A matter of opinion: knowledge is power

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Abi Aspen Glencross, co-founder of The Sustainable Food Story, on the need for transparency in the food system

I used to think we just needed more transparency about the meat we eat—where it comes from, how the animals are raised and slaughtered. What I’ve come to understand, though, is that we need it for everything.

For example, I carried out some research into what goes into certain toaster pastries. There were mined elements and dyes that we use for colouring jeans. In our food! Commercially produced strong white bread flour is often fortified with chalk. It’s easy to stay comfortable—ignorance is bliss—but the more we know, the more we can start making better decisions in our everyday lives.

It’s not just transparency that we need, but clarity. If you are told about something but are unaware of the context or meaning, it’s no good. Chicken is often advertised as having been corn-fed, as though it’s an obvious reason to buy it—but is it good for chickens to be fed on corn? Labels shout about the products being ‘organic’, but what does that actually mean? Most people probably couldn’t tell you. We need something that helps us better understand the provenance of what we’re buying. We need clearer, more standardised food labels.

Clarity and transparency
Clarity and transparency are most readily found outside of the supermarket system, in places where the connection between producer and consumer is as close and personal as possible. There is a lot of resistance going on: initiatives for growing vegetables in central London, in community spaces and in hospitals; the local veg box schemes that are springing up all over; markets like Borough.

I really value any platform that offers direct access to farmers and producers, with an emphasis on sustainability and ethicality. I know that London can be a bit of a bubble, but these things are starting to happen all over the country. Little by little, people are beginning to realise that knowing where their food comes from matters, that things don’t grow all year-round and that strawberries taste rubbish in February.

But, realistically, if we’re not going to turn away from supermarkets completely, how do we make them more transparent? Organisations like ours can apply the pressure—there’s a constant nag for them to improve—but it also needs to come from people’s buying choices. The more customers choose free range and grass-fed meats, the more supermarkets are going to stock them. The more they ask questions about what’s in their food and where it came from, the more supermarkets are going to have to answer them.

We all share the responsibility for making a stronger, better food system. We need to believe that we can all make a difference—because we can. Every person has that power.