These questions and more will be answered by a University of Adelaide project starting in 2011, looking at the ethical reasons that come into play for many Australians on their weekly visits to the supermarket or greengrocers.
Associate Professor Rachel Ankeny, a University of Adelaide researcher who studies bioethics, history and food, has won a $155,000 Federal Government grant to investigate food ethics in contemporary Australia over the next three years.
“Increasingly, people are making decisions about what they buy and what they eat, based on what they consider to be ethical reasons,” Associate Professor Ankeny says.
“These can include a whole range of factors, such as the impact of food production on the environment, the importance of buying local produce, religious reasons, health considerations and animal welfare.”
The latter is emerging as a powerful consumer influence, with Australia’s two major supermarket chains responding to public concern about what is perceived to be inhumane treatment of animals in the production of some foods.
The massive growth in free-range eggs, chicken and pork on the supermarket shelves and the phasing out of cage eggs in some outlets is testament to the growing awareness of animal welfare.
“Organic produce is also becoming more widespread, but this does not appear to be as popular among consumers as many other countries, such as the United Kingdom,” Associate Professor Ankeny says.
“People in Australia are more focused on the `buy local’ message, for several reasons, which are not always ethically motivated. They are keen to support their local retailers in an economic sense, but they also believe food grown closer to home is fresher and of higher quality.”
The Fair Trade movement, which aims to help producers in developing countries obtain better trading and working conditions, and promote sustainability, is also emerging as an important concept in Australia.
According to the Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand, retail sales of Fair Trade certified products – such as coffee, tea, chocolate and cocoa – increased by 58% between 2008 and 2009, to more than $50 million.
Associate Professor Ankeny says the project will try to `disentangle’ the motivations behind why people make the food choices they do.
“Sometimes they are not necessarily ethical. People are vegetarian, for instance, for a whole range of reasons, such as health and cultural reasons and the fact they just don’t like the taste of meat. It’s not always tied to ethical beliefs.”
The project will also look at the historical development of our food culture and the close relationship between meat and Australia’s national identity, as well as the economic value of the meat industry to our nation.
“How did we get to this point today where there are a small percentage of people who are vegetarians, and an even smaller percentage who are vegans, compared to some other places in the world?”
Focus groups will be recruited mid-way through 2011 to define not only the ethical factors which come into play in food purchases, but also the impediments to making these choices, including cost, time, skills, lack of information, poor food labelling and limited choices.
“The project has a number of goals,” Associate Professor Ankeny says. “One is to get to a point where we have a clear definition of what ethical consumption is, according to consumers, and the obstacles they face in pursuing it. Indirectly, the results of this project should be useful for marketing purposes as well.
“Another goal is to incorporate these concepts into food policy. I think most Australians would like a more transparent process when it comes to the food they consume,” Associate Professor Ankeny says.
This includes better labelling, showing how food is produced, and the distance it has travelled during various phases of production from paddock to plate.
“This information should allow consumers to better gauge whether the ethical choices they wish to make in regards to food purchases actually have the desired effect.”