A Global Perspective
Getting a handle on complex issues – like food systems – sometimes means looking at the topic from a new perspective. For me, getting a new perspective meant getting out of Canada.
For a year, I lived and worked in northern Ghana, where I witnessed first hand the influence of ‘commodity dumping:’ when a country sells a commodity to a foreign market for much less than what it would sell within its domestic market. In many developing countries, this practice creates a toxic cycle of cheap food at the expense of local economic development.
Northern Ghana has enormous capacity to produce rice locally, and it is a staple part of the local diet, yet rice farmers can buy foreign rice cheaper than they can produce their own crop. That is because many foreign sources of rice are highly subsidized and when that cheap rice is sold in Ghana, smallholder farmers can’t compete – undermining the possibility of a competitive and thriving local economy.
The Ghanaian rice dilemma is labelled a food dumping issue. In Canada, the same issue has largely been framed as a local food issue. If we set the obvious differences of extreme poverty aside (which I do not want to under-represent), there are common themes between the equity of food production in Ghana and in Canada. Namely, our farmers are also subjected to a toxic cycle of cheap food at the expense of local economic development.
Back to Canada
Let me tell a story that exemplifies this. When I returned home to Canada from Ghana, I went into a community grocery store in Edmonton and did what I had always done before living abroad: I grabbed a hand basket and started to hunt for the first item on my list. Suddenly, I stopped and looked around – the grocery store had enough food variety to satisfy almost any whim I had.
Grocery stores have 60-100 thousand individual products with different tastes, prices, brands, coupons, sales, and marketing. Who makes all that food? Which companies craft those recipes and brand stories? Standing in the grocery store, there is no way of knowing the answers or understanding that part of our food system.
Yet the majority of food in grocery stores comes from fewer than a hundred companies. There is an illusion of abundant choice, but when we track our purchases back to who we are giving our money to, that choice diminishes.
In this way, we are very like the Ghanaian rice farmer who buys foreign rice because that rice is, temporarily, the best option at hand.
We lack the information, and thus the impetus, to invest in our own communities through our purchases. We are habituated to not knowing, and not looking to know, who makes our food, how it was made, where it was made, and who we are giving our money to. This situation is called ‘information asymmetry:’ the disparity between what consumers know about the lifecycle of their food products and the information there is to know.
What about the power of information and informed choice?
Can’t we develop a way for consumers to have access to the full context of their food?
The answer is that we can.
In a world where we are constantly connected to the internet of everything via new technologies, we, as consumers, can expect to see the barriers of information fall away, giving us the power to choose and purchase based on our own values. And as the information asymmetry diminishes, the power to build a more resilient food system emerges.
The public discourse on food issues has been growing for years, but an opportunity has been missed by not including grocers in the dialogue or the exploration of solutions that could be mobilized within the retail grocery world.
Systemically, grocery stores have enormous power to effect change in how we eat and from whom we buy our food. As I have built Localize for the last two and a half years, one of the most gratifying and hopeful signs of change has been the willingness of grocers to be part of a solution. They are increasingly becoming the power brokers between consumers and food producers, creating opportunities for both of these players to align with a common vision. They are searching for the same solutions as their customers: economically viable ways to respond to and resolve issues that consumers care about.
At Localize, our major success has been aligning the values of grocers, consumers, and food businesses. Consumers want informed choice and transparency; producers need to be able to compete fairly and gain access to retail space; and grocers need to be able to market and communicate innovative approaches in a way that serves their brand and their operating budgets.
How have we done this? We work to create systems that enable the rapid flow of information between and to all of these stakeholders. Our concept isn’t all that complicated: We aggregate information about food – who produced it, where, the narrative behind where and how they sourced ingredients – and then connect with grocers to make that information available along with the price of a product: aka the point of sale.
A simple concept, but the power and impact of information is enormous: consumers are empowered to make informed decisions at the point of sale on how to align their dollars with their values and grocers are empowered to engage directly in the issues that their customers care about – a major step towards fairer food.
Future Fair Food
Fair food is about destroying the barriers to making decisions in alignment with our own values, by building systems to facilitate informed choice. Local producers and processors have enormous power to build transparency into their brands from the ground up and, someday, the largest food businesses might follow suit, providing high-quality information to consumers about how they have sourced and produced their food.
Localize’s audacious goal is to be at the forefront of designing and building a system that supports a world where consumers have access to the full story of their food. Building systems that sustain themselves and make sense to everyone is the engine of our growth. Most importantly, we envision a day in the not-so-distant future where we scoff at the idea that food could ever lack this basic information; where we ‘take for granted’ the opportunity to engage in choice via a symmetrical relationship of information between producer and consumer.