Consumer power

With higher production helping feed more mouths at lower costs, we have long relied on technology to increase agricultural yields. During the 1980s it became clear that technological intensification as approaching certain practical and moral boundaries. Although the green revolution provided the world with an increasing amount of food, it failed to solve the threat of hunger in parts of the world.

Food security involves a number of political and social dimensions. It includes allocation and distribution issues that require solutions beyond technology. Insights into global and local power relations, institutional and social innovation, and the trust and support of producers and consumers are equally essential. So how should such insights be translated and implemented within the institutions and practices  that are intended to safeguard nutrition security?  Arthur Mol, professor of environmental policy: "National governments are losing power and control  in an economy that is globalising at an ever faster pace. Markets and the environment do not stop  at national borders. Powerful food multinationals increasingly work directly with global and local  NGOs in governing food sustainability and security."

Multi-stakeholder roundtables are new reality to which governments, producers, retailers and consumers must adapt

Is this a bad thing? "Not necessarily. It has been shown that such new coalitions can offer powerful new impulses to solving food security and sustainability issues. An example is the establishment of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) which aims to increase sustainability in the fishing industry and prevent the world’s seas from being emptied. These types of consultative and cooperative roundtable models are also implemented to make the global production and consumption of palm oil, wood, biofuels, soy and sugar cane more sustainable, without the need  for complex agreements with hundreds of national governments. Such round tables, form partnerships that can establish cross-border agree ments reasonably efficiently with a limited number of stakeholder."

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The reliability of MSC and comparable certificationschemes and resulting labels is not so easy to  deter mine, especially when product chains start in  less developed countries. Here, information can be hard to collect and verify, transparency is limited and local producers sometimes have a hard time to fulfilsustainability requirements. One can also have doubts about the level of democracy involved in these types of roundtable agreements: Who defines the requirementsand makes the actual decisions, and to whom are  they accountable? Nevertheless, multi-stakeholder roundtables are a new reality to which governments, producers, retailers and consumers must adapt. Consumers are certainly not sidelined within this new governance system, but they do have to face an information overload, and find their ay in competitive labelling systems and greenwashing.

Systems for verification, tansparency and accountability of labels and certification are therefore essential to cultiate trust. It is up to companies to put consumers’ wishes into materiality, although it is usually organised groups (NGOs) or retailers who are best empowered to articulate these demands. Taking the MSC label as an example once again, it was the supermarkets that accelerated the proliferation beyond a niche label by announcing they wanted to exclusively sell sustainable fish y 2015 as they expect there to be a sufficientmarket for it. Political consumerism has also become an important factor. Political (or ethical) consumerism points at  the development that consumers demand not just cheap quality products, but also products that are sustainable, animal friendly, and fair. Fair Trade labels and the rankings provided by the Dutch RSPCA are expressions and answers to political consumerism.  On behalf of consumers, NGOs have banished chickens fattened in industry-like conditions from several  Dutch supermarkets.

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Authority and legitimacy

Although it is only a small group of consumers  that make conscious choices, their impact can be substantial. Now the ball is with the suppliers who  have to meet demands for timely, well-balanced and reliable information on issues such as origin, environmental impact and social aspects. Science  must also take into account the new distribution of power and the role of the conscious consumer. Like national governments, science is also at risk of losing its authority and legitimacy in this multimedia era,  and is increasingly seen as becoming one of the many information providers on claims of food sustainability.

While multinationals and NGOs are the new  transnational superpowers, this does not mean  that they are invulnerable. Unconditional consumer and member loyalty to brands and labels no longer exists, so even these superpowers are constantly held accountable. This further complicates sustainable food governance in times of globalisation and uncertainty.An example is the discussion about genetically modified crops, which could strongly contribute to solve the world’s hunger issues. Scientists provided solid arguments in favour of the application of this  new technology and the agrofood industry saw plenty of opportunities. European consumers wouldn’t accept this, however, and even in Africa people have refused food aid from GMO fields. This proves that, when providing solutions for sustainable and fair food, it is essential to include the demand side and ensure that proper communication is provided. Legitimacy and public support are at least as important as power and scientific authority in getting solutions for sustainable "

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