Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Globalization of Food

There’s a lot written in the popular press these days about the ‘globalization of food’. Often these are pretty simple, yet interesting, accounts of what’s right or (more often) wrong with the way food is produced, processed, transported and consumed around the world. While I admire the way these stories catch my attention, and give me a new way of looking at things, I wonder what complexities are being left out of the headlines.

I picked up the book “The Globalization of Food” at my local library hoping to get a deeper sense of what’s going on underneath the surface. It is a decidedly intellectual collection of writing by sociologists and anthropologists from universities around the world looking at the globalization of food from different angles.

In fact, although I like to think that I have a pretty deep knowledge of food and agriculture, it took some time and effort to work through new terms from this field, and understand what they were getting at. I’m more at ease with the language of economists and political scientists, who tend to focus on food production and distribution mechanisms, while sociologists and anthropologists usually study food consumption.

What I learned from this book is that there are many different food ‘globalizations’. There is not one ‘global food system’ and there is no single definition of ‘local food’. If we learn to recognize and appreciate the diversity contained within terms like these then, in the words of the editors, “analysts of food of all hues will truly become refined connoisseurs of the most pungent, but also the most delicate, of all tastes that the many food globalizations of the future will have to offer.” Sign me up!

Here are some of the topics of chapters I enjoyed most, and a few of the ideas I took away from them:
  • Slow Food – a fascinating history of the origins of the Slow Food concept in Italy, which celebrates and seeks to preserve traditional foods and production practices that are grounded in local communities. Yet it evolved into an international movement seeking the ‘virtuous globalization’ of the economics of food.
  • The “Local Trap” – a discussion of the assumption that a local-scale food system will be inherently better than a national-scale or global-scale food system. There is nothing inherently good or bad about any scale of food systems – the outcomes of those systems depend on many things, including the agendas of the people running them. It’s better to focus on a desired outcome (sustainability, justice etc) and consider the strategies, including scale, which can be used to achieve them. (A recent NYT op-ed makes the same argument very succinctly.)
  • Fairtrade food – particularly how Cafedirect, a UK Fairtrade coffee initiative, seeks to connect consumers and coffee farmers. One very visible connection comes in the form of images and short stories in marketing materials and product packaging that feature the producers’ lives, including the benefits that Fairtrade brings. Making our relationship with coffee into a relationship also with the people who produced it may be a step in the right direction. But do the lives of the farmers also become things to be consumed as images and labels on packages? (Lots more here about Marx and commodity fetishization if you’re interested in that sort of thing!)

I didn’t understand everything I read in this book, but it did open my eyes to different ways of thinking about food production and consumption. I made new linkages between things I thought were unrelated, and found new complexities in ideas I thought I understood thoroughly. Hopefully I’m well on my way to becoming one of those “refined connoisseurs” of the many globalizations of food!

The Globalization of Food, edited by David Inglis and Debra Gimlin. 2009. Oxford: Berg Publishers.