Thursday, November 24, 2011

Local Food Seminar

Our department at the University is trying out a new concept where they organize a seminar every month on a different subject than our normal courses that may be of interest for us for projects or the future. Sometimes, some courses might touch the subjects of the seminars but it can still be interesting to hear about them from another point of view.
If possible, they invite professors from other departments at the Uni so we can get to know them as well. I think it is a great initiative and as our department is Economics we can still work with almost all the other departments and subjects in one in one way or another once we have graduated. It's nice that we can also give our own ideas for future seminars on subjects that we are interested in.

Yesterdays seminar was on local food and the professor started with a very interesting question. Imagine you are gonna buy carrots and have three alternatives, which one would you buy?

1. The one that was produced in Sweden but with lots of chemicals
2. The one that was organic but produced in Italy
3. The one that she would tell you tastes really, really good (for choosing this one it of course requires you trust her, which is easier if you know the person from before)

The point she was trying to make was that our shopping will be affected by our own values. For someone it might be more important to buy the organic carrot even if it comes from further away, while for another one it is more important to buy Swedish (local) even if it fertilizer and pesticides are used. However, local is very difficult to define. Local could be a small area like a city or community, a country, Europe or even a bigger area depending on who you are talking to.

Here is three defenitions on local food:

1. Food from a specific region
2. Food from a place within a certain distance from you
3. Food from a person you know and trust

Note that there is a difference between "regional specialities" (like feta, champagne..) and a "local" food system (food produced and consumed in the same area).

Environmental benefits of local food can be:
-transport (shorter distances; however, some studies have shown that it is not always more energy efficient if every farmer takes their own car to the market and drive eg. 200 km back and forth)
- Local nutricient cycle (this cycle does not work in the industrialized agriculture)
- Seasonal eating habits( saves on transportation and energy for greenhouses)

Social and economic benefits may be:
- local specialities will have a positive impact on the local culture
- eco-chains are taken care off (this is not always the case though)
- transparency & larger control over the food chain
- social justice (we will eat the food that can be produced locally and not "steal" food resources from less wealthy sociaties)
- you create a bond and a trust with your food supplier (however this is difficult to measure scientifically but it is easier to trace the product relative to conventional farming)
- jobs and money stay in the region
- better income for farmers and satisfactory working conditons

However, the professors also pointed out that depending how local food is defined it is not necessarily environmentally or socially better. Usually, local means a heavier workload for farmers as they have to take care for more steps in the value chain themselves and this might mean that, let's say, the marketing of the products suffers as there is no time over for that, which leads to the fact that it might not pay off economically since a certain scale and volume is needed (the scale is also limited by the local measure). Another downside is that a local producer's power in the market place is limited and he/she cannot, for example, affect prices. Also local farmers might not have the money to pay for eco-labels even if the products have been organically grown. However, if there is trust between the consumer and the farmer this might not be an issue.

So it is not an easy decision we have in the store when buying food. In the end we have to choose what's behind our values and beliefs. I do like to support local food but I think I regard organic even higher, so if the local is not organic I might choose the Italian grown eco carrot. However, sometimes I choose a vegetable for the simple reason that it is not packed in plastic, it annoys me that every cucumber and pepper sometimes is packed separetely in plastic. What extra value does that bring us except for more waste?

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