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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Working title

The contribution of local food systems towards consumption of healthy and sustainable diets: a case study of Bhutan.


There is emerging literature on the unsustainability of the neoliberal global food system and its adverse impact on the human and planetary health. Transition to local food system is presented as an alternative approach for sustainable food production and consumption. The purpose of this research is to investigate how consumers from a developing country such as Bhutan can make healthy and sustainable food choices. The research will study the extent to which local food systems contribute towards consumption of healthy and sustainable diets in Bhutan, by exploring consumer's attitudes, motivations and perceived barriers. A qualitative online questionnaire-based survey will be used to gather primary data. A non-probability type of sampling method called convenience sampling will be adapted to select at least 15 participants who frequent the local farmers market.  This research will also investigate the subtle gap between constructive attitude towards sustainable behaviour and behavioural action to purchase sustainable food.

Thematic analysis will be carried out to identify, analyse, explore and describe the findings of the survey. The findings of this research can help to increase understanding of consumer attitudes and behaviours, and it can provide a basis to propose policy options on promoting sustainable food systems and diets.


The aim of this research is to study the contribution of Bhutanese local food systems in promoting sustainable diets. It explores to what extent the consumers are able to participate in local food system by examining their motivations, values, behavioural attitudes and perceived barriers in purchasing healthy and sustainable diet from a local farmers' market.  

Initial review of the literature

Problems with global food system

For the last three decades, the neoliberal globalization has shaped agriculture production and food consumption (Wolf and Bonanno, 2014). There is growing literature on the unsustainability of contemporary global food system and its adverse impact on the human and planetary health (Garnett, 2011; Mason and Lang, 2017). For instance, the Future of Food and Farming Report presents compelling evidence on the unsustainable use of natural resources such as water, energy and land and shows the vulnerability of the global food system (Government Office for Science, 2011). For globally traded food, powerful economic and political matrix allows the corporations and government policies to shape and control the food choices of the consumers (DeLind, 2002; Guthman, 2008; Werkheiser and Noll, 2013; Gliessman, 2016).

With the globalisation of markets, there is a dietary shift from diverse traditional diets to unhealthy diets, i,e diet rich in processed foods, sugars, fats, oils and low in fruits and vegetables (Tilman and Clark, 2014). Unhealthy diet is one of the principal risk factors for Noncommunicable Diseases (WHO, 2004). 88% of countries face a serious burden of either two or three forms of malnutrition, 2 billion people lack key micronutrients, 155 million children are stunted, 53 million children are wasted, 2 billion adults are overweight or obese and 41 million children are overweight (Development Initiatives, 2017). With rising national income there is steady growth in demand for meat, the Future of Food and Farming Report have predicted increases in per capita meat consumption from 37kg/person/year (in 2011) to around 52kg in 2050 (Government Office for Science, 2011).

Local food systems as a solution

The growing population, pressure on finite natural resources, urbanization and dietary transition calls for a shift towards sustainable food production and consumption (Garnett, 2011; Government Office for Science, 2011). Promoting local food system has been publicised as an effective alternative to mainstream global food system (DeLind, 2002; DuPuis and Goodman, 2005). In the developed countries, there is demand for a more localized food system to bring back the power and control in the hands of farmers or producers (Allen, 2010; Janssen, 2010). Some examples are; international food movement, La Via Campesina meaning ‘the peasants' way' (Campbell, 2013), "The AgriMissouri Promotion Program" of South Missouri (Brown, 2003), "The Local Foods Purchase Policy" of Iowa (Flint, 2004), and Japan's Chisan-Chisho Movement, meaning ‘locally produced, locally consumed' (Kimura and Nishiyama, 2008).

Terms such as ‘local food', ‘local food system,' and ‘(re)localization' are often used interchangeably for food consumed near its source of origin (Peters et al., 2008) and retailed through direct markets (Castellano, 2017). While there is no specific legal or universally accepted definition of local food, it is linked to components such as geographic proximity, production methods attributable to local traditions and small farms (Thompson et al., 2008), personality and ethics of the food grower (Martinez et al., 2010), social and supply chain features (Thompson et al., 2008) and direct agricultural marketing (Sage, 2003). Feenstra, 1997 highlighted that local food systems are “rooted in particular places, aim to be economically viable for farmers and consumers, use ecologically sound production and distribution practices and enhance social equity and democracy for all members of the community” (Feenstra (1997:28). Due to lack of universally accepted definition, local foods are often defined using the two basic direct market mechanisms: direct-to-consumer market and direct-to-retail/foodservice (Martinez et al., 2010). Direct-to-consumer involves direct transactions between farmers and consumer through farmers' markets, community supported agriculture, farm stands and pick-your-own operations.  Direct-to-retail/foodservice involves direct sales by farmers to retail stores, restaurants and public institutions (Martinez et al., 2010).

Case of Bhutan

While there is growing studies on local food systems, and food sustainability in the context of developed nations, there is limited literature focussed on developing countries. However, in case of Bhutan, there are no studies conducted on local food systems and its contribution to sustainable food consumption. Considering the case of Bhutan, the existing food production and marketing is mostly subsistence, traditional and localized. Agriculture, livestock and forestry provide livelihoods to more than 58% of the total population, contributing to 16.52% to the total economy (NSB, 2017). Bhutan's food and nutrition security is affected by climate change and natural disasters (FNSP, 2014). Owing to lack of awareness, there is not much difference in the way most Bhutanese perceive locally grown and organic produce (Duba et al., 2007).

Bhutan is faced with emerging burden of four main Noncommunicable Diseases namely; cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, cancer and diabetes (BNAP, 2015). To address these issues, the government is encouraging adoption of a healthy diet by promoting local food systems. The government has pledged to convert the local production to 100% organic by 2020 and achieve and zero-waste agriculture by 2030 (Munawar, 2016). The Food and Nutrition Security Policy of Bhutan (FNSP), 2014 also emphasizes on promoting sustainable agriculture production and consumption.  

The policy goals of FNSP are:

1. Ensure availability of safe and adequate varieties of food to meet food requirements of the population at all times 

2. Enhance physical, economic and social access to safe, affordable and adequate food

3. Promote
consumption practices and enable optimum utilization of food by all 

4. Sustain conducive and stable environment for availability, accessibility and utilization of food

Source: FNSP, 2014:9.

FNSP, 2014 promotes school and community-based nutrition and farming, adoption of a national food-based dietary guideline, promotes traditional and cultural food, environmentally sustainable utilization of natural resources and promoting local market and distribution infrastructures.

Critiques of local food system

The structuralist critique local food systems as a niche market catering to affluent minority and are mostly micro-level interventions (Guthman, 2011). Some literatures also mention that local food systems may not engage active involvement by individuals with lower incomes (Castellano, 2017).  There are arguments that issues of global food system cannot be addressed by focussing on sustainable production and consumption, but need to consider other aspects like; ecology, history, and political power (DeLind, 2011).

There are some important factors that influence the consumers preference and decision to buy or not to buy their local foods. Consumers preference for local food, including organic local food are generally associated with health and environment concerns, support for local farmers and producers and associated with superior quality, taste, and freshness (Connor et al., 2010; Grebitus et al., 2013; Slanton et al., 2012; Hempel and Hamm, 2015), on the basis of social values (Dreezens, 2005; Thøgersen, 2011) and for more transparency in food production (Adams & Salois, 2010). In supporting local food systems, the three types of cares expressed by consumers are: care for the environment and the local economy, transparency and integrity in the food system, and for health and wholeness, (Dowler et al, 2009).

 “Sustainable diet is code for better consumption”, a diet that enhances health, with low environmental impact while being culturally appropriate and economically viable (Mason and Lang, 2017:13). Healthy and sustainable food consumption in this research will be approached using the sustainable diet concepts and frameworks.  Sustainable diet is defined as “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to a healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources” (FAO, 2010).

While most consumers are aware of the importance of sustainability, it does not necessarily translate into decision or determinants for sustainable food consumption. Even in the developed nations, studies suggest gaps between sustainability knowledge or environmental awareness and actual individual food behaviour and choice (MacDiarmid et al., 2016). For instance, in UK, only 30% of adult's food choice fulfils the ‘five-a-day' target intake of fruits and vegetables (Bates et al., 2014).

Research Questions

Since the government policies and initiatives are oriented towards holistically addressing sustainable development, it is important to assess the extent to which local food projects and movements, actually contribute towards consumption of healthy and sustainable food. Therefore, the objectives of this research is to study the role of local food systems, by exploring:

1. The extent to which the consumers are aware of sustainable food systems

2. The extent to which local food systems contribute towards consumption of healthy and sustainable diets

3. The related policy implications

Methodology and Research Ethics

Desk based literature review will be conducted on the following; local food systems, food sustainability, diet-related noncommunicable diseases, food consumption trends, drivers, consumer attitudes and behaviours, localized versus industrialized food models and sustainable diet frameworks. For this research, ideally, qualitative ethnographic study would be appropriate and would provide an in-depth look at consumer behaviour. However, considering the limited timeframe and additional resource requirements, an online self-completed questionnaire based qualitative survey will be adopted. In order to answer the above research questions, case study of a farmers' market will be studied. The selected farmers' market is the biggest farmers market of the country called ‘Centenary Farmers Market' located in capital city, Thimphu. Established in 2008 to promote local farmers from around the country and to enable them to sell their produce directly to consumers. The market is open six days in a week and has about 400 stalls (CFM Management Rules and Regulations, 2009).

A non-probability type of sampling method called convenience or availability sampling will be adopted to involve participants who are readily available to participate. Since this survey is an exploratory research, convenience sampling seems like an effective approach. The consumers visiting the Centenary Farmers Market would be invited to be part of the survey by handing in research information brochures. The brochures would also be displayed at prominent places in the market to reach out to interested participants. The interested individuals will be required to email me. There are two main criteria to qualify as participants:

1. the age of the participants must be between 20 – 50 years old

2. the participants need to have been a regular consumer at the farmers market for at least one year.

Since this research involves human participation through an online survey, ethical approval for this research will be obtained from City, University of London. Individuals who express interest will be provided with ‘Participant information sheet' with details on the background, aim, objective and information on what would be involved for the participant. Only upon receiving consent from the participant, questionnaire link would be shared within the appropriate time. The survey would take up to 15 minutes for each participant. For this research, at least 15 participants will be involved. The relevant Ethics Approval Form along with Participant Information Sheet and a Consent Form is attached as Annexure 1.

This research will investigate the subtle gap between constructive attitude towards sustainable behaviour and actual behavioural action to purchase sustainable food. Some of the key areas that would be used to prepare the questionnaire are:

1. Awareness/attitude towards local food systems

2. Awareness of healthy and sustainable consumption, or sustainable diets

3. The reasons for visiting farmers market

4. What are the barriers participants perceive to purchasing local food

5. The motivation for choosing/purchasing local food

6. The types of food purchased from the market (fresh, packaged, processed, frozen)

7. The diversity of food purchased from farmers market

8. Important factors that influence food choice

The survey results will be coded and analysed under different themes. Thematic analysis will be carried out to identify, analyse/explore and describe the explicit and implicit findings of the survey (Guest et al., 2012). While thematic analysis provides a flexible approach to analyse qualitative data, it is also a poorly demarcated flexible approach.

In order to conduct a clearly demarcated analysis, the six-phase guide outlined by Braun and Clarke (2006) will be followed:

Phase 1: Familiarisation with data

Immersing and familiarizing with all aspects of data and content through repeated reading, taking notes or marking ideas for coding

Phase 2: Generating initial codes

Using the data, produce initial codes that identify various potential themes/patterns. Data coding depends on whether the themes are theory driven or data-driven.  

Phase 3: Searching for themes

After coding and collating the data, sort the different codes into broader overarching themes. Codes can help information of themes as well as sub-themes.

Phase 4: Reviewing themes

Review and refine the coded themes, so that sorted data are coherent.

Phase 5: Defining and naming themes

After making a thematic map using data, themes can be defined and refined.  

Phase 6: Producing the report

Based on distinct themes, the final analysis and write-up can be prepared.

Work schedule

Task Name Start End Duration (days)

Readings of resources 08/06/2018 18/06/2018 10

Draft online Survey Questionnaire 13/06/2018 18/06/2018 5

Draft Literature review 25/06/2018 05/07/2018 10

Draft Methodology 06/07/2018 11/07/2018 5

Identify suitable participants 11/07/2018 19/07/2018 8

Online Survey period 15/07/2018 30/07/2018 15

Familiarize with data 02/08/2018 05/08/2018 3

Finalize transcriptions 07/08/2018 17/08/2018 10

Draft findings - consult supervisor 19/08/2018 29/08/2018 10

Supervisors comments and Produce Report 02/09/2018 12/09/2018 10

Proof read and finalize 13/09/2018 18/09/2018 5

Submit Dissertation 18/09/2018 19/09/2018 1

Expected outcomes and benefits

Currently, in Bhutan, there are no studies on local food systems and its impact on improving healthy and sustainable food consumption. This study can help to:

- Understand consumers attitudes and behaviours towards local food and towards sustainability

- Explore the drivers or barriers of local food networks

- Understand barriers to promotion and adoption of sustainable diets

Therefore, the findings of this research will be used to understand consumer preferences in a local market setting. With increased understanding of consumer attitudes and behaviours, it can provide a basis to propose policy options or recommendation to develop sound policies to promote sustainable food systems and diets.

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