A matter of opinion: the power of labels

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Patrick Holden is a farmer, activist and founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust. He argues for a more transparent system of food labelling, designed to give clear information about its source

If we are to transform our food systems, everything turns on knowing the stories behind our food. During the Obama administration, the then US deputy secretary of agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, introduced a programme called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, designed to coordinate and publicise local and regional food systems.

The name said it all: the more you know about the source of your food, the more empowered you are to invest in your health and the health of the planet—and, critically, the more power you grant to the primary producer. Knowing who they are, you can ensure that they get a fair price for their products and are rewarded for producing food in the most sustainable and healthy way possible.

It’s amazing how little of this information is routinely available when you shop in the UK. This is, to put it bluntly, because supermarkets treat their suppliers as commodity slaves. By driving the price down below the cost of production, they force producers to create food in ways that are unsustainable and unhealthy. Because of this, they have a vested interest in promoting anonymity. Check it out the next time you visit a supermarket:

Meaningful information
I guarantee you will find it very difficult to find labelling transparent enough to give you meaningful information about either the identity of the producer or the method of production.

We can change all this if we exercise our buying power and commit to choosing products whose provenance is known to us. If enough people do this, it could open a whole new chapter of food production, epitomised by the values of transparency, authenticity and fair trade, enabling consumers to be personally connected to the story behind their food, and finally moving away from today’s damaging industrial production systems.

My organisation, the Sustainable Food Trust, is working to support this change through the introduction of a new set of sustainability metrics, presented in the form of a score, providing information about all aspects of the production story: the management of the soil, plants and animals; the crop rotations used to build fertility; the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions and all forms of pollution; the promotion of biodiversity and animal welfare; the ethical treatment of all workers.

Assessing sustainability
We are hoping that this system of assessing sustainability through an annual self-audit could become available in the marketplace within the next year. Imagine coming to Borough Market to buy cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy, one of the supporters of this initiative. They stock a range of cheeses, some certified organic—including the cheese from my farm, as it happens—and others not certified but still highly sustainable.

If Neal’s Yard Dairy and its supplier farms decided to follow the system, each of the cheeses would have a sustainability score on the label, together with a barcode enabling you to access the scoring data on your smartphone and learn more about the strengths of that particular producer’s farming story. Now imagine if the supermarkets began to follow suit. That could usher in a whole new era of transparency in food labelling.