Self-entitlement and food: the globally irresponsible spiral.
By Clarisse Douaud
Thursday, 7th December 2006
Until consumers lose the attitude that they deserve and have a right to goods from all over the world - our food systems and the environment are at peril.

In the sustainability debate, consumer demand is sometimes pinpointed as the culprit blocking change. But we have to look beyond the psychology of demand, to its precursor: self-entitlement. In the developed world we have grown accustomed to eating fruits and vegetables from around the world. Our food gets shuttled from all corners of the globe – while malnutrition still plagues developing countries and millions struggle to meet even basic nutritional needs.

Ten million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases, according to the United Nations World Food Programme, and another 800 million are acutely hungry.

Many would argue that being able to eat what you want, where you want and in any season you want is a freedom of choice. Yes, it's our choice – but is it the right choice?

Transportation of these goods uses up lagging resources, such as oil, and gives a greater number of people access to food from ever-more-sensitive ecosystems, such as marine life.

In the United Kingdom alone, food transport accounts for 25 percent of all heavy goods vehicles km/miles, according to a 2005 report from UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This is double the quantity of food transported by such vehicles in 1974.

In addition, DEFRA says air freight – which has a more negative environmental impact than other modes of transport - is increasingly used to ship foods from overseas.

As resources are more and more exhausted, socially conscious eating still has not become mainstream thought in consumers' minds.

Make no mistake, the globalization that brought about this irresponsible food distribution network has come with overwhelmingly positive results too: the exchange of ideas, quick access to information and a sharing of cultures.

But shouldn't we be focusing such capacity for distribution and sharing on, for example, supplying medications to those who need them? This as opposed to carrying bulky goods across vast distances to satisfy our need for more exotic or more cost effective foods and increase the margins of a few companies benefiting from economies of scale.

In the fruit aisles at our local super market, we choose between local goods and goods that may have traveled a veritable odyssey - New Zealand apples and kiwis, or Hawaiian pineapples. We eat fresh raw tuna in sushi at hip restaurants and Brazilian beef at our local burger joints.

An increased interest in health-promoting goods is only further straining these distribution networks.

Our growing demand for functional foods - ranging from acai from the Brazilian jungle, to the Tibetan goji berry, to Celtic sea salt, to fish oil from Latin America or the Indian Ocean - can only increase the number of food stuffs crossing the globe. And the fact that we exert our right to these goods in an effort to live longer, and at a time when many live on the bare minimum, smacks of elitism.

The answer is increased consumer education and awareness campaigns to eat more locally, as well as to not eat ingredients that are destroying ecosystems. As such, we can ask our retailers and ourselves more questions: Do I really need this, or am I just succumbing to marketing? Is there a more local source of this ingredient? Is this being over fished? Does the social cost outweigh my personal benefit?

Of course, negative social costs would arise if markets for these goods were to shut down and workers would find themselves without work. In an ideal situation, they would be reintegrated into local industry…but this opens up the Pandora's box of free market economics versus protectionism.

So, perhaps there is no right answer. Just answers that are more wrong than others.

Moderation is the most realistic approach for consumers: look for the most local produce you can and eat foods that are in season, and eat exotic ingredients only when very necessary.

With this shift in mindset, food manufacturers will follow suit and perhaps content themselves with a smaller piece of the global pie – one that is more locally sourced and does not rob resources from its less fortunate neighbour.

Clarisse Douaud is a reporter with NutraIngredients-USA.com and has lived and worked in Canada, Ireland, Argentina and France. If you would like to comment on the piece, send an email to:clarisse.douaud@decisionnews.com
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