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Saturday March 24, 2018

Does moral food really taste better?

A European study coming in the August issue of the journal Appetite poses a paradoxical question: Why do consumers rush to pay relatively high prices to buy organic, fair-trade and local food in the name of saving the environment, while they stubbornly refuse to substantially participate in other, often cheaper, forms of achieving the same goals, like recycling and charitable donations to overseas relief efforts?

Apparently, morality alone doesn't explain the growth in spending on "moral food," the researchers write. So what does?

The researchers combined a large-scale 2005 survey of more than 4,000 shoppers examining attitudes towards organic tomato sauce with follow-up in-depth interviews and taste-testing using university students. The resulting complicated models they developed show that labeling food as of "ethical origin" in fact makes it subjectively taste better. In addition, though, the researchers teased apart the experience of consumers who believe moral food should be purchased purely because it's morally produced from the experience of those who arrive at the same buying conclusion through a longer process that says moral food makes them feel more moral, which in turn makes them expect the food to taste better, which then leads to actually experience the food as better tasting. By that process, they showed the odds of buying such moral food inceases substantially for the latter.

In fact, such pre-determined taste expectations may be the only criteria identified that can reliably motivate consumers to buy moral food, they showed. From the six variables they included as predictors of the subjective taste experience, only the expectations consumers carried into the experiement had a significant effect. In other words, consumers could only be reliably predicted to say ethical food tasted better when they expected it to taste better. Those expectations were consistently shaped by their expectations that eating the food would make them feel morally superior. "The only significant path through which the experimental condition influenced buying intentions was through moral satisfaction, taste expectations, and taste experience," they conclude.

In addition, the studies demonstrated--as you might expect--that a consumer's preconceived values about ethical food affects their ability to be influenced to believe the food tastes better. Only the experiment's subjects who endorsed altruistic values in the survey derived moral satisfaction from consuming fair trade vs. conventional food, and only people who endorsed environmental values derived moral satisfaction from consuming locally produced vs. imported foods. As a result, only those who expressed those values experienced the affect on taste. The positive effect on taste is grounded in the individual's value system, the researchers write.

What causes the effect? The European research team left that question for future research to answer. But they offered two plausible suggestions: One, the moral superiority ethical eaters experience creates a "halo effect" which makes the food taste better by association. Second, there could be an as-yet not understood neurological effect in which feeling morally superior actually activates the reward centers of the brain, creating a sense of well-being that influences taste.

Alternative food systems are not sustainable

To save California from its current devastating drought, writes Los Angeles Public Radio commentator Sonali Kolhatkar, "we must change the nation's food system." She echoes the sentiment of others like global hunger activist Marc Van Ameringen, who wrote in an earlier Huffington Post, "In the face of climate change, our basic food systems have to be reimagined...."

Winston Churchill famously once said, "There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction."

When it comes to dreaming up a new food system, known in academia as "alternative food networks," are the visionaries like Kolhatkar and Van Ameringen moving food production and delivery in the right direction, or simply in the direction of change? A new study in the March issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values, took an exhaustive look first at the general claims across such alternatives as farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture, farm shops, consumer food co-operatives, specialty food retailers, organic agriculture, fair trade, and foods with a geographic origin, and then, second, the demonstrable accomplishments of such alternative systems. Much as they appear to favor the alternative network over the traditional supermarket-centered one, researchers Sini Forssell and Leena Lonkoski nevertheless posed some gaurded warnings about the true "sustainability" of such systems.

"While there is some empirical evidence supporting the potential sustainability impacts...," they write, "there are also a great number of studies, empirical and theoretical, suggesting that the impacts may not be so straightforward."

The alternative food network falls short in three broad areas, they say:

First, the promised results haven't materialized. Several studies Forssell and Lonkoski uncovered in their review show the expected impact attributed to alternative networks have either simply not materialized or have been insufficient. In some cases, that failure comes from confusing one charactaristic with another. Case in point: "Local." Automatic association beyond food produced at a local scale and sustainable production often occurs unjustifiably. One is not automatically the other. Other examples of this blurring of sustainability promise vs. performance include a demonstrable failure of fair trade to increase farmer prices beyond a token boost toward anything resembling living wages, and the very real possibility that consumers approach Community Supported Agriculture programs as a one-off proposition. That is, they may be willing to share risk with an individual farmer for a single season, but they willingly abandon him after the first year. In the long term, that does nothing to reduce the farmer's risk, which is the most significant "sustainability" selling point of a CSA. In fact, several studies they cite show the increased value promised by local food networks don't get to the farmer on the production end, and other studies show it does nothing to provide more affordable food to the consumer on her end. Even when measured by the more spongy goals of "increasing the democratization" of the food chain, alternative systems have been shown to underperform, they warn: Fair trade, for instance, has been criticized as a top-down governing system imposed on farmers, and CSAs, which in theory are inclusive and participatory, in fact often struggle with lack of consumer participation.

Second, unintended consequences abound. Any sustainability impact alternative food systems may promise are often accompanied by possible counter-effects, the researchers found. They cite the now-classic example: Organic production. Although organic promises a reduction at the individual farm level of adverse environmental impacts in terms of soil health, biodiversity, water and air contamination, and animal welfare, it results in such smaller yields by that individual farm that more farms are needed to maintain the same level of production. As a result, the sustainibility impact per product doesn't change and, in fact according to some research, may actually increase when compared to the conventional food system. selling requires farmers to assume the retailer's burden of resources, time and energy for distribution and merchandising, all of which reduce his net value.

In other examples, they caution that local's claim to fame of reducing food miles may not bring net environmental benefits because the environmental impacts of food production differ in different locations with different growing conditions, and because small-scale local food distribution may actually be more wasteful in its inefficiency. Plus, while some case study evidence supports the prominent argument that a shorter food chain may result in producers capturing a greater share of the value, that net benefit at the end of the day has been questioned by studies that suggest direct selling requires farmers to assume the retailer's burden of resources, time and energy for distribution and merchandising, all of which reduce his net value. "Profitability in the end may not live up to the theory," Forssell and Lonkoski note.

Any time a consumer chooses to "support a local farmer," they note, the consumer is choosing not to support a farmer somewhere else, meaning alternative networks that seek to protect and promote hand-picked farmers may simply lead to a system where producers of specialty foods simply end up "competing against each other for finite niche markets." And even alternative networks' more abstract goals of preserving food cultures may fail if labeling and protecting "local food" requires standardization and homogenization in order to qualify for labeling--the precise opposite of diversity.

And finally, they note that all such "value added’’ products may benefit the producer but be out of the reach of lower income consumers. "Indeed," Forssell and Lonkoski characteristically understate, "there seem to be tensions between the goals of producer livelihoods and access to affordable food."

Third, is any of it relevant? Finally, the researchers note that certain sustainability impacts linked to alternative networks have also been criticized in the literature on grounds that much of it simply may not matter. When it comes to reducing transport-related pollution, for example, simply cutting the number of miles a food travels may not be as significant as how that food travels. Transportation also generally contributes only a small part of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of food. Even the cherished notion that shortening the physical distance food travels makes that food fresher and more nutritious as it reaches the consumer has been challenged, once you weigh other factors like transport time and availability of refrigeration equipment. "The claim about natural, unprocessed foods being healthier could be considered simplistic," they write, "as the healthiness of a diet can only be considered as a whole."

New study proves all is not as it seems with farmers markets

Local foods: Go figure.

Driven by a renewed interest in food grown close to home, support for local farmers, cutting the number of "food miles," protecting the environment, concerns for food safety and the hunt for high-quality foods, the number of farmers markets grew 180 percent between 2007 and 2014, USDA says, to a total 8,268 farmers markets in the United States last year. The new, and controversial, Dietary Guidelines Advisory Report cautiously endorses them, citing two studies and noting, "Despite...variability, a consistent relationship was identified between farmers’ markets/produce stands and dietary intake."

With market momentum like that, backed by regional branding campaigns and local food-policy lobbying, it's little wonder consumers express the glowing endorsement for farmers markets identified by a Canadian study scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.

Consumers give local and farmers markets glowing reviews. Are they earned?

Farmers markets are thus "almost universally regarded and promoted as mechanisms to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to areas lacking access," writes Bronx Montefiore Medical Center's Sean Lucan, lead author of another study scheduled for publication in the journal Appetite. Even the editorial board of the McCook Gazette, arguing in favor of permitting Nebraska farmers markets to offer prepared foods in their wares, editorialized, "Government shouldn't get in the way of people who want to create a closer connection between consumers and those who provide the food they consume."

But what if promoting farmers markets actually does that very thing?

Lucan's research set out to actually overcome the "surprisingly little research," he says, on how accessible farmers markets really are to their customers, as well as what they really sell and, most importantly, how they compare to neighboring stores in terms of variety, quality and price.

The study's investigators conducted a detailed cross-sectional assessment of every open-air, local farmers market in the Bronx, comparing them against nearby traditional stores. Results of the 26 farmers markets and 44 food stores studied showed some surprises:

  • Every farmers market was located little more than one-third of a mile from a traditional food store that sold fresh produce, with the average being only 0.15 miles away--well within the half-mile walking distance community food-security advocates typically recommend as the minimum distance shoppers should have to travel to access healthy food.
  • In stark contrast to all 44 of the grocery stores which were open year-round and seven days a week, offering fresh produce on average 98.5 hours per week, three-quarters of the farmers markets were closed eight months out of the year, were typically open just one day a week and generally operated fewer than eight hours on any day they were open--some as few as four hours. Just three of the farmers markets stayed open on any weekday past the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. window, and only five opened on weekends.
  • Of the 430 distinct produce items Lucan's team identified after eliminating duplicates, the average farmers market offered 26.4 fewer fresh produce items on average than neighboring grocers. Only 96 fresh produce items could be found exclusively at a farmers market, compared to 224 fresh produce items at stores. A total of 110 could be had at either outlet.
  • Farmers markets did beat food stores in how frequently they offered local and organic food, although their produce as a result often  tended toward less-common, more exotic and heirloom varieties.
  • On average, any given produce item offered at both a farmers market and a neighboring store was 24 cents more expensive at the farmers market, a statistically significant difference even for the more expensive of two groceries located nearby. When comparing items generally within broader categories, the supermarkets were an even better bargain, under-pricing farmers markets by an average 43 cents. Considering that the higher presence of organic produce--which typically carries a higher pricetag--might skew the results against farmers markets pricing, Lucan re-ran the analysis excluding organics. When he did, farmers markets remained just as expensive in their other offerings, while grocery store pricing actually fell.
  • And finally, Lucan's study found that nearly one-third of what farmers markets offered was not fresh produce at all but instead refined or processed products like jams, pies, cakes, cookies, donuts and juice drinks. Workers at 10 of the 26 farmers markets acknowledged that at least some of those not-so-healthful products were among their best sellers, and at seven of the farmers markets vendors were openly promoting those non-produce items.

All-in-all, Lucan acknowledges, "Although farmers markets might increase access to organic produce, and produce that is fresher, their lower accessibility, restricted variety and higher cost might provide little net benefit to food environments in urban communities, especially when so much of their inventory is refined and processed non-produce fare."

Why consumers really want to grow their own vegetables

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr's LB544, introduced into the legislature in late January, would allow community organizations to establish community public vegetable gardens on vacant public land. Harr said the measure "would help address food insecurity in communities across the state."

Tim Rinne, state coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace, told the legislature's Agriculture Committee it was the state's role to encourage citizens to grow more food locally in order to prevent hunger. “The farther we get away from our food supply, the more food insecure we are,” he said.

But Harr and Rinne's conclusions assume a reality that may not necessarily hold true, according to study scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values. In it, French and Canadian social scientists conducted in-depth interviews of 25 gardeners in Paris and 14 in Montreal working in collective gardens across those cities. The aim of the  questionnaire was to assess how important actually producing food was to the gardeners.

The found that of the 39 gardeners interviewed, 33 did mention the possibility of producing food as one of their motivations. However, only about one-third--14 of the 39--said growing enough food to eat at an affordable price was a motivating factor in working the public gardens. That handful of gardeners who said they considered the public garden economically beneficial said so for one of two reasons:

  • They ate only the produce they grew themselves and learned to live without fruit and vegetables they couldn't raise themselves.
  • They chose to produce the most expensive produce themselves and then to buy the cheaper products in supermarkets.

 More than half of the gardeners interviewed considered that the garden was not economically advantageous, the researchers reported. In fact, some gardeners considered that the vegetables produced at the garden ended up costing more than those bought in shops. It's also noteworthy that although "sharing" the bounty of the public garden with other people was one of the food-related reasons for participating, the check-box on the questionnaire for "food bank"--an option city officials advised the research team should be included because it was a common destination for public-garden produce--went unticked on every respondent's questionnaire.

So why do they garden? In contrast to the production of food, users of the public space to garden cited these "multifunctions," according to the research:

  • It gives them a "social place," where they can meet and interact with people and foster a sense of community.
  • It improves their physical health through physical activity and their mental health by improving self-esteem.
  • It permits them a natural space that makes them feel free of the city's confines. "It’s a consolation for not having a house with a garden," in the words of one respondent.
  • It puts them in more direct contact with nature.
  • It allows them a formalized place to learn and teach.
  • It provides a leisure activity.
  • It improves the city and its landscape--a benefit mentioned only by the public garden's authorities but not by a single citizen who used the garden space.

Although production of food is often rooted within those other functions, the research team noted, in the relatively affluent northern hemisphere, self-production of food doesn't typically have a subsistence function, as it does in the relatively less affluent southern hemisphere, "where food-producing urban agriculture has a very important role in the food supply.’’


Standing on the shoulders of a blistering 6,000-word "expose" alleging widespread animal abuse in the service of ugly profit at Nebraska's Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, the New York Times teed up its perennial factory-farm metaphor and unloaded on America's "industrialized" animal farmers in a follow-up editorial last week:

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