Big food system lacks consumer connection, local policies

Local food production and marketing have been taking a beating since the 1950s, when expansion of the grocery industry combined with consumers’ increased access to car travel.

Before those two major shifts occurred, just about every town had a farmers market and local grocery stores regularly dealt with farmers to sell local produce.

William Ramp, a sociology professor at the University of Leth-bridge, said even with those changes, demand for local food remains strong and often exceeds local producers’ ability to grow and adequately market it.

In fact, he believes most grocery chain store managers would like to feature more local food but are hindered by logistics, such as getting approval from a distant head office, food safety regulations, adequate supply and transportation.

Ramp is completing a study of local food systems and gave a presentation on his findings Sept. 17.

He and colleagues conducted about 30 interviews with farmers, agri-businesses and researchers for the project.

They found that many southern Alberta farmers who grow and market food directly to consumers are optimistic that the gap can be bridged between producers’ need to earn a living and consumers’ understanding of how food is grown and their willingness to pay.

Farmers one or more steps re-moved from direct contact with consumers are less optimistic about improving the general under-standing about costs and production methods.

“It makes sense to me that producers who are more in touch directly with consumers are going to forge relationships in which the consumers are going to learn more about what it takes to produce and what a producer needs to survive in the business,” Ramp said after his presentation.

He acknowledged that consumers who seek information from farmers are probably already informed at some level.

“Nonetheless, if it were made easier somehow for a larger number of people to get in touch with producers … there would be more opportunity for consumers to ask questions, including silly questions,” he said.

“You have to have a producer who is willing to keep on answering the same old, same old, same old, questions with another customer.”

Producers who export commodities may have fewer opportunities, or perhaps less inclination, to discuss their operations and methods.

“The problem with the way the big food system has gone, what they call industrial ag or export oriented commodity production has gone, is that progressively the consumer is way down the line,” said Ramp.

His research showed that many food producers who market directly to consumers are run off their feet because of the dual demands of production and marketing.

Paperwork related to a patchwork of regulations takes time, as does implementation of the rules.

“I think that governments need to put the investment, and part of its money and time, into developing good long-term policy” for local food systems, said Ramp.

“There has been too much seat-of-the-pants policy making in all of the provinces, especially in Alberta under the previous government.”

Ramp said some government policies are made in response to a specific event or scandal. The matter is addressed in the short term, but the longer-term implications are not well enough considered.

“We need policies that are reviewed consistently, reviewed periodically and thought about carefully. That’s the one thing we need. What we also need in government is a rethinking of what policy is about. And it’s not about stopping stuff to keep us safe,” he said.

“Policy needs to be thought of from the standpoint of the policy user and thought of in terms of how to make it easier for the user to do the right things.”

Ramp said agricultural policy needs to recognize there are two large sectors: traditional, commodity oriented producers and those involved in niche, small-scale and locally oriented production.

“There’s a need for good policy to protect and facilitate commodity production, especially people trying new stuff with commodity production. Large scale organic, for example,” he said.

“There also needs to be a policy initiative directed at the smaller scale producers, producing a regulatory regime that works for them.”

Other project findings included variable definitions of “local” when it comes to food and interest in organic production but not labelling food as such because of the regulatory hurdles.

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