Monday, October 6, 2014

Why did local go global?

When discussing the food system, I find that there is too little effort made to understand why the system is like it is. Some discuss the system in a way where it sounds like Big, Bad and Ugly corporations made the system into what it is today, and all we have to do is to decide that we want a local food system instead. But that view is underestimating the drivers of the economy. My own experiences in food processing and farming has made me understand that the workings of competition ("the market") is the main factor influencing how and where production takes place.

Some thirty years ago, our farm wanted to pursue the value addition of local resources and we started making jam out of local berries. First we picked lingonberries - a North European berry similar to cranberries - ourselves in the forest. But quite soon we reverted to buy up from pickers. But the buckets were full of bad berries, leaves, twigs and droppings from roe deer so we had to spend a lot of time cleaning them. We converted an old grain cleaning machine, but when the berries were really ripe and soft, they were mashed inside the machine, and it was impossible to clean it. In addition, one of us got an involuntary exotic haircut, when leaning too close to the fan of the cleaner. Next solution was to buy from a local berry trader who had a purposely built lingonberry cleaner. But also with this one we had quality problems and ended up having to pick many leaves by ourselves. In addition, as most berry pickers know, the berries don’t grow equally well every year, there is frost in the florescence, it is too dry, too rainy or there is a pest, so we could not rely on the local berries alone. And neither could the local berry cleaning operation, so it closed down. 

Then we were left buying from one of the two big companies controlling the market. They have wonderful machines where each berry is individually quick frozen. Each berry rolls in dedicated tubes where size, color etc. is detected and anything that is not according to specs is blown away. The end product is amazingly clean and comes in 25 kg bags with free flowing berries.  Of course, this means that the berries now are transported all across the country, as such machines existed only in two places in the country. The local business is now part of a global production system whether it likes it or not. And the same companies also trade in berries from China, Chile, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia. We could still get berries from specified areas – for a premium prices. The organic sugar in the jam was imported from Paraguay and the people picking the berries in the Swedish forest were flying in from Thailand. While we made no “local” claim on the label, many of our customers seemed to expect that the berries were local; some even thought we picked them ourselves. 

The story does give a rather good insight is why “local” disappeared. In this particular case, when it comes to physical product quality, the “globalized” standard IQF frozen berry is superior anything we could get locally, unless you think some moss and rotten berries should be part of the recipe. At the same time this kind of development has disconnected us, most of us, from the landscape and natural process that is the basis for human existence. In the end it has also changed what we eat, how we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat – even why we eat. 

(The text above is a "killed darling" from my - very soon forthcoming - book Global Eating Disorder. )