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Synthesis/Regeneration 42   (Winter 2007)

Lost in the Supermarket:
Can Shopping Make the Food System Sustainable?

by Andrew Biro and Josée Johnston

The crisis of food

Looming energy crises provide a powerful imperative to reorganize the production and consumption of basic life goods, like food. Put simply, the way we eat is unsustainable. Our diet relies heavily on the extraction of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases — lots of them. According to Canadian trade lawyer and globalization scholar Steven Shrybman, “agriculture is likely to emerge as the single largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions, and by a substantial margin.”

To reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, ecological activists emphasize the importance of eating locally. This can take the form of individual dietary commitments such as the “100 mile diet,” or collective projects like farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Whatever the form, the local food movement is typically presented as ecologically friendly and socially just. In the ideal local food system, specific community needs are matched to the local environment, sensitivity to resource depletion is heightened, and privileged core regions do not live off the carrying capacity and exploited labor on the periphery.

The admirable ideals of local eating stand in stark contrast to the increasing globalization of corporatized food networks. One of the major ecological irrationalities with a globalized agricultural system is the immense amount of fossil fuel required to produce, package, and transport food. Even as more people discover the joys of eating locally grown fruits and vegetables, most Europeans and North Americans continue to eat food that has traveled thousands of miles to get to their plate.

Food transported thousands of miles might add dietary variety, but it typically involves an unsustainable energy trade-off. For example, according to “Eating Oil,” a report by Sustain/ Elm Farm Research Center, a head of iceberg lettuce transported from California to the United Kingdom requires 127 calories of non-renewable fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy. Because of energy-intensive agricultural methods, food scholars like David Pimentel estimate that if the entire world adopted North American food habits, global fossil fuel reserves would be gone in just seven years.

… if the entire world adopted North American food habits, global fossil fuel reserves would be gone in just seven years.

Many of these “food facts” are well known, and best-selling food authors like Michael Pollan have done a great deal to increase awareness of the ecological impact of our food system. Ordinary consumers increasingly understand that the ecological excesses of globalized agribusiness can and must be addressed through a switch towards more sustainable production methods. So if the food system is unsustainable, what solutions are emerging to address the crisis? Why do agricultural commodity chains continue to lengthen, even as scientists declare the necessity of reducing fossil fuel consumption to address global climate change? What prevents knowledge of the food crisis from translating into effective and immediate action to make our diets sustainable?

To answer these questions, environmentalists need to turn to an old-fashioned tool of political economists: studying the market. Everyone knows the importance of “voting with your dollar;” but what is less often discussed is the corporate adaptation to social critiques of the food system. Globalized agribusinesses recognize that many consumers are now concerned about the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions, and they have adjusted their production lines and marketing campaigns accordingly, homing in on one product in particular: organic food.

The organic “solution”

While local eating is the favored ideal of eco-food activists, the most prominent market “solution” to the current food crisis is organic food — currently the fastest growing sector in agriculture in both the United States and Canada. Sales of organic foods in the US tripled in the six years from 1997 to 2003, from $3.5 billion to $10.4 billion, and are estimated to more than double again, to $23.8 billion, by 2010. Canadian organics are similarly growing at an annual rate of about 20%.

Over the last decade and a half or so, organic food production has gone from alternative to mainstream. This is good news for those who want to see a reduction in the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But it also means that increasingly, organic farmers are not so much an alternative to global agribusiness, as a part of it.

The National Organics Standards Board (NOSB), which regulates the use of the “organic” label in the US, has established strict guidelines prohibiting the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers, but it has allowed “organics” to be industrialized in other ways. A large industrial farm growing a monoculture of organic carrots using trucked-in organic fertilizers, poorly paid labor, and a long-distance supply chain can use the same “organic” label as a family farm that sells its produce locally and grows a diversity of crops to self-sufficiently manage biodiversity and sustain soil health.

The NOSB has also allowed the use of synthetic preservatives in organic products; in the famous words of Joan Dye Gussow, a former NOSB member and champion for small-scale organics, this has opened the door to the certification of the organic twinkie. Indeed, walk into most natural food stores, and you can delight sugar-hungry children with everything from organic popsicles to organic sugar-cones to organic lollipops. Few if any of these products are made locally, unless you happen to live in California.

In the past, organic food was almost exclusively distributed through small-market or non-profit mechanisms providing a direct connection between producers and consumers, such as farmers’ markets, food box programs, and food cooperatives. Today’s corporate organics are primarily distributed using the same global commodity chains as conventional agricultural products. Organics are available to the consumer at a range of national and global chains, from specialized and upscale like Whole Foods to the mass market giant Wal-Mart, which has recently pledged to dramatically expand its organic offerings.

… particularly in terms of its long-distance trade routes, “organics” may be largely indistinguishable from conventional agribusiness.

Just as most major grocery retailers now stock a range of organic foods, corporatizing the distribution of organics, most of the largest global food processing corporations are now involved in some form of organic food production and process, and they continue to acquire many of the original organic food companies. Agribusiness giants Philip Morris, Kraft, Unilever, Cargill, and General Mills, for example, now own organic companies and product lines under labels such as “Back to Nature,” “Kashi,” “Ben & Jerry’s,” and “Muir Glen.” Other major food companies like Dole and Campbell’s have developed their own organic lines. “Organics” has become an industry dominated by large corporate players who have bought out or forced out smaller producers. In its corporate concentration and integration, and particularly in terms of its long-distance trade routes, “organics” may be largely indistinguishable from conventional agribusiness.

Corporate organics: Meet the humble farmer next door

While political economy is not exactly an everyday discussion topic, public skepticism of corporate control of the global economy has come into its own. In a 2002 article in The Nation, Walden Bello noted that “the legitimacy of the transnational corporation — the engine of the [global capitalist] system — is at its lowest in years.” The critically acclaimed documentary The Corporation won dozens of critics’ awards and became a cult classic, even while making the controversial claim that corporations behave much like psychopaths in their relentless pursuit of profit. Years of increased inequality, environmental degradation, and high-profile corporate scandals have done little to improve the corporate image.

Corporations are well aware of their bad press, and have responded in myriad ways, from hiring corporate responsibility officers to developing elaborate public relations campaigns demonstrating their environmental commitment.

Another solution, however, is for transnational corporations to stealthily take over market niches that enjoy reputations for environmental respectability, or seem to provide an alternative to the vagaries of global corporate capitalism. This is not just a case of corporations buying greater environmental legitimacy, for example by sponsoring environmental causes. Rather, it is a case where transnational corporations cash in on anti-corporate values. The corporate “greenwashing” of the 1980s has become more complex and more sophisticated. This is not just about using “green” labels on products, but taking on social dissent and social movement ideals (like eating organic or locally) and transforming them into marketing tools.

… it is a case where transnational corporations cash in on anti-corporate values.

Visit the website of an organic food producer, and you are likely to see the story of a company with humble beginnings that maintains its roots in a specific geographic place, a small-scale operation connected to local communities, family farms, and smiling happy peasant producers. Examples of such narratives can be found on the websites of a range of organic producers, including Green & Blacks, Horizon Organic, Earth’s Best Organic, Back to Nature, Lightlife, and Seeds of Change. But it is not just that these diverse organic producers market themselves with similar stories. They also all share a trait that is downplayed on their websites: each one is owned by one of the biggest agribusiness companies on the planet — Cadbury-Schweppes, Dean Foods, Heinz, Kraft Foods, Con-Agra, and Mars M&M, respectively. The giants of agribusiness have transformed themselves into the farmer next door.

Thomas Frank’s seminal work The Conquest of Cool documented how corporations absorbed the countercultural values of the 1960s and learned to package and sell products by associating them with rebellion and dissent. A similar process is taking place in the world of corporate organics — a world where producers are integrated into transnational agribusiness corporations, and the counter-cultural values of food activists and eat-local campaigns are absorbed into corporate-organics.

Corporate marketers create product campaigns that make frequent references to specific geographic places, and use imagery to conjure associations of sustainability and local eating. Even when connections to “place” are not stated directly, they are inferred by references to small-scale operations, local community roots, and references to specific family farms and farmers. The result? The values of environmental sustainability are used to sustain corporate profits, and consumers looking to “eat local” face a confusing marketplace where it is difficult to distinguish global agribusiness from local farmers.

Lessons for the local food movement

Corporate organic food marketing creates what we might call a “foodscape” that paints a picture of locality and embeddedness, even if the actual food is produced using complex, globalized commodity chains and is controlled by global agribusiness. Just as a landscape painting shapes our view of nature, foodscapes shape our understanding of where our food comes from. The marketing of organic foods by global agribusiness creates a foodscape that obscures or underemphasizes the ecological impacts of imported foods, providing a sense of food’s “place” that is largely divorced from many important material, social and ecological considerations. It presents an idealized view of the economies of food production, ignoring the social inequalities associated with global cash-cropping, and disingenuously suggesting that globally traded commodities originate in small-scale, locally embedded, farmer-controlled operations.

When marketing guru Blaine Becker advises corporate clients, he emphasizes that it is less important that the food is actually made locally, and more important that it “fosters unique narratives of a genuine spirit of authentic place and tradition.” Corporate organic marketing suggests that these “unique narratives” and a sense of an intimate connection can be fostered even when producers and consumers are physically separated by thousands of miles, and transactions are channeled through numerous layers of corporate bureaucracy.

Of course, not all organic food is created equally. Food analysts like Michael Pollan and Samuel Fromartz make a crucial distinction between corporate long-distance organics and small-scale local organics that are actually embedded in local communities and ecosystems. But the vast majority of North American shoppers — even so-called “ethical” consumers — cannot always be clear about the differences between the myriad food labels available on their store shelves. Not only are most people too busy and too harried to meticulously read the labels of all their grocery purchases (try that shopping with a toddler!), but to suggest consumers alone can reorient the food system represents an irresponsible down-loading of responsibility to the individual level. It suggests that the growth of a niche market can substitute for a social movement, or for state regulation of the food system.

… to suggest consumers alone can reorient the food system represents an irresponsible down-loading of responsibility to the individual level.

Furthermore, marketing research suggests that many purchasing decisions are done on the basis of warm communal feelings associated with a brand, rather than the concrete details of the production process. Corporate organic producers are well aware of these buying patterns, and heavily rely on warm communal images of family farms and rural landscapes — even though these images have little relationship to the long-distance commodity chains and corporate production processes that characterize industrial organics.

As with many environmental issues, the challenge of eating locally is only partly logistical or technical (e.g., few local economies are oriented towards food self-sufficiency). It is also political in the broadest sense, requiring attitudinal or cultural changes that are matched by changes in how individuals and groups within our society interact with one another. Who does the work of getting food from the farm to our dinner table? How do we relate to the people involved at each step along the way?

Corporate-organics suggest a much more radical ecological potential than they can actually deliver. As such, the corporate organic foodscape creates a tremendous challenge for constructing ecologically sustainable food systems that are rooted in local ecosystems. How can local food activists and businesses communicate the ecological imperative for localization while making local products the most attractive option in a sea of corporate-organic products also selling “place?”

Achieving sustainable patterns of energy use in the food sector will require further development and institutionalization of local and alternative food networks. These networks will have to engage in intense campaigns to educate consumers about the differences between local stewardship and corporate faux-local.

Education is an important goal, but we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that this will be enough. Expecting consumers to regulate the market and produce optimal ecological results ignores the countless decisions made long before a consumer is confronted with choices on the store shelves. More than relying on individual consumer choice, myriad forms of state regulation are required to ensure that buying food from faraway places is not so appealing or affordable, and that the real ecological and social costs of globalized food systems are apparent at all points in the commodity chain. Getting this regulation in place, in turn, will require social movement pressure at all levels, from the local to the global. Creating a sustainable path from field to fork is a societal imperative and a political project, not just a matter of individual choice.

Andrew Biro is a Canada Research Chair and Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Acadia University.

Josée Johnston is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Johnston has a recently released book (co-edited with M. Gismondi and J. Goodman) entitled, Nature’s Revenge: Reclaiming Sustainability in an Age of Corporate Globalization (Broadview Press).

[24 feb 07]

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