young woman in supermarket

A consumer’s take on food security

What could we expect the average shopper to know about food security or why the experts are nervous all of a sudden.

In a recent post on Medium, Alloporus pointed out the flurry of media attention to food security. In short, many experts are worried, and the media is reporting their concerns.

Apprehensions are real. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted supply chains and raised food prices, then the war in Ukraine. Loss of food production from Ukraine and production capability across Europe, especially Russian fertilisers and natural gas used to make fertilisers, is a huge deal. 

Consequences of supply shortages and high food prices are rippling through the global economy and land hardest on the poor and countries that rely on imports, especially wheat.

Putin knows this, of course. His brutal invasion is more than just territory because global food supply disruption works to destabilise the West. But we digress.

The media attention on global food security prompted a thought.

What does Jane Doe, an average consumer in a supermarket, think about food security?

young woman pushing a trolley in a supermarket
Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels

Presumably, food is a bit of a pain. It costs money, has to be carted from the store, takes time to prepare and makes a mess. 

Heck, it even takes some planning, or the worst happens, and there is no milk for the cheerios.

If we asked Jane what mattered to her about food, here is what she might say: 

  • Keep food cheap
  • Make food easy to buy, prepare and eat
  • Make sure food can be eaten while holding a phone
  • The kids must want to eat it
  • Never run out of banana twinkies

Of course, Jane may be a good cook, worry about healthy eating and have an eye on food miles because she knows that is bad for the environment. She may even know a little about nutrients, the inflammatory consequences of too much sugar and grains, and the need to avoid processed foods. And she values the delight in good food, especially when shared with friends and family. 

In that case, we should add concerns to the list:

  • Keep fresh fruit and vegetables available
  • Make sure there are low salt, low fat, and low-calorie options on the shelves
  • Make reusable bags compulsory 
  • Reduce packaging
  • Make sure the best recipes are pinned on Pintrest.

The supermarket might not meet all these needs. Jane may buy some food from local growers, choose organic options from local suppliers, and perhaps cook vegetarian meals for her family. 

Even if Jane is a bit of a foodie, with a worry or two about the environment, it is doubtful that she will know anything about why the global food supply is insecure or what must happen to feed everyone well. 

Issues on the following list are not generally in the average consumer’s mind. 

  • overreliance on intensive production methods (the energy subsidy)
  • fertiliser inputs that come from fossil fuels
  • long ‘just in time’ supply chains
  • overreliance on food imports 
  • single source supply
  • soil degradation
  • climate change impacts on production volume and efficiency
  • micronutrient deficiency in foods

If she knew about these things would it change her attitude to anything on the first list?

Perhaps, but knowledge of the precarious nature of global food production does not alter her household budget. Food price rises have an impact on that. Food preparation remains a household chore, and the fussy generation Alpha will not suddenly become all zen and do the dishes.

Global food security issues are not familiar or immediate for Jane. Knowledge of them makes her nervous. They all sound big, complex, and confusing. She has no idea how to fix them and feels impotent to make a difference.

She is keen to help if there is something she can do, so long as she can still cope with the challenges posed in the first list.  


What sustainably FED suggests

We cannot expect the average supermarket shopper to know anything about global food security. 

They have priorities that come with everyday life, and just as a single vote does not change any democratic election, her actions seem tiny because they are. Even the fresh food shopper is still a consumer.

Knowledge of the issues is likely to make Jane feel worse.

But the real pain is coming. The trend is for more and more people, including Janes, that buy food in supermarkets to feel food insecure. Prices will rise, supply shortages will happen, and reduced access will change behaviour.

We suggest that this inevitability can just happen, or we can let jane know how bad it will be and what she can do to adapt. 

Then maybe knowledge can become power. 


Hero image modified from photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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