Friday 29 June 2012

Ethical Food of the Future

Recent experiences in my life have made me change my mind about the future we all face. Some believe the future will be a fight for survival, every man for them selves, whilst others believe the future will be the creating of like minded communities, where “local” and “support” are the reoccurring buzz words. I have always been a believer in the second, but found it rather romantic, and unachievable in a world where everything seems to be a competition. But after leaving the UK, and coming back with a new perspective on the country, had made me realise that there is much potential to head the “right” way, and this could all be thanks to the recession…

The shift we see in the global economy can also be seen in cultural habits: as the west becomes more conscious with what they’re eating and where their food comes from, the east is becoming more concerned with convenience and price. As we become more educated in food, the big companies begin to accommodate this. For example, Cadburys now makes Fair Trade chocolate for the western market, as there is now a demand for it by chocolate consumers. They don't do it out of ethical choice, but to increase profit margins. This is called the halo/Fairwashing effect, and more and more big brands are doing this. The small fraction of Cadbury’s product range that is Fair Trade gives an illusion that Cadburys are entirely Fair Trade, where as most of their other chocolate is probably produced in unethical ways, and their Fair Trade chocolate probably only just meets requirements. If you went to Asia you would not be able to find Fair Trade Cadburys anywhere, as there is no demand for it. Big companies follow fads, trends and consumer behaviour closely, and getting sucked in is very easy by savvy marketing. So what is ethical food?

Well, as an “Ethical-Food Designer” I have been trying to find the answer to this for a while now, and there are many traps that one can fall into, such as the one mentioned above. I have always felt, that certification marks the value of a product of produce, but again, this can be another trap as sometimes companies only pass the bear minimum requirements for certification, and with so many certifying bodes for Organic, Free-Range, Environmental, Ethical, Fair Trade etc, it is hard to remember what exactly each one stands for and what their requirements are.  From a design perspective, I feel it is important to know what process your food goes through to get from ground to plate. The way the produce has been cultivated, manufactured/processed, packaged, transported, stocked and even marketed all play a part in the journey of our foods. Personally, the shorter the chain, the better.

New certifying bodies are introducing a first party certification system for small scale farmers and producers, which involves the local community checking up on, working closely with and trusting the farmer in the claims they make about the produce they deliver. This works particularly well in countries where small-scale farming and production is common. The model for this type of certification was actually drawn up and experimented on in Brazil, with such success, that it has been put in place across the world, and is now even creeping in to the UK.

Small scale, and community supported agriculture aren’t just “fads”, it’s a movement that has been seeing positive results world wide. Social enterprises that focus on an aspect of food, be it food security, healthy eating, dinner clubs, all see great results, as it is a topic to which most people can relate, using food as a powerful tool for which to bring people together, and using it as the bases of developing creativity, business skills, environmental education and most importantly self worth.

A handful of social enterprises exist in the UK that use food as a bases of bettering lives. Their aims and goals are to educate and help develop and even strengthen communities. Reform into the social responsibilities large companies have could help small social enterprises start off, with professional help and advice, maybe even seeing collaborations on projects in the future.

I can’t see a better time in which to develop Food projects within Social Enterprise: as we see the desperate need for job generation, and the need to strengthen local economies. People now want to make more educated decisions about what they consume and I believe social enterprise can capitalise on this, and use it as a way of making food even more ethical, what’s better then buying food that’s good for the people who make it, for the environment, and for the consumer. It seems like the obvious answer that could bring back a community’s identity, economy and ethicality where everyone benefits.

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