This was the take-home message at a workshop on sustainability in the food chain, organised by Dr Maria Touri and Dr Jennifer Smith Maguire from the University of Leicester's College of Social Sciences last month. Six SMEs and 14 academics and doctorate students took part in the workshop.
Consumers needed to feel a hands-on, personal involvement in the food production process in a bottom-up direction in order to become interested in sustainability issues, Touri said. “Labelling and advertising are top-down initiatives and they are not as effective as we often think. For instance, there are studies that have demonstrated how consumers in the UK find labels difficult to understand, not to mention that labelling and certification do not always offer adequate assurance about the quality of food, as the entry barriers tend to become lower and lower. Engaging the consumer more directly in the food chain may be a slower and more time-consuming process, but it is more likely to have longer-term effects.”
Social scientists could provide the link needed to help SMEs connect with consumers, close the gap between producers and consumers, and thus fuel the drive towards sustainability. “The more producers and consumers engage with each other, the more empowered consumers will also feel to engage in ethical practices that support environmental and social sustainability,” Touri told FoodNavigator.
SMEs should be taking part in more conferences and events where they could learn from social scientists who had the tools to offer them the information they needed. They could help SMEs identify valuable stories to tell that could add value to their products, or educate the public to clarify misconceptions about business practices.
Touri said: “Social sciences underline the social relations that connect food production and consumption and how important they are for building sustainable practices. (…) In a nutshell, in order to develop sustainable practices in food, we also need to pay attention to the social side of sustainability, and the important role that relations can play.”
One local SME participant, Pick's Organic Farm and Shop, said a valuable story for consumers could involve communicating the farm-to-fork 'life story' of the products.
Local versus global?
But why should all the focus be on SMEs when big food companies had a much bigger impact on the way we ate?
According to Touri, real connections between producers and consumers could only happen in small-scale settings. She cited the Slow Food Network and Community Supported Agriculture as good examples of this. “But ‘small-scale’ does not mean ‘limited’, because if knowledge is spread, these practices will be replicated across different places and spaces. This is how sustainability can also become achievable. Big food corporations have specific agendas and will talk about sustainability in different ways, depending on their interests,” she said.
However, in an online blog, Nick Hughes, food sustainability adviser at WWF-UK, said that even though food had long since ceased to be a local business, that didn’t mean local and global food supply chains had to be diametrically opposed.
“It’s important that local and global should not be viewed as in competition and that we look for synergies between the two. This means global institutions learning from and encouraging grass roots food movements and those at the centre of local food policy ensuring efforts are directed towards international objectives on development, health and nutrition and environmental sustainability,” he wrote.