For Peter Munday (@PeterJMundy)
Over the years I’ve read a lot of food journalism, some good, some bad, some best forgotten. Some of it makes what for me is a fundamental error in confusing purchasing behaviour with support. We can start with this quote from Warren Buffet:
“Writing a check separates a commitment from a conversation.”
Many people think that only when you put your money where you mouth is does your opinion count. In this context that tends to mean that people focus on sales, rising sales equal support for local/organic/sustainable food and falling sales are a sign of that support is declining or was only a passing fashionable fad. I tend to think that Mr Buffet is a more sophisticated investor and would understand the following comments about consumer behaviour; a lot of it is not as transparent as we are told. If you talk to consumers, I have for organic products, they will tell you that they buy things by accident, curiosity, because it is discounted or as an alternative to the one they wanted but wasn’t there. Then they might move to discussions about what the product means to them and wider society, and whether they are prepared to pay extra for it. Therefore purchasing only tells part of the story, that of our consumer behaviour.
Conversations are important in our societies, formally they are actually more important than our behaviour as consumers. If by conversations we mean the work of democracy then we have to consider that as well as consumers we are citizens. A lot of market research questions as reported in the press don’t tend to differentiate between when I’m asked a something that I’ll answer as citizen or that I’ll answer as a consumer. If you ask me as to whether I would like a particular product labelled to tell me of its ingredients or origins then I’ll say yes. As a citizen I think it is a good thing that other people have information to use to make their choices, the question was not whether I would buy the product. Much reportage is confused about this distinction.
What we are talking about in these conversations about food labelling, consumption and its impacts is the balance between the market and the state. Different societies balance that differently, in the US the regulation of organics is very different to that in Europe, look at the controversy over the federal organic standards. The rules around advertising are again very different, the use of the word ‘natural’ is particularly revealing. Then the measures to support organic agriculture via on farm environmental schemes are very different. This is then complicated by the work that elected politicians want to organic food/local/sustainable food to do, for some it is the acme of market led food branding and for others an intervention to restore wildlife. All of this is very different from the editors need to fill a column with something that will entice and excite the reader.