Runaway consumerism and “ugly” vegetables
Submitted by Musole. M. Musumali
“The principal driver behind Africa’s growing ecological footprint is growing consumption, driven by population increase and the robust expansion of the regional economy”.
Foreword, Africa Ecological Footprint Report (2012, p.4)
There was a story in the news recently, about the United Nations Environment Programme hosting a banquet for Ministers and high-level officials in Nairobi, Kenya, with food rejected by international supermarket chains because the produce did not meet regulations in terms of size, shape or other specifications. In short, the produce did not look right, it was “ugly”. But, more importantly, did the food taste good?
With rising income, people tend to step-up their lifestyle and their dietary-habits change. There are more options to choose, from goods as basic as food to more expensive items such as vehicles, housing and other assets. With regards to food, when people have more money to spend, they are likely to add more variety and more expensive and high-nutrient-value foods to their diets. However, responses differ between developing and developed countries. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in developing countries diets tend to shift from staples, such as cereals, roots and tubers and pulses, towards more livestock (meat and dairy) products, vegetable oils and fruits and vegetables. Whereas in developed countries, most consumers can already afford the foods they prefer; when their incomes rise, changes in their diets and food purchases are relatively insignificant. But do the latter’s expectations on what is being made available for them change?
As more of us begin to afford to buy the food we prefer, will we increasingly become picky? Will we insist that our food must look attractive? And how far does this trend apply to other areas of our lives?
Imagine the magnitude of unnecessary waste of the land, water, mineral and energy resources that go into the production, processing and distribution of the goods that constitute our lifestyles today, in the context of how easily we reject, discard and replace them. The Africa Ecological Footprint Report estimates that in 2008 we used the equivalent of 1.5 Earths to support our consumption, or, in other words, it would have taken the Earth approximately a year and a half to regenerate the resources used by humanity in that year. The cycle of unsustainable consumption is in motion.
During a seminar on what Green Growth means for Africa for African Development Bank staff held in January, the Institute for Global Environment Strategies (IGES) presented an interesting proposition for mainstreaming sustainable consumption, the Attitude Facilitator Infrastructure (AFI) Framework (Akenji, 2012). The framework, which was also presented at Rio+20, proposes that to enable sustainable consumption at a systems level, three elements are needed and should operate in concert with each other: the right attitude from stakeholders (e.g. predisposition to being a sustainable consumer, political will); facilitators to enable actions reflect attitudes (e.g. incentives to encourage desirable behaviour and constraints to discourage unwanted outcomes, such as legal, administrative, cultural or market variables); and appropriate infrastructure that would make sustainable lifestyles the easier option (e.g. smart urban design). In simple terms, the framework proposes an approach to enabling, in the long-term and at systems level, an environment where sustainable alternatives become the default choice.
We are aware of the looming danger of runaway consumerism as the urban middle class in Africa continues to grow – people have legitimate aspirations. What type of model or approach can be applied to the African context to keep consumption sustainable?
Perhaps a good starting point would be to embrace the odd-shaped produce increasingly becoming absent from the shelves of our local supermarkets (and in some cases traditional market stalls) in Africa, as they too are increasingly making efforts to provide perfect fruit and vegetables for us.