All-consuming problems

May 31, 1996

Demand for organic vegetables has risen dramatically in the past few years. Growers, finding themselves unable to supply the quantity or uniform size and appearance demanded by supermarkets, have become involved in direct marketing schemes. The most successful is the box scheme, where customers commit themselves to a weekly box of seasonal vegetables at a standard price. But why are they willing to sacrifice choice and pay higher prices?

Interviews with customers revealed a deep-seated mistrust of conventional farming practices. This was reflected in concern about residues in food, particularly from pesticides, herbicides and medical treatments such as hormones and antibiotics. These were perceived to be detrimental to health. The environmental impacts of conventional agriculture were another major concern. Particular worries were effects on wildlife, water quality and soil. By buying organic food, customers saw themselves as taking individual action P and responsibility P to combat these risks.

Customers also saw benefits in buying locally-produced seasonal vegetables. They said it felt right to buy organic food produced in harmony with the locality and the seasons. This contributed to a sense of reconnection with the land and nature and with a sense of local community. Conversely, mass production and distribution are perceived as alienating, not only from nature, but socially.

The transport of food, industrial scale production, cash-cropping in the third world, supermarket control of production and markets, and the interests of the agrochemical industry were put forward as having negative social impacts. Social health associated with small-scale local production and consumption is here as important as personal and environmental health.

Underlying such attitudes is the question of trust. Research has demonstrated that the public views risks as more significant when it does not trust the institutions responsible for controlling those risks. Notably, all the customers interviewed expressed substantial trust in the grower. In box-scheme distribution, there is a direct relationship between grower and consumer, enhanced by opportunities for farm visits and newsletters. Responsibility for the organic status of vegetables, for using appropriate growing practices, ultimately for the health of the consumer and the environment and for negating risks, rests with the grower. Consumers trust the grower to fulfil these responsibilities on their behalf.

So it is not only health and environmental risks that concern customers, but also risks to social structures. They see their decision to purchase organic vegetables as a positive decision to support systems of food production and distribution that are perceived as beneficial rather than damaging.

Jane Hunt, centre for the study of science and science policy, Lancaster University.

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