Dr Geoffrey Savage
16 May 2005
The Waiheke Island foot-and-mouth scare has reminded us of the vulnerability of New Zealand's agricultural sector and how much we all depend on it.
In addition to the impact on our international trade and economy, the thought of thousands of animals being culled will cause concern in some quarters about the way in which our food is produced.
Consumers are becoming aware of their disconnection from something as fundamental as the sourcing and selecting of our food. No one wants to return to the days of the subsistence farmer, and modern living arrangements often don't accommodate a pig and an orchard, but the complaint we are hearing is that our food has become industrialised.
This is a term which is difficult to define, but it seems that many people feel there is too much distance between the consumer and those we depend on to harvest and process an increasingly varied array of food items. To some extent supermarkets are to blame for this. In the 1940's and 1950's farmers in European countries were encouraged by their respective governments to produce more home-grown food. They were urged to maximize yields and embrace technological advances such as the use of fertilisers and pesticides, increased mechanisation and developments in animal and plant genetics. Agricultural and horticultural output increased enormously during this time. At the same time there was an increase in the one-stop supermarket and consumers gradually became less aware of how their food was being produced and where it was coming from, as they had little contact with food producers.
After half a century of ever-increasing choice and convenience, consumers are starting to question the advantages and disadvantages of an industry which in many ways is controlled by powerful international retailers. Some describe feelings of being sidelined or controlled by corporations and of being disenfranchised within the whole business of providing nutrition for ourselves and our families.
The backlash against the corporate chain can take several forms. In Britain there has been a strong development of farmers markets, which are sometimes called Greenmarkets. The first of these was established in the City of Bath in 1997 and there are now more than 100 around the country. There is also a strong movement in the USA. A feature of these markets is that all products sold should have been grown, reared, caught, brewed, pickled, baked, smoked or processed by the stallholder. These markets allow the public to meet and question the producer if necessary and it also eliminates the middlemen. It is the wholesale markets and the supermarkets that cream the profits and they are largely unresponsive to the public's concern about how the food been produced.
In New Zealand the concept has been tried in a number of cites, with mixed results.
A good example of a true farmers market is the Saturday morning market held in the Dunedin railway station car park. It has been running very successfully for just over two years. Greenmarket principals have been firmly applied by the Trust which runs and regulates the weekly market. Only Otago produce is sold and the organisers are careful to make sure that only high quality produce is sold. They are also careful to make sure that there is a wide range of stalls and no unnecessary duplication occurs. The food on offer is of an exceptionally high standard and the handling procedures have been carefully encouraged by an enlightened Environmental Health unit. All of the stall holders have been through a food safety programme and their facilities and kitchens are regularly inspected.
All appears to be going well with the Dunedin farmers market, but there is a mounting concern about whether the original ideals can be maintained when the market grows. The most important feature is the personal contact between the customer and the producer. Customers need to build up a trust that the producer is following the best practices available. From this will follow an understanding that the quality of food produced locally is of a very high standard. It is essential that these markets are not captured by one ideological group; informed customer choice is an important aspect of these markets.
Small producers also have an important role in product development. Large supermarkets chains are not going to risk valuable shelf space on an unknown product, unless it is supported by an intense promotional campaign. The farmers market is an ideal place to promote new niche products. Those that stand out and have the customers coming back will eventually break through the supermarkets defences and take their place alongside the mass produced brands. The important feature of the farmers markets is that the producer can explain their products and offer tastings.
There are a number of recent examples of specialised produce markets being set up but failing to achieve commercial success, including one here in Christchurch. In most cases it would be fair to say that the failures have been something other than a true farmer s market. The key is to focus only on food and only high quality food and to bring consumers into direct contact with the people who planted, grew, harvested or processed the food on display.
The size and scale of food production today has delivered many benefits to consumers, in terms of value, choice, quality, freshness and food safety. But there will always be some who prefer a closer connection with the origins of their diet. For those that feel uncomfortable with corporate offerings, the farmer's market offers a practical alternative. If the concept is followed faithfully, it will almost certainly work here in Canterbury.
Dr Geoffrey Savage is Senior Lecturer in Food Biochemistry at Lincoln University