share and 258 stores, and owned by US giant Wal-Mart) is emblematic of the major supermarket chains. In a response to the growing demand for local produce, Asda introduced a local produce section in 2001 and now sells 2500 regionally-produced items from 300 local producers in its stores (for instance Norfolk beers and ales in its Norfolk stores), with an aim to achieve 2% annual turnover from

Figure 5.1 Locally-produced goods on sale in a UK branch of Wal-Mart Asda

local produce by 2008 (Mesure, 2005). The supermarket won the BBC Food and Farming award for best retailer in 2005, on the basis of its policy for supporting local speciality producers (AMS, 2005). Asda said it is 'actively encouraging local growers and farmers to deliver produce directly to their local store instead of supplying via a regional depot, ensuring it is fresher, has travelled far fewer food miles, and has a longer shelf life' (AMS, 2006). This move is tapping directly into shoppers' concerns about supporting local economies and farmers, as well as offering improvements in freshness and taste and a perceived local authenticity (Padbury, 2006) which many have criticised the supermarkets for eroding (Corporate Watch, n.d.).

In addition to this environmental rationale, there are also social and economic reasons to embrace re-localised food supply chains within a framework of sustainable consumption. In direct contrast to the globalised food system which divorces economic transactions from social and environmental contexts, the 'New Economics' favours 'socially embedded' economies of place. This means developing connections between consumers and growers, boosting ethical capital and social capital around food supply chains, educating consumers about the source of their food and the impacts of different production methods, creating feedback mechanisms which are absent when food comes from distant origins, and strengthening local economies and markets against disruptive external forces of globalisation (Norberg-Hodge et al., 2000). Indeed, rather than being eroded by the demands of globalisation, these diverse embedded food networks are now flourishing as a rational alternative to the logic of the global food economy (Whatmore and Thorne, 1997).

Furthermore, there is a strong case that localised food networks make a significant contribution to rural development, help mitigate the crisis of conventional intensive agriculture, and have the potential to mobilise new forms of association which might resist the conventional price-squeeze mentioned above, through the development of new relationships and methods of adding value (Renting et al., 2003). Direct marketing of local and/or organic produce through farm shops, farmers markets and box schemes has been proposed as a more sustainable, alternative infrastructure of food provision, for economic, social and environmental reasons (FARMA, 2006; Taylor et al., 2005). Recent research by the New Economics Foundation found that street produce and farmers' markets made a major con tribution to local economies, and provided access to fresh fruit and vegetables at prices significantly lower than nearby supermarkets (Taylor et al., 2005). This is demonstrated in a study of food supply chains in Norfolk which found that the motivations for many growers to sell locally included 'taking more control of their market and [becoming] less dependent on large customers and open to the risk of sudden loss of business' (Saltmarsh, 2004, chapter 3). Many of these growers had previously supplied to supermarkets and for these farmers, direct marketing was a means of stabilising incomes and reducing vulnerability.

More evidence of this move towards alternative systems of food provision is reported by a study finding that 51% of organic growers in the UK were planning to work cooperatively with other farmers, to increase their market share and improve resilience against external economic shocks (ADAS, 2004). Indeed, sales of organic and local produce through these alternative direct marketing channels have grown rapidly. The number of farmers markets in the UK has grown rapidly since the first was established in Bath in 1997, to over 500 in 2006 (FARMA, 2006) and farmers' markets sales in 2004 amounted to £200 million, of which about 10-15% of stallholders sold organic produce, accounting for £25 million, a 21% increase on the previous year. Total sales of organic produce through direct marketing rose by 33% in 2004 to 12% of the entire food market share, a total of £146 million. There are an estimated 379 vegetable-based organic box schemes in the UK, and a further 97 meat-based schemes, and the sales from organic box schemes in 2004 was £38.5 million. Reflecting this growth in market share, the supermarket share of the organic retail market has fallen from 80% in 2003 to 75% in 2004 (Soil Association, 2005b). In addition to insulating farmers, localisation also builds up the local economy by increasing the circulation of money locally (the economic multiplier). In a study of the economic impact of localised food supply chains, Ward and Lewis (2002) found that £10 spent with a local grower circulated two and a half times locally and was worth £25 in the local economy. This compares to £10 spent in a supermarket which leaves the area quite quickly, resulting in a multiplier of just 1.4, meaning it was worth £14 to the local economy.

Localism is not uncritically embraced, however, within the New Economics. Localisation can be a reactionary and defensive stance against a perceived external threat from globalisation and different

'others' (Hinrichs, 2003; Winter, 2003), and the local can be a site of inequality and hegemonic domination, not at all conducive to the environmental and social sustainability often automatically attributed to processes of localisation by activists. Indeed, Thompson and Arsel (2004) describe such uncritically pro-localisation consumers as 'oppositional localists', marked by their attribution of only positive characteristics to small-scale local organisations and businesses, and their wholesale rejection of globalised business. Their research points to the need to be objective about the motivations of consumers, and the underlying values they represent. But localism also raises questions of 'sustainability for who?', as the nascent desire for locally produced food in developed countries inevitably impacts upon the economic and social destinies of food-exporting developing countries. In these cases it may be that ecological citizenship which calls for cutting material consumption and hence a reduction in globally transported foodstuffs, is in conflict with a particular type of global citizenship which holds that participation in international trade is the most effective route to sustainable development for poorer countries. New Economists argue for a globalised network of local activism which addresses the economic and social needs of developing countries reliant upon food exports, and which prioritises fair trade for products which cannot be produced locally. Banana Link is one such organisation, which seeks to build solidarity links between UK consumers and retail workers and Central American banana growers and farm workers struggling to improve working conditions and local environments, while simultaneously lobbying at the international level to improve the terms of trade (Banana Link, 2003). Hence a reflexive localism offers ecological citizens the opportunity to forge both local and global alliances with progressive actors at the local level and consciously avoid the negative associations of defensive localism (DuPuis and Goodman, 2005).

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  • cameron
    What is a rationale for organic farming?
    9 years ago
  • Sigismond
    What will undercut the market for locally produced food in developing countries?
    9 years ago

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