It’s been a fascinating process getting feedback from experts, the public, and the Good Food Oxford Steering Group on the draft Oxford Good Food Charter, which, when launched next month, will become a statement of our shared vision for a better food system in Oxford. A shared vision is no easy thing to create – food, as well as bringing people together, arouses strong emotions and sometimes conflicting views. But however frustrating it has sometimes felt to make ‘revision number 23 to draft 17.5’ of the Charter, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a diverse group of people input their thoughts, each and every one making it a stronger document.
Some meaty issues.
Interestingly, most of the debate has centred not on the nine points on page 1 outlining a vision of food that is good for people, good for the planet and good for communities, but on the points on the second page about how to achieve that vision. This is both encouraging and daunting – it reveals that there is a lot of shared ground on how we would like the world to be, but that there is work to be done to come to a more coherent picture of how to achieve that vision. Some of the most hotly debated points have been around meat consumption. Meat not only carries one of the highest greenhouse gas footprints per kilogram and per calorie of any food, but also raises important issues of animal welfare, and indeed whether it is morally right to be eating meat at all. But while vegans have a point that their diet has the lowest GHG emissions, and the fewest animal welfare implications, part of our job is to create a Charter that appeals to and engages with the mainstream – we can’t afford to frighten people off. It was also pointed out that sending the message of a blanket reduction in meat and dairy consumption could adversely effect small food producers depending on these products for their livelihoods, the subject of the ‘local economy’ point in our vision.
Local chickens and eggs.
A second touchpoint has been the level of prominence to give to local food in the recommendations section. Many of the respondents to the Charter consultation identify closely with the local food movement and have devoted much time and energy to pushing forward local production and consumption through farmers’ markets and box schemes. Yet while local food helps fulfil a good number of the vision criteria (knowledge and skills, jobs and livelihoods, regional food culture, to name a few), there are still issues of affordability, and recent studies suggest that ‘local’ as a single criterion does little to reduce the overall environmental impacts of food – indeed transport emissions are only a small part of overall emissions, and local transportation methods may be less energy efficient than larger-scale logistics. As some of our respondents pointed out, one of the main issues with over-emphasising local food as solution is that the scale of the local food system is currently so small. As the 2013 FoodPrinting Oxford report discovered, somewhere less than 0.5 of Oxford’s food is directly traded from local farmers. We should indeed be working hard to raise this percentage, but in the meantime we also need to be reaching out to increase the sustainability of the remaining 99.5% of our food system.
Finally, we have had interesting discussions on labelling and certification as routes to improving the sustainability of our food. Labels are a contentious issue as while some, like Organic, were seen to offer a firm guarantee of quality, ethics and environmental integrity, other labels, like Red Tractor, were viewed by many with suspicion that they were little more than signs of basic legal compliance. Others were concerned that labels such as RSPCA Freedom Foods gave the impression of high animal welfare whilst masking conditions that might still be unacceptable to some. Fairtrade also provoked some controversy, with the important point raised that non-certified groups of farmers in the developing world can stand to lose out compared to their certified neighbours who win extra support and premium prices. Closer to home, promoting labels like Organic could have an adverse impact on smaller producers who cannot afford certification fees. After some discussion of all of these issues within the Steering Group it was decided that certification could be a useful tool for choosing more sustainable food (we particularly flagged the MSC certification for fish in this respect), but only in the context of consumers gaining greater knowledge of the food system as a whole and being encouraged to use their own judgement in choosing food, whether certified or not.
Within the next few days we’ll be putting the final touches to the Charter and there will be a copy on the web site soon. It has been a wonderful juggling act and learning process to try to take into account the many valid and passionately held views that food arouses in us and to craft them into a document that is still practical enough to have real impact on the mainstream. We hope that you’re happy with the final product when it is released. Thank you for all your views and inputs and we look forward to continuing the discussions – the Charter is just the start!