Sustaining Consumer Choice
by Lee McCosker
This article has been published in the latest edition of International Lifestyle Magazine (Issue 42) http://www.internationallifestylemagazine.com
Making a conscious decision to purchase food for the family table that has been grown under more natural, welfare friendly and sustainable methods is a personal choice and one that we all have the right to make. But just how much do we understand about our food systems, or indeed, how much do we really want to know? The realities of farming animals for food can be confronting.
Knowledge brings with it a sense of responsibility and perhaps a level of accountability that makes us a little uncomfortable especially when we know that all we have to rely on is the wording on a label.
The words free range summon images of farm animals enjoying a bucolic and happy life grazing on open fields and free of the restraints of cages and crates and overcrowding that we have learned are the norm in intensive, factory farms.
We are concerned enough that we are prepared to spend extra money to ensure that the food we bring to our family table is grown with respect for the animal that produced it. We explore the food' s labels and the claims of organic, free range, free roaming and all natural soothe our concerns and give us confidence that we are supporting a production system that farms our food with humanity and respect, giving the animal the best life possible.
Its so much easier to trust in a label that says ˜free range' and allow it to triggers our own understanding of the term, censoring niggling doubts and consequently ticking off those boxes in our conscience.
Unfortunately our concern for animal welfare, wholesome food production and our faith in food labelling is naive and being exploited by industry and somewhere in the recesses of our minds we know this but what other choice do we have?
Its not rocket science to figure out that factory farming it is definitely not in the best interest of the animals. Intensive production is about producing eggs and meat at the least possible cost while cutting every corner in the name of efficient production.
Raising animals under free range conditions should have been the solution to factory farming and for a very short while it was. As demand has grown so to has the pressure from major supermarkets to get a piece of the action. Unfortunately not only do the supermarkets want to stock their shelves with free range labels, they want it as cheap as possible. Major supermarkets are now applying the same pressure to free range production: faster, bigger, cheaper.
As they say, knowledge is power so perhaps a quick overview of the humble beginnings of agriculture will enlighten.
The history of agriculture dates back thousands of years and has been defined by different cultures and climates and in more recent times, technology. Modern society and agriculture have grown together and brought about community, human values and a respect for natural resources. Major cities and town have grown up around agricultural centres.
Over the past century large scale agriculture has spread rapidly throughout the developed world with the introduction of machine driven farming equipment and the development of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. These large scale farms are based on monocultures and now dominate the modern farming landscape. Transport systems now allow us to ship produce anywhere in the world. Organised society has come a long way from our original hunter gatherer lifestyle.
We no longer have to give much thought to where tonight' s meal is coming from, or do we? Concerns have been raised over the sustainability of landless or feedlot systems and monocultures typical of intensive farming practices. Intensive farming systems are now often independent of local and natural resources, the very foundation on which modern agriculture was founded Has intensive agriculture gone too far? These concerns have driven the demand for food produced under organic or free range systems and the growth of specialty grocers and farmers markets. There is a ' ˜back to basics' movement growing in our rural communities and in the minds of concerned consumers.
Limited time, resources and a lack of awareness of the power they have in their purse, means today' s busy consumer puts blind faith in labels trusting that the supermarkets are accountable for such claims instead of asking those all important questions. They have little concept of how big a difference they could make if they just said ' ˜I want' . I want truth in labelling. I want free range to be free to range. I want to buy food from sustainable farms and I want and I expect that I am getting what I have paid for.
While the supermarkets are employing smoke and mirror tactics over label claims, the peak egg industry body in Australia is busy bullying government and producers into allowing the intensification of the free range industry without a single concern for what the consumer wants or expects.
The problem of defining free range is a universal one but no other country has tried to push the boundaries of that meaning as far as Australia' s Egg Corporation.
The Australian Egg Corporation is attempting to manipulate the Code of Practice for Animal Welfare for the benefit of the large corporate producers and to appease the supermarkets demands for more free range product. All parties stand to make a tidy profit by taking advantage of the demand for free range all the while assuming the consumer is too ignorant to catch on.
Its time to exert some consumer muscle and send a very loud message to the industry and to government that consumers have driven the demand for free range product and they have an expectation of what free range means and that they will not tolerated being conned. The consumer will decide what free range means.
Humane Choice, a division of Humane Society International, represents true free range producers and they have taken this argument to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission resulting in an ongoing investigation into the Egg Corporations proposal to increase stocking densities for layer hens to 20,000 birds per hectare. The consumer is finally being given a voice but we have a long battle ahead of us to keep the free range industry true.
Sustaining consumer choice is worth fighting for.