Meeting makers

A more personal relationship with our food producers will bring change, writes Sean Connelly.

Pressures on our food system will increase in the next few decades. Population growth, income inequality and shifting food preferences (towards more meat and dairy) on the demand side and climate change, soil erosion and water pollution and scarcity on the supply side, will make meeting global food demand more challenging. There is general agreement that the food system needs to change, but all kinds of debate about how and what that change might look like and who will be the drivers for change.

Risk is associated with all calls for change. Managing risks and uncertainties is critical in any attempt to transform social behaviour, particularly with regards to food. But who should bear the risks of change? Should those risks be shared equally among all stakeholders? What process exists to guide decision-making and policy about what is an acceptable level of risk?

For consumers, it is relatively easy and low-risk to consume ethically, locally or green. We can pick and choose and feel good about ourselves for doing it. But, if we are in a hurry or are short of cash, we can always revert to a plethora of other less ethical or sustainable choices. Aside from a bit of guilt, we suffer no personal consequences. While the mantra "vote with your dollar" is a powerful first step, it is too individualised, convenient and selective to be sufficient on its own to drive change.

Farmers, artisans and producers, on the other hand, face a huge risks. They can embrace environmentally-friendly practices, pay their workers a living wage and search out new markets or certifications for their products, all of which entail significant up-front costs.  However, there is no guarantee that people will buy their products at a price that justifies their investments. In addition, they are at the mercy of uncertain environmental conditions and weather and often competition from other producers. If things do not work out, their livelihoods are at risk.

In many ways, the transition towards a more local and sustainable food system is a chicken  and egg situation.  Farmers are reluctant to increase supply unless they are certain demand exists, but it is hard to raise awareness for consumers if there isn’t sufficient supply.

The ability of all stakeholders to manage that dilemma collectively is critical. That is why relationships across the food system are so important. Farmers markets, farm gate sales and community-supported agriculture are good examples of building trust and relationships that is necessary for building a different kind of food system. However, the relationships that exist between producers and consumers (i.e. food processors, distributors and the food service industry) are also important, particularly for scaling up the impact of change.

Vancouver’s Meet Your Maker event is one attempt to try  to  build those relationships and share the risk of transitioning towards a more local and sustainable food system.

Meet Your Maker is an annual one-day event  at which local small-scale food producers get together with food buyers (cafes, restaurants, caters, small-scale grocery stores and institutional food providers) for workshops, information sessions and networking designed to grow the regional food economy. These events have been successful in developing and solidifying relationships among food producers and retail buyers both in terms of contracts for the coming season and a better understanding of the challenges that both producers and buyers face in advancing local food. Based on these personal relationships, some of the uncertainties and risks of the local food economy are addressed. More than $1 million in new contracts have been generated since the first event in 2008.

It also emphasises the importance of change beyond just producers and consumers, by embracing all stakeholders involved in the food system.

- Sean Connelly is a lecturer in the University of Otago Department of Geography. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.

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