A trip to the market or grocery store can be challenging for the conscientious consumer. We want our food to be tasty, nutritious and healthy but we also have to consider whether it was farmed and packaged in an environmentally sustainable way.
This approach to shopping marks a cultural shift that factors sustainability into the food safety equation. The main driving force of this movement has been an explosion in consumer-driven food activism over the past few decades.
Activists have long contested the conditions that disconnect us (humans), both physically and emotionally, from the natural systems that supply our food. They advocate a return to a safe, sustainable, and healthy food supply system that honours the symbiotic relationship between humans and our natural environment.
A 2020 article by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser synthesises data from multiple studies to highlight the gravity of the problem: Agriculture accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, uses almost half of the world’s habitable land and consumes up to 70 per cent of global freshwater resources.
As a result, rethinking our food production methods is at the heart of tackling global environmental challenges. Whether it’s reducing water stress and pollution, restoring lands back to forests and grasslands or protecting our wildlife: the data clearly shows that we can make progress in addressing all of these issues by shifting to more sustainable food supply systems.
“When agricultural operations are sustainably managed, they can preserve and restore critical habitats, help protect watersheds, and improve soil health and water quality”Worldwildlife.org – Sustainable Agriculture Overview, 2021
But, what exactly is sustainable food production?
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) defines sustainable food production as a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that is economically, socially, and environmentally feasible. Furthermore, all of this must be achieved without compromising the needs of future generations. This system encompasses the entire food production value chain which includes the people farming, harvesting, processing and selling our food. The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) Delegation in Trinidad and Tobago is one key organisation that works to put this definition into practice locally.
We, the consumers also have a role to play
Consumers can impact the types of food production systems that are available to us. We wield considerable power in driving systemic change by making more sustainable food choices, a phenomenon known as “sustainable consumption”. This phenomenon has blossomed into a lifestyle for many and is even now referred to by different names across various fields of research.
Lee et al. (2009) and Varman and Belk (2009) refer to it as “anti-consumption” while Barnett et al. (2010), Lewis and Potter (2011) and Carrier and Leutchford (2012) refer to it as “ethical consumption”.
Through this lifestyle, consumers are driven to oppose industrial food production in favour of more sustainable food production systems.
The consumer should always seek to have a close relationship with their fresh produce that goes beyond simply scanning shelves for an attractive appearance or advantageous price point. We should be asking questions about what cultivation practices were used and what processing activities are involved in the value chain before making our selections.
Some factors being considered more frequently by consumers according to Bougherara & Combris (2009) and Czarnezki (2011) include: genetic modifications; eco-labelling; fair trade practices; organic cultivation; local cultivation, use of farmers’ markets; community supported agriculture; and consumer-buying cooperatives.
For consumers in Trinidad and Tobago to better understand how these concepts apply to our local produce, a greater level of transparency and traceability in the value chain is needed.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trade routes and supply chains has accentuated this even more in the past year as the ‘new normal’ continues to disrupt market activity.
The way forward
Consumer behaviour is now more complex now than ever before. The contemporary consumer looks for fresh fruits and vegetables that have not been preserved, yet, have not spoiled. Not only do we want to buy produce that is sustainably grown but we also demand that our food is well inspected with quality assurances that are factual and can be verified. Moreover, we also demand that our food be fresh and available for purchase almost instantaneously after harvest.
This puts farmers in a position where they must work hard through innovative processes, business functions and new supply chains to meet the expectations of the growing sustainable consumption movement. The demand for increased transparency and traceability in produce has led policymakers locally to explore new initiatives that would motivate the adoption of sustainable farming practices through frameworks such as good agricultural practices and good handling practices.
Beyond the indiscriminate use of pesticides and other harmful farm chemicals, many of our local food products are packaged with single-use plastic. According to Ronald Roach, CEO of the Solid Waste Management Company (SWMCOL), Trinidad and Tobago generates an estimated 700,000 tonnes of waste which would be equivalent to the combined weight of ten Great pyramids of Giza. Each of us contributes up to three pounds of waste to this total daily.
There are many efforts underway, by the government, civil society and private farmer-led organisations, to curb and stop the ‘throwaway culture’ that exists locally.
Some of these efforts include a push to introduce legislation like the Waste Bill and Beverage Container Bill, to reduce waste and simple farm-businesses utilising biodegradable packaging for produce.
The Cropper Foundation (TCF) has taken up the challenge and has partnered with farmers to use eco-friendly cultivation practices and use biodegradable packaging for their produce under the GROW brand as part of their Making Agriculture Profitable and Sustainable (MAPS) project. The Alliance of Rural Communities (ARCTT) has also been a civil society leader in their development of collective production facilities where community-based farmers can process raw materials grown chemical-free in their their geographic area and receive assistance to market their product in a way that avoids single use plastic.
Ultimately however, initiatives led by the government, civil society or private interests can only be effective with support from the general public as demand dictates supply. We the consumers must take the initiative and remember when we shop that if it’s not safe for the planet, chances are it’s not safe for us.