For fear of sounding like an opportunist, the recent cloned meat approval in the United States and Europe that I wrote about here recently couldn’t have come at a better time. Coincidentally, within days of the approval been given, I was stepping onto a plane for Berlin to represent Canada on a journalism panel dedicated to meat industry matters and media coverage. The event was part of a huge global food expo called International Green Week (www.gruenewoche.com).
The panel featured agricultural media from Scotland, The Netherlands, Ireland and Canada. We came together for a mid-afternoon press conference at Green Week’s media centre, all expressing woes about low prices and, in my colleagues’ case, the influx of cheap Brazilian beef that they say is threatening their domestic meat industry.
No one except me wanted to talk about cloning, which for now (but probably not for long) is a point of differentiation between our countries. Journalists everywhere are going to have their hands full over the next little while, explaining cloned meat to their readers, listeners and viewers, and I believe the industry is under-estimating how much impact this technology could have. In the name of product labeling, consumer choice and responsible livestock rearing, farmers will be forced to wade into cloned-animal discussions.
That’s one more thing to add to their plate. Farmers are still adjusting to the local food movement, which is poised to make even the most established farmers new entrepreneurs through niche marketing opportunities, and bring them the added income and responsibility that comes along with it.
But in Berlin, the European journalists were more consumed with the food miles aspect of local food than they were about the cash it could bring to farmers. Perhaps it’s the Europeans’ storied and heightened environmental awareness that makes them way. They certainly have a keen interest in food safety, and the potential for diseases to spread quickly throughout their densely populated continent. So, the fewer the miles travelled, the better.
It was the Scottish journalist, Joe Watson, who sounded the most proud of how few miles it took Scottish meat to reach homegrown consumers in his relatively small country. He considered the short distance a selling point to consumers, and wondered aloud how many food miles had been tallied by products from afar, such as China (he could have cited Canada, too, but let me out of that headlock).
His comment about the Far East hit me right between the eyes. While we all flinch waiting for the next unrelenting wave of cheap Chinese consumer goods, especially vehicles, we also look longingly at China as a place to exploit for food exports. Beleaguered pork producers have it on their radar screen now. Meat consumption is rising there as the standard of living improves. International Meat Secretariat President Paddy Moore, who had travel problems and was represented on the Berlin panel by a fellow Irishman, International Federation of Agricultural Journalists President David Markey, says China will be a growing market for meat.
But Moore also told American agricultural journalist Mike Wilson in a previous interview that as China brings its consumption of meat up to a western standard, a lot of that demand will be filled by Chinese farmers. It’s more than capable – the meat industry there already accounts for more than 28 per cent of worldwide meat production.
That made me think about Chinese consumers going to their local market or grocery store just like we do, looking at some generic steaks, chops or whatever, and saying to each other the equivalent of “Where do you reckon that came from?”
And if they couldn’t figure it out, or if they ultimately determined it had a few thousand food miles on it or originated from somewhere they consider a questionable source, might they be ripe for their own local food movement?
I think so.
They already have one, out of necessity. But I’m talking about the same kind of local food drive we have in Canada and other affluent countries, born out of the desire for quality, concern for the environment and support for neighbouring farmers.
I don’t know when it will happen, but I’m sure Chinese people care as much about their health and their kids’ future as we do, and when they get the political and economic chance, local food might take on a new meaning for them, just as it has here.
That’s when exporters, such as Canadians, need to be standing by with trunkfulls of information about their meat industry, explaining why farmers here produce such excellent products, and why Chinese consumers should buy them, food miles and all.
It’s yet another example of how food production success will increasingly rely on branding, marketing and communications, right alongside safety and quality.