Monday, 24 February 2020

How much effort should you expend on sourcing food?

When the idea for this blog entry first came to me, I thought that I would simply tell a quick story about my experience of purchasing food from, but other recent experiences made me rethink my narrow focus. Consequently, in what follows I shall attempt to reconstruct my thinking and tell you a story of how engagement with sustainable food provision initiatives may depend upon rethinking our relationship with food procurement and consumption, and perhaps alter our everyday habits.

My colleagues and I are currently working on a project called SINFO. The overall purpose of the project is to gain a better understanding of social innovation in food provision and think about how we could enable practical innovations towards sustainable food production and consumption in Latvia. One of the first things we did, whilst still working on the conceptual framework, was to create a database of sorts of all the initiatives in Latvia that are related to food in general and more sustainable approaches to consumption and distribution in particular. As it turns out, there are quite a few of these, though the scale of their ambition varies. For example, the supermarket chain RIMI encourages you to purchase re-usable bags, while zero waste shops go much further with this concept. 

One of the initiatives we looked at is the internet platform As I see it, it is a kind of cross between direct purchasing groups and ordering food from your supermarket of choice online. 

The people behind source most of their products from small farms and producers, and a considerable share of the products made available on the website are organic. You select the products you wish to purchase, and they are put together and ready for pickup in a few days time on so-called market days. You get a discount if you come to pick up the goods yourself, but they also offer a delivery service, which is free if your order meets a certain threshold. 

As someone who is used to purchasing food from a supermarket and sometimes from the central market in Riga, a few things immediately struck me. Firstly, it was clear that some products are only available some of the time, which makes sense given that the producers generally do not have big production facilities and warehouses where they can store copious quantities of their goods. Secondly, they say on the website that for some products (meat in particular) they cannot provide the exact weight of the item you will receive and, consequently, you do not know in advance how much you will have to pay for it. For example, diced beef or pork are predictable as they come pre-packaged. Other products are trickier, and the final price depends on the size of the piece. For instance, we ordered turkey legs, and we chose 1kg in weight. Now, I assumed, that we would have to pay a bit more than the listed price for 1kg because the legs will likely be a bit heavier. However, the package we received contained two legs that together weighed 1.7 kgs. Granted, we were notified a few hours before delivery, so it was not a problem. Other than that, I placed my order on Monday evening, and I was notified that the products would be delivered on Friday, which they were, though I had to be at home for the entire evening as they could not give me a specific time of delivery.

Why go through the hassle?
The primary reason for my choosing to give a try was the attempt to switch to organic meat. One of the motivations for trying to source organic meat was the desire to ultimately reduce how much of it we consume. The reasons for this are not clear and it is doubtful whether I would be able to provide a coherent account of my thinking. For instance, I was reading the book From Field to Fork by Paul Thompson, and he provided a summary of sorts that, I guess, captures the reasons that motivate many people to reconsider their food consumption habits.
Feeding grain to animals is inefficient because it takes between two and six ounces of plant protein to produce an ounce of animal protein in the form of meat, milk, or eggs. Humans could have less impact on the environment by eating the grains directly rather than feeding them to animals. What is more, animals emit greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming. Thus, given the animal suffering associated with feedlots and the factory farms that have been developed for industrial production of pork, eggs, and poultry meat, food ethics requires that we at least consume animal products from small, local farms, if not shifting to a vegan or pescatarian diet.
I doubt that my thinking followed the same lines, though some of the arguments listed above carry weight with me. At best, my position can be described as a vague unease and discomfort. About many things. However, if I had to take a guess, I would probably say that what troubled me was the cavalier attitude with which I approached buying and eating meat.  

While offers access to products that would otherwise be tricky to source (though there are specialist retailers in Riga), my experience suggests that it is not just a matter of obtaining your food from alternative sources. The use of such channels can be connected to the way you approach food in general. The procurement of meat is not something casual anymore. It forces you to think about the food you consume. In many cases, food provision initiatives encourage you to be an active participant in the process, rather than simply a client or a customer. Indeed, this was one of the reasons why we considered classifying sustainable food provision initiatives in Latvia according to how much the “consumer” is expected to get involved in the process. Certainly, is a mild form of this – it only requires you to plan ahead if you place a bigger order. Nonetheless, growing interest in such “services” and direct purchasing groups in Latvia suggests that there are shifts taking place in the way people approach food. Some of this has to do with the (perceived) quality of the products, but others indicate attempts to go deeper and move beyond a simple supply-demand model of provisioning food. 

In From Field to Fork Paul Thompson suggests that thinking about the choice to consume local, organic, fair trade etc. is sometimes too narrow.
The perspective of consumer choice implied by the industrial food system suggests that we might consider how what we choose to eat affects people, animals, and the environment through the complex economic causality of markets and trade, but it does not really bring us to consider whether a system that encourages us to think of ourselves as consumers is itself ethically desirable.
Indeed, the point of some of the initiatives we have catalogued is not just to provide an alternative product, but to change how food is sourced, purchased and consumed. In other words, the social component of social innovation is crucial, as it aims to introduce new practices or at least alter existing ones, rather than simply increase the popularity of, and demand for, local or organic products. This is the challenge for some of the initiatives because convincing people that it is worth expending more effort on the procurement of food can be tricky. However, one of the ways could be to persuade people that they should not think of themselves solely as consumers. If we think of ourselves as participants or as contributors to food security and social sustainability, it is possible that our cost/benefit calculations would probably look a bit different, and more time spent and effort expended on sourcing food would not be an issue.