When Linus Källander started a Facebook group in February this year, he didn't expect it to make quite such an impact. In his native Sweden discussions about food quality had been simmering away in the media and around dinner tables for a couple of months, with investigative articles in the major newspapers and a series about the hidden costs of food on public radio.
Källander soon saw the membership of the group, demanding higher prices for food to account for the real costs for farmers and worn-out ecosystems, shoot through the roof. From a Facebook page it became a blog, and then a thinktank. Today, up to 2,000 people read the blog entries every week and the Facebook group has 5,600 members.
Six people run the group in their spare time, writing debate articles, being interviewed by newspapers and organising seminars on food policy. There is a frequent communication with Coop, Sweden's largest supermarket chain, as well as the Federation of Swedish Farmers. Sweden, it seems, was ripe for a debate about the ethics of food supply systems in the Age of Globalisation.
‘We had a situation where these issues were becoming widely discussed,' says Källander. ‘There was a momentum building.'
The thinktank's name translated in English is 'pay the price'. The aim is to create an understanding of the real price of groceries - the hidden costs that do not show on the price tag - and to make them accounted for. The accompanying blog takes a fierce look at the food industry in the western world, arguing that producers are forced to take short-cuts to meet consumers' demands for low prices.
‘We have managed to create a provoking slogan with serious content behind it,' Källander says, trying to explain the group's success.
More expensive food now
An imported tomato from the supermarket may seem cheaper than a home-grown, one blog post says, but if actual production costs were to be included, the fee would be very different. Pay the Price calls for political decisions that will force producers to internalise costs, such as effects on the environment, into the final food prize.
The group demands that supermarkets are more transparent on the history of the groceries they sell and advocate consumer power and local food production. For the Swedish market, they call for reinforcement of, and an increase in, the exisiting 'nitrogen tax', and preservation of the cadmium toll.
The food supply chain in Sweden is similar to that of most western countries. Emelie Hansson is the officer of agriculture at Sweden's biggest environmental NGO, The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. The demand for inexpensive groceries in Sweden has meant that locally produced goods cannot compete with imported ones, she explains, leading to nearly half of all food consumed in the country being shipped in from abroad.
‘People want to change this, but the focus so far has been on cutting the costs of domestic food, to the detriment of, for example, environmental standards,' Hansson says. ‘Attempting to raise food prices is something new.'
There has also been attention from international bodies. Peter Holmgren, the Swedish director for climate issues at the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, came across Pay the Price while surfing on Facebook and is pledging his support.
‘The constant push for low prices is affecting farmers in developing countries,' he notes. ‘Here it mostly means lower food quality, but there it's more than that - the reduced prices are affecting their quality of life.'
In spite of receiving praise from the public and media alike, a group demanding higher prices in the supermarket cannot hope to go unchallenged. The complaint has been made in comments on the blog and in interviews: "It's easy to choose more expensive food if you can afford it, but not everybody can". Källander agrees that class is relevant to the debate.
‘But it's more an issue of education than of money,' he says. ‘It's possible to eat cheaply in a sustainable way, if you know how to.'
Peter Holmgren, too, has an objection. Raised food prices in the west may not make a direct difference to producers in poor countries, who are mostly affected by changing demands, he argues. What drives the demand is not so much prices as European and worldwide agricultural subsidies. The main aim of the group, though, according to Källander, is to instigate discussion.
Are demands for higher prices the future of food campaigning? Would it work outside the Nordic nations? Food production in the 21st century is, by its very nature, an international issue. After the success in its home country, Pay the Price is looking abroad. Sister groups on Facebook have already popped up in Estonia and Finland, and an English version has just been launched. The plan is to let it live a life of its own, inspiring people around the world to start up national versions of the organisation. Källander notes that the internet-based format has made the diffusion of ideas easy. ‘This is a good way to make global issues concrete,' he adds. ‘This discussion does not end at Sweden's borders.'
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