Tuesday, April 25, 2017

There is no neutral market

People are gradually accepting that a healthy body requires healthy food produced in a regenerative farming system. But most tend to forget that this healthy relationship needs to be expressed through regenerative relationships between producers and consumers.

In the dominating narrative, The market is a neutral and disinterested institution where consumers meet producers and demand meet supply. In this view, the market can be filled with any content as long as there is a demand from consumers. If consumers want high quality regional food, or organic, or halal, or fairly traded it will in some way materialize and be supplied. Or conversely, if you are a small scale producer with diversified production, there is always an opportunity there in the market place. If you fail, it is just because you weren’t ingenious enough.

So the story goes. But is this really a correct description of The market? 

Banana market in Samoa
Of course not, the market is neither neutral nor disengaged. To begin with there is normally not one market, there are many different markets which fulfil different needs.  At the same time that there is a large wholesale market for food, servicing major food retailers, there can be a smaller market for farmers selling directly to small shops and yet another one for farmers who sell directly to consumers.  And each one of these markets serves different needs both on the supply and the demand side.

If you have a large farm with one or two crops you will not sell your crops with direct marketing but will be bound to large wholesale markets or being a supplier to a food, feed or biofuel industry. This also means that you will fine-tune your production according to that buyer’s demand. This will direct your choice of variety, the fertilization strategy, the time of sowing and harvesting. All in all there is a need for strict coherence between your production and the kind of market you are aiming at.

In a similar way, if you have a diverse farm with a mix of animals and plants it is highly unlikely that you can be a successful supplier to the same kind of markets. Your quantities are too small for shipping, you lack the right seed cleaner or packing technology for each of the crops, or your quality is another than demanded. So you are de facto locked out from the main market. If your farm is located close to a population center you might be able to sell your produce to affluent consumers directly or to a shop targeting those. But, even here, you will constantly be driven towards less diversity and more standardization. Your best bet if you want to keep the diversity is to become an educational farm or some kind of community supported farm. This can also be observed in all affluent countries.

If we bring the discussion even further, if you farm primarily to produce food for your family and only try to sell a surplus you will find that you are not a very interesting partner in any markets. Your supply is inconsistent, your priority is the food of the family and not of the client, and you don’t have the logistic machinery for bringing your stuff to the market. Therefore if you at all can sell, it is most likely to a middleman of some sort, who will pay you very badly. This can also be observed in most developing countries today.

The globalized food market with increasing dominance of a few retailers, a handful of food industries and wholesalers and very few input suppliers is not conducive for many kinds of producers, regardless of if there is a theoretical or potential consumer demand for their produce.

This makes it apparent that “markets” in no way are neutral towards producers and consumers. On contrary, they are based on certain types of production (and producers) and and certain types of consumption (and consumers). It is simply not true that “consumer demand” will create markets for organic, high quality, artisan regional food within the dominant market structures. Or if they do, the market will pervert the production and consumption to fit in.

This makes it quite easy to understand why the “market forces” are pushing also organic farmers in to larger scale and less diversity. As I write in Global Eating Disorder:

A study of ten organic farms in Denmark show that they too have to focus excessively on short term profits and ever-changing market requirements and have little time, energy or money to develop their farming system into a more ecologically sound system…. This experience is echoed in England and Germany. A German organic farmer explains: ‘in the beginning I carried out experimental cultivation of heritage grain varieties. But then I gave up everything that didn’t bring in money, because when the business is in the red it doesn’t make much sense’.


This insight makes it pertinent to discuss which kind of market that is conducive for which kind of production and vice versa. An attempt to do just that was made by the FAO in a seminar in Rome 8-9 June 2016, Sustainable value chains for sustainable food systems. The workshop report contains a lot of interesting papers on various form of “marketing”, including a paper on food self-provisioning in Hungary, i.e. clearly a non-market solution.

The paper What types of markets to support agroecology, by Maryam Rahmanian, Jimena Gomez, Lorenzo Banno and Alexandre Meybeck describes four types of solutions; producer organizations, public procurement programmes, participatory guarantee systems (PGS) and community supported agriculture (CSA). The paper questions if formal global markets can support the ecological, social and economic conditions needed for an ecological production system.

The authors also note that there is a need to consider how consumer diets are affected by the market system. I believe this is a very important conclusion. There are many observations on how our modern food system has changed the diet of the population. For instance, it is gradually recognized how the diversity in soils and farms might be reflected in the gut, and how the lack of that diversity makes people sick. 

People are gradually accepting that a healthy body requires healthy food produced in a regenerative farming system. But most tend to forget that this healthy relationship needs to be expressed through regenerative relationships between producers and consumers. Some of those relationships will perhaps be new forms of markets, but I think most of them will be non-market relationships. 

While I still don't have the full "theory" developed it seems to me that any form of "market" will be based on competition and division between producers and a certain degree of exploitation. None of these are conducive for sustainable and regenerative relationships.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Towards a new narrative of food

To let commodity markets shape our diets and the stewardship of the land is a bad idea. This can clearly be seen both in nature, societies and human bodies. Most of the emerging food movements are based on other perspectives. The food system as commons emerge as a competing narrative to food as commodity.

The market paradigm clearly dominates how food and agriculture is discussed. For many people it goes without discussion or reflection that food is a commodity – a product with the main purpose to be sold by the producer and through various middle-men be bought by the end user, the consumer. It is evident because that is how we discuss food in the public sphere. It is evident for the consumers because of how food is presented in shops: “buy this” “2 for the price of 1”. It is evident for the farmers who are told to produce what is demanded by the market and who suffer when world market prices plummet, totally out of her their control.

But if you think about food once more, it is easy to discern many situations where we don’t look upon food as a commodity. The first food most humans eat is willingly given for free by a mother offering her breast. When we cook food for friends or family we do it outside of the market framework even if we have bought the food. The same apply when we grow food ourselves and share our bounty with a neighbour. Growing and cooking are hobbies and relaxing leisure for many, a duty without pay for others. Many foods also have cultural (or religious) meanings which transcend any market perspective.

Ulitmately, access to food is also an inalienable right. This was already agreed by world leaders in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has been re-asserted ever since, for example at the 2009 World Summit on Food Security in Rome. The Special Rappor­teur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, Olivier De Schutter, writes in the report to the General Assembly in August 2013: ‘The right to food has come to the fore as Governments realize that their efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger have been failing and realize the urgent need to strengthen national legal, institutional and policy frameworks’.[i]

The market is a mechanism for distribution of food. But it doesn’t work very well. To begin with, there are almost a billion people hungry – clearly the market fails to supply them with food. Further, there are huge external costs involved in food production, costs which are not reflected in the price of food. Through competition, farmers are forced, or encouraged, to externalise as much as possible of these costs. Commodification thereby promotes a perverse system.

Food processors and traders make most money from making people buy food made from cheap raw materials (corn, soy, wheat, sugar, palm oil etc.) which at the same time have a big appeal to consumers. Fat, salt and sweet are keywords. The marketing is so efficient that people buy far too much, leading to both obesity and waste.

In addition, farming has more functions than the production of food. More than half of the biological production in the terrestrial systems of the Earth is taking place in the agriculture landscapes and the management of those agricultural landscapes is our most important tool for managing nature, a nature that we are totally dependent on even in these modern times.   

But the signals, the guidance, from commodity markets don’t promote good stewardship of the land. They promote specialization, larger scale, monoculture, externalization of costs and short term profit over longer term sustainability. The reality is thus a lot more complex than the narrative of food as a commodity makes us believe. To let commodity markets shape our diets and the stewardship of the land is simply a bad idea.


Even if it sounds far-fetched, perhaps even frightening for some, there is a growing energy into a food system based on other perspectives than the one of the commodity. This can be seen “in the field” with many initiatives for new food systems relationships, such as community gardens, community supported agriculture, relationship food* etc. 

The food system as commons, a shared interest and shared responsibility, emerge as a competing narrative to food as commodity. This doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribu­tion, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies and their distribution. It also rejects the view that market forces and private ownership are the best ways for allocating food producing resources, such as land, water, knowledge and seeds.

Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons also necessitates the building of new institutions fit for these purposes. That includes both new relationships between producers and consumers and public institutions and policies. But I leave that discussion to another time. 
There is also an emerging academic interest in new perspectives on food. Jose Luis Vivero Pol, a food governance researcher, has made an interesting analysis of academic papers in The value-based narrative of food as a commons. A content analysis of academic papers with historical insights.  His analysis of English academic texts reveals that “food commons” or “food public good” topics are very marginal subjects in the academic milieu with only 179 results since 1900, but with sharp increase in the eight years that followed the 2008 food crisis. On the contrary, “food commodity” presents almost 50,000 references since 1900.

Vivero Pol, Tomaso Ferrando, Olivier de Schutter and Ugo Mattei, are now editing the Routledge Handbook of Food as Commons. It will present a different normative view of food as a commons instead of a commodity and “how the food system would change if food was regarded and enacted as a commons.“ The title will be published in 2018 and I am looking forward to reading it.

I have written myself on this theme, in my book Global Eating Disorder and more specifically in the article Food: From Commodity to Commons. In that article I write:
”The market is not a good master for a sustainable food system. Instead we need to find new ways of managing the food system based on food as a right and farming as a management system of the planet Earth. The solutions should be based on relocalization of food production and de-commodification of food and our symbionts, the plants and animals we eat.”

There are interesting times ahead.

* Relationsmat, “relationship food” is a term used in Swedish to emphasise the  need to form new relationhips between the actors in the food chain, systems of co-production of cooperation.

[i]            United Nations General Assembly 2013 The Right to Food, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 7 August 2013, A/68/288

Friday, March 31, 2017

Beware of the techno-optimists!

Again and again, I read articles in magazines which are claiming that some new technology will save the world’s poor or hungry, produce food with almost no environmental impact or make cities independent on that boring “junk space” called countryside. I am astonished how people cling to these news and uncritically spread propaganda from individual researchers seeking more funds or startups needing investors. The latest months it has been new “impossible foods“, the lab burgers (again), 3 D printing, green skyscrapers, aquaponics, you name it. Genetic engineering and precision farming are perennial such tales. 

The romantic ideal of small organic farms providing everyone with healthy natural food is impossible on a planet of seven billion people, soon to be nine or ten billion, argues Jayson Lusk (a food and agriculture economist at Oklahoma State University). In his new book, Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology Are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World. In his view, not only is it impossible, it is also not desirable as it would mean that we reject the multiple benefits that the modern food system already has given us. And there is a lot more to come if we embrace modern food technology. Lusk presents the readers with stories how innovation and technology have found new solutions for, among others, production of eggs, 3-D food printing, robot cooks, synthetic biology, food fortification, genetic engineering, precision farming, meat tissue culture and food safety. 

According to Lusk, we don’t have to choose between prohibitively expensive organic eggs and eggs from hens held in miniscule cages. Instead we can design smart cages that combine the industrial scale with better consideration of the needs of the hen. Smart cages are just an example of how technology can solve most of our problems. “Sustainability and using agricultural technology is one and the same”, he states boldly – without providing any convincing evidence for it. 

Lusk relates many stories about new technologies. The relevance of the stories varies and a critical analysis is often lacking. Lusk readily admits that 3-D printing of food is expensive, incredibly slow (start your dinner while eating your lunch), demanding (3-D printers require CAD software) and not capable of making most of the food we like to eat - today. But he thinks those are all teething problems. My concern is more that 3-D printing of food and robocooks seems to be far-fetched solutions to marginal problems, and it certainly has nothing to do with “solving the world’s largest food and farming problems” as the jacket of the book claims.

Lusk claims that everything we eat is the result of hundreds or thousands of years of unnatural selection: “Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale didn’t exist before humans came along. All these veggies are descendants of the same plant, and they originated through artificial selection.” In the same vein he argues that genetically modified organisms are simply the next step in our technological evolution. Lusk states that the main obstacle to success is that the precautionary principle is taken too far. 

There is no doubt that technology has improved life for huge numbers of people. Plant and animal breeding have given us a variety of useful crops and livestock products – it is another thing if we should call breeding “unnatural”. Mechanical devices and tractors have made farming a lot easier. Food processing methods have made food safer to eat and sometimes tastier (think cheese). Sometimes, innovations have improved nutritional quality and the environment, but probably more often not. Technology and innovation will also in the future sometimes make wonders and other times wreck havoc. Some precaution has merit. 

But most importantly, technology can’t at all solve all problems of our food system. Like so many other techno-enthusiasts, Lusk forgets or neglects that food is a lot more than the intake of exact prescribed quantities of nutrients and that farming is an important tool for mankind’s stewardship of nature. He forgets that farmers and other actors in the food chain to a very large extent make their choices based on profitability, which is very different than making choices based on “science” or best practice. He seems to forget that trade-offs are not only mediated by technology or markets but more often by governments, local communities, farmers themselves or food activists. 

The messages of the techno-optimists is both deceptive and dangerous as it makes people believe that most problems can be solved by technological innovation which in turn make them passive in the political, social and economic arena. Of course, we can always improve technology, but in essence we already have (know) the technologies to feed the world’s population with healthy food in a sustainable way. The obstacles are economic, social and political. And that is where the struggle should be.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

From extraction to regeneration: Food and farming as keys to transformation

Industrial food and farming is based on practices, principles and mechanisms which are not compatible with equitable and truly sustainable development, human or planetary welfare. Since agriculture dominates over 50% of the primary biological metabolism of the planet’s terrestrial systems and food production is also shaping the development of the seas and arctic regions, how we manage food production is essentially how we manage the planet. Almost all major environmental challenges are strongly linked to our food production system.

Most people feel a profound discomfort over how their food is produced and how this affects both the quality of the food and the world we live in. As a response to this organic farming, fair trade and alike has developed. However, these systems are by and large still subject to the endless competition in the market place, and increasingly so the more successful they are, which limits their transformational power. Real change of our farm and food system must be linked also to changes in social institutions. Because of the pivotal role of food and its way of engaging people it is also the best starting point for the building of such institutions. This has already begun with efforts such as community supported agriculture, local food movements, participatory guarantee systems and urban farming.

A truly regenerative food and farm system will close loops of flow of energy, nutrients and most importantly meaning and culture. It will also have to reflect the role of our agriculture system for management of the planet at large. Such a system can’t be based on the capitalist market’s imperatives of endless competition and rent-seeking.

This new path is a one of re-generation and co-production of resources, innovation, knowledge and meaning embedded in new relationships which to a large extent transcend the division between producers and consumers imposed on us by a capitalist market economy. Increasing prices of energy and general discomfort with the results of globalization will assist in the transformation. Like most earlier profound transformations of human society it will develop by a mix of new relations and adaptations of existing components and institutions.

Summary of speech at the 18th IFOAM Organic World Congress 2014.