To ethically source global food products, think like a locavore

02 February 2022, 07:48 AM
  • How can independent retailers find the local in the global? Lisa De Vellis explains the benefits of adopting an ethos centred around local food – the locavore philosophy
To ethically source global food products, think like a locavore

The UK is a nation of ethical eaters, with many championing the locavore philosophy. 

This philosophy advocates for domestic food systems by paying a premium for local products, supporting farmers and encouraging best farming practices. Eating local food shortens the supply chain, rebalancing power dynamics in favour of the farmer. This fosters trust while enhancing the personal connection we feel with our food.

The locavore approach can be applied to global food systems, prioritising human rights of those responsible for growing and harvesting raw agricultural products over business interests and corporate gains.

However, global food systems are driven by market-based interests. The UK chocolate industry, valued at nearly £4 billion, relies on Ghanaian cocoa. Despite best efforts toward conscientious food sourcing, the use of trafficked child labour in the Ghanaian cocoa sector and, hence, in the UK chocolate sector, is a clear human rights violation. 

This represents an ethical and moral blind spot within both the locavore philosophy and our global food chains.

Shortening the chain with smallholder cooperatives

Fine food retailers sell both local and imported speciality products, demonstrating a retail awareness that ethical local and global foods can coexist.

A critical first step toward more sustainable global-food supply chains would be shortening food supply chains by shifting the value-added processing activities, such as roasting coffee beans, extracting oils, pressing juices, or canning fruit, into the hands of the smallholder farmers at ground level.

At present, value-added processing is often undertaken by a corporate entity in a wealthier country, drastically diminishing smallholder farmers’ profits and forfeiting development opportunities that would support human rights and agricultural best practices.

Shortening supply chains also facilitates the implementation of quality assurance measures throughout the supply chain. This minimises obfuscation of unethical practices including the worst forms of child labour. 

Valuing the origin-specificity of global foods

In 2021, Ghanaian president Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo announced his intention to cease raw cocoa export to Switzerland (and possibly elsewhere), supporting domestic cocoa processing and chocolate manufacturing for export instead of the lesser-processed (and lesser-valued) forms of cocoa. 

This proclamation created concern among multi-national corporations, including big-name UK chocolatiers, for obvious reasons. However, from a retail and consumer standpoint, this is beneficial.

Locavores appreciate the local quality of domestic products. Wine is an excellent example of this; its origin is intrinsically linked to its pedigree. This is why restaurant menus organise wines by region. In principle, the desirability associated with a particular wine’s origin is a sentiment that could be applied more generally to our global food systems.

Appreciation of a food’s origin places value on the rights of farmers. Imagine the marketing potential of promoting exciting, origin-specific tastes of other foods, such as Ivory Coast coconut oil, Guinean pineapple cubes and Ghanaian mango compote. Fine food retailers are well positioned to headline this campaign.

Harnessing the locavore ethos

As an essential link between producer and consumer, UK retailers can harness the locavore ethos, sourcing products from smallholder cooperatives to help address inequalities. In the case of Ghanaian chocolate, the trade environment appears to enable this.

The UK entered an interim trade deal in 2021 that allows for the tariff-free import of all Ghanaian-originated cocoa and chocolate products, regardless of the stage of product transformation. 

If this trade deal works as intended, it means that neither the Ghanaian farmer/producer nor the UK retailer/consumer will be disincentivised or penalised for the trade of finished chocolate products.

Ghanaian grown-and-produced speciality chocolates could soon be lining our shelves, supporting job creation, export-led growth and economic development in Ghana. Corporate interests may not like this, but the point of transferring the locavore ethos to global food systems is to supersede business interests with human interests.

Human rights are universal and indivisible, but, in global food systems, are an afterthought. Legal (and moral) human rights obligations demand action and ought to be the primary lens through which to view food systems. 

Retailers connect farmers and consumers, and they can remove links in the global supply chain by sourcing finished products from smallholder cooperatives. Applying the locavore ethos shifts power to the smallholder, supporting sustainable best practices – and the consumer enjoys a wider range of ethical speciality global food products, too.

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