From the Editor: February-March 2017

The local paradox
Lianne Appleby
February 15, 2017
Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the last 30 years, you know producers of food now have to pay a lot more attention to what the end consumer wants than perhaps they did in the past. The fact that it may cost more to produce a commodity if the animal is housed differently is of little concern to Joe Shopper. What he or she wants to do is make a “feel-good” purchase.

But animal welfare isn’t the only consideration in the sale of agricultural goods.  Presentation and packaging, brand, familiarity – they all play a role in decision making. Even things like colour (as we know from the choice of brown or white eggs) can affect a purchase.

In a 2004 book written by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, the author speaks about the welfare of not animals, but human beings. Of being free to choose what we think will maximize our own welfare.

The Paradox of Choice (funnily enough, one printing of it has a carton of eggs on the cover) offers the suggestion that the more choices consumers face, the more anxious they become and thus, welfare suffers. Schwartz says that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce unease for shoppers.

“Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy,” says Schwartz in chapter five. “Nonetheless, though modern [we] have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”

Simply put – choice stresses people out. In Schwartz’s estimation, choice has not made us more free, but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.

Switching gears for a moment, on Feb. 8, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture marked Food Freedom Day - the day the average Canadian had earned enough income to pay for his/her grocery bill for the entire year. The fanfare around Food Freedom Day serves as an opportunity for Canadians to consider their individual role in the Canadian food system and as another cue to buy local at every opportunity.

“There are plenty of reasons why we encourage consumers to buy Canadian,” says CFA President Ron Bonnett on the CFA website. “Domestically produced food does not face the same exchange rate increase we have been seeing with imported products. By understanding what is available each season in Canada, consumers can contribute to Canadian food security while also keeping their family’s food bill down.

“Choosing Canadian products at the grocery store is an incredibly important role that Canadian consumers have in supporting farmers and our food system here at home. The grocery store purchases of consumers provide market data for retailers, who then determine what they will stock their shelves with. This produces a ripple effect that is felt right down to the farm level,” Bonnett adds.

So let’s think. According to Schwartz, being faced with a choice causes angst. Buying Canadian makes consumers feel good and is great for the economy. So - bearing in mind human welfare - my questions are such: Should it even be an option to have non-Canadian choices at the grocery store? Would it be possible to feel good about buying Canadian if the option to actively choose Canadian no longer existed?

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