The nature of food localisms among consumers in Ireland: defensive localisms, sustainability and reflexivity

Carroll, Brídín
Food is arguably the best example of the interaction between nature and society, fitting squarely in the jurisdiction of human geography topics which include sustainability, consumption, political economy, culture, nationalism, agriculture, communities, commodities and globalisation. The globalisation and industrialisation of the prevailing agri-food system have caused negative effects on human health, the environment and developing world communities and livelihoods. Partly in reaction to this, the positive value of local food, over industrial 'placeless' food, has been recognised and is seen as offering something alternative: an environmentally friendly system of production with fewer food miles and (often assumed) less industrialised production; a necessarily safe and equitable labour environment due to the opaqueness of the food chain; stability of income and livelihoods for producers and their families and consequent community resilience; and traceable food which comes embedded with information about the place and manner of the food¿s production. As a result, there has been a drive recently towards reducing the distance between consumers and the origins of their food, spurred by consumer demand and bolstered by promotions of local food originating from the realm of production. In recent years, food system localisation has become an area of importance for national governments, industry, policy-makers and local communities. Although past studies have critically engaged with some of the issues surrounding a transition towards localised food systems, research to date has largely ignored the conflation of local and sustainable (by consumers, amongst others) in alternative food systems, preferring to focus instead on quantitative measuring of how consumers view local food. Discourses of scale, which formed the basis of this examination, argue that as scale is a social construct, it cannot be said that there is anything inherent about the local. By extension, to believe that local food is good, just or sustainable amounts to spatial valorisation. The mistaken conflation of local with a number of positive characteristics, including sustainability, obscures the hand which local food systems can have in perpetuating undemocratic ideals and practices. Using Galway and Dublin as two case study locations and utilising a theoretically-informed, multi-phase mixed methodology, this study aimed to analyse how consumers in Ireland understand, perceive, value and prioritise local and sustainable food. Drawing on empirical data obtained from interviews, focus groups and surveys with over 1000 participants, the study found that the majority of respondents were motivated in their local food purchasing by defensive rather than by reflexive processes. Participants in this study appeared uncomfortable with the term ¿sustainable food¿. By contrast they were confident in the meaning of ¿local food¿ and largely defined it according to limits of spatial proximity. Participants attributed a number of positive traits to local food, sustainability among them, and this led to the prioritising of the issue of local provenance when choosing food. However, in spite of the importance of local provenance, the results from this study indicate that it was not the most important issue for participants; instead, pragmatic considerations such as affordability most often prevailed. Nonetheless, participants' motivations appeared to be driven by defensive localisms and personal beliefs in the value of helping 'our own', rather than by reflexive values of environmental protection and support for democratic principles of social equity. These results have implications for food system transformation away from its current unsustainable state to one which involves alternative modes of production and networks of provisioning. The results of this study represent new and significant contributions to academic knowledge in a number of areas. It is the first of its kind to qualitatively examine the understandings of consumers in Ireland towards local and sustainable food. A key outcome is the creation of a new framework of localist typologies which is theoretically and empirically informed. This framework is the first of its kind in that it applies the esoteric concept of reflexivity to the views and values of consumers in the hopes of advancing discourses of food localisms in new and fruitful directions.
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland