It can feel good to support the food producers whose ideals match your own. And nowadays there are a lot of alternatives to Big Food at the supermarket.
But there's another way to nudge change in the food system: Support a campaign that's confronting the problems more directly.
The biggest food companies in the world — think Nestle, PepsiCo, Mars, Smithfield, Cargill, General Mills, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Kellogg — are the major players in the food system. They control the supply chain from the raw materials to the packaging, and set the labor and environmental precedents of much of what we consume.
There are now a wide range of campaigns aimed at pushing these global companies to respond more directly to consumers' concerns about everything from antibiotics to greenhouse gas emissions to labor abuses.
We'd argue that these campaigns — which have a growing number of victories under their belts — may have a bigger impact than your individual choices at the supermarket.
Take, for instance, Oxfam's Behind the Brands, which, as we've reported, is putting pressure on the 10 biggest food companies to be more transparent about how they do business.
Oxfam has leaned on these global brands to disclose the companies in their supply chain. When a problem is identified — like the working conditions of cacao farmers in West Africa — Oxfam has pushed the companies to use their leverage with suppliers to address issues like gender inequality. One example: a Times Square event on the plight of female cocoa farmers in Africa, which garnered plenty of attention.
And what came of these efforts? Agreements with three large chocolate companies — Mars, Mondelez and Nestle — which committed to doing more to address the issues of poverty and worker's rights.
When it comes to nudging the meat industry to rethink how it uses antibiotics, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Keep Antibiotics Working and other groups have advocated for using the drugs only to treat sick animals. Those activists were applauding in September when Perdue Farms announced it had stopped injecting antibiotics into eggs that are just about to hatch.
Palm oil is a hot issue, too. As we've noted, the rain forest protection coalition Forest Heroes has been lobbying many companies that rely on the oil to cut ties with suppliers that have a history of clear-cutting rain forests and destroying wildlife habitat and carbon-rich peatlands. And they've made inroads with Krispy Kreme, Dunkin' Brands and Kellogg, the maker of Pop-Tarts and other products made with palm oil.
The livestock industry is responsible for 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that's motivating a lot of consumers to eat less meat. But since the demand for meat isn't going to drop anytime soon, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a coalition of beef producers and buyers and environmental groups, is trying to figure out how to guide producers to cut those emissions.
And right here in the U.S., the fair food movement, lead by groups like the Fair Food Standards Council and the Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers, has managed to improve the working conditions of Florida tomato pickers by pressuring big corporate buyers like Wal-Mart. As The Salt reported, those wins may soon be extended to other farms.