Glamur for Cheese and Tomatoes!

A nice name for a European project http://glamur.eu/ through which many scientific partner organisations (INRA, Wageningen University…) aim to increase the scientific knowledge around the sustainability of various food chains.

One of the project studies called “Global and Local Food Assessment: a multidimensional performance-based approach”, looks at the various performance indicators (economics, environmental, social)  of local and global supply chains for cheese and tomatoes, two products that are part of our daily menus. Basically it aims to help us answer the question we all regularly ask ourselves: is it best for society to consume local or global?

The results are very interesting and in summary conclude the following:

  • Tomatoes

While the global chain (tomatoes produced in Spain and sold in France) tend to perform better in the economic dimension, local chains (tomatoes produced regionally in SW France and sold there) show better scores in the other dimensions (social, environmental, health, ethics). In both case agricultural and governance models have a strong influence on the results.

  • Cheese

Local chains (cheese produced artisanally in the mountains: Etivaz AOC) get higher scores than global chains (cheese produced in the valley: Gruyère AOC) for 2/3 of the indicators, and noticeably for animal welfare because cows spend longer times on pasture, have more space and live longer. The health indicator is better too because the “local” cheese has less salt, less saturated fat and more calcium. The “global” chain performs better in terms of waste reduction, price to consumers and income for farmers. The “local” chain however has a bigger contribution in terms of jobs provided to the quantity of cheese produced.

 

What I find really interesting here is that it is not as black and white as one might initially think. However we find in general an opposition between cost benefits (better provided by global chains) versus ethical, environmental and social benefits (better provided by local chains).

My question here is: what is the real cost to society of having

  • More health issues (cost of treating cancer, diseases, allergies; cost of eating less nutritional food)
  • More environmental issues (cost of depolluting water, health related issues)
  • Loss of diversity (cost on the increasing unability of systems to adapt to change)
  • Loss of jobs locally (cost of unemployment, low consuming power, less dynamic local economy…)

So while I really like GLAMUR, which is very innovative, it worked on me like strong appetizer, leaving me hungrier even for understanding further what the more complex, indirect costs that are mentioned above are! I doubt that it will be an easy methodological task. It’s probably very complex to find a way to measure such indirect indicators (like the cost of health issues linked to water pollution) as they are depending on many, many other variables, not just the production system. Meaningful correlations might well be impossible to find!

That’s where I guess we have to go beyond numbers; go beyond the scientific debate, and ask ourselves what we feel is right or wrong. A bit like a ship captain back in the 1500, who had some science to help him with (sextant, stars maps…) but needed to rely on his experience, his belief and trust his gut to navigate through the unknown of the oceans.

Businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as politicians actually are very much like ship captains navigating through the unknown. While on one side they have the science, numbers, economics, law and other elements of the known that they can use, on the other side, they need every day to trust their gut and call on their values, what they believe in, what they envision for the future to make decisions and drive their business forward. Change and innovation is a recipe that mixes both ingredients. It’s the space in which we are working in with Rurality and want to invite businesses (from brands to farmers) to work in.