Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The issue of Local Food

This is a comment posted in response to the the article on TravelMole by Sarah Amandolare titled Eat Local – Another Piece in the Sustainable Travel Puzzle - read it here

The issue of local foods is a complicated one, and cannot be solved easily through a definition and a code of conduct. As with much about responsibility, it depends a lot on interpretation by the different stakeholders, and the practices that are developed and norms followed around these practices, mutually agreed upon by all parties concerned.

Let me explain a bit. There are multiple sides to it.

A. The local producer / suppliers
B. The local community - who also hopefully consumes the same foods
C. The establishment (for lack of a better word) who promotes / sells the local food to the clients
D. The local produce - quality, quantities, availability etc.
E. The local food itself - palatable? interesting? enough variety?
F. The clients themselves who will consume it.

As with all of marketing, lets start from the consumer (who supposedly is King!) So

F. The Clients

(A bit gender insensitive but I will use "he")... He has to be aware (opens up a whole new can of worms, about who will make him aware, where can we have the information, and how the information is presented so that he will understand it, and relate to it), be responsible enough to be motivated to practice, apart from liking it, suiting his taste buds, stomach, lifestyle etc. e.g from Nepal :- We eat lentils and rice in Nepal, three times a day, with different vegetables, sauces, and curries, which makes it tremendously palatable (so says a Nepali!)... and every person who comes to Nepal goes through this stuff, some time or the other... but can he take it every day of his stay (ultimate responsibility)? Difficult... very soon he will be craving for bread (minimum) to steak, pizza and hamburger (a bit too much)...

It is a practical problem.. and how does this relate to responsibility and local foods... So should we define local foods as in local ingredients, therefore local ingredients will be grown locally, the locals benefit, and it helps the economy and spread of the tourism dollar... sounds like a plausible solution... but then

E. The local food

Obviously, from the above example, Thailand will be a better place to source local foods than Nepal. There is more variety, it is more internationally known and accepted, and you might be able to go through seven days of only Thai food... (not for people with a weak stomach for spices though). But the point is there. So it depends on the this issue too. In Ghana, most of the dishes are pounded corn or pounded cassava and plantain, eaten with a groundnut, fish, or meat soup. How long can a traveller stick to this...

D. The local produce

This is an important one. The more the local foods become ingrained into the tourism industry and sells, the more the locals benefit and the economy gets a boost. Right... Not quite! Take an example of a trekking village in the remote areas of Nepal. If the local food is really sold to all trekkers, the local supplies will be depleted and the locals will have no more food. Then the local food will have to be imported into that village from other areas of Nepal, at higher rates. Is this a beneficial effect? There are many trekking villages in Nepal where the lodges supply trekkers with local food and they instead eat instant noodles! Is this where we want to go? So there are problems there too...

Not to mention the quality of the local produce (does it meet standards, can it meet standards, will it even meet standards), is it in the right quantities and can be supplied at the right time required for the tourism industry, who survives in bursts, and seasonal variations.

C. The establishment (restaurant, hotel, operator)

In my thinking, they are the most important people here, being the chief liaison between the consumers and the local community. How do they monitor all these issues, are they motivated enough, are they looking at triple bottom lines, instead of only thinking short term and about themselves. What capacities do they have to balance this delicate balance in promoting the right type of local food.

In Nepal, one of the chief reasons the local food is unappealing is because of the establishment. They have no knowledge of the market, hence cannot make the subtle modifications reqiured to promote local food, forget about triple bottom line systems. A nepali eats a mountain of rice with little vegetables and lentils. This is not palatable to a western palate. Change that to more vegetables and lesser rice, and it is suddenly very inviting.

B. The local community: who produces the local raw materials

There are several issues here too. Sometimes the arrival of a new hotel in the neighbourhood can mean disturbances in the balance of village society, because if it is not well thought out, tourism has a very bad way of working like a bush fire... quick to burn, very hot, but also dies up fast... this can destroy communities. Balance is crucial, and combined benefits are critical to keep up the balance.. not always followed of course.

A. Finally, the local producer

He works hard, but is working for an extremely volatile demand niche, and unless has some gaurantees and partnerships which take up the production, can burn very rapidly. Does he have the knowledge, skills to do the right production and maintain his markets?

These are very few issues raised here, just to prove a point that this puzzle in the responsible tourism framework has its own very complicated issues, which we tend to ignore when we look at the broader picture.

A good balanced, well thought out programme, where all stakeholders are aware of these issues, and work towards reducing the negative effects, can be finally labelled to be real "local responsible food"...

Then we can start tackling the issue of it being organic!!!


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