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Refining our food system: 'Supersize' vs. 'Have it your way'

Is there room for growing niche markets in the global food system? Or will this movement toward personal choice and alternative foods be stifled?

By Frederick Kirschenmann, Director
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

(Wednesday, May 19, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In his discerning article, "The Collapse of Globalism" (Harper’s March 2004), John Ralston Saul announced that our "globalization, with its technocratic and technological determinism and market idolatry...is dead."

Saul points out that "grand economic theories rarely last more than a few decades" -- generally 30 to 40 years. Our own globalization theory was launched in the 1970s and signs of its decline are now evident. Marvin Zonis, Dan Lefkovitz and Sam Wilkin come to similar conclusions in The Kimchi Matters: Global Business and Local Politics in a Crisis-Driven World (Agate 2003). Saul suggests that the only reason globalization seems viable to many of us is due to "our continued shared devotion to the cause."

Having a real choice
But "devotion to the cause" is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of emerging trends. One of those trends is the public’s growing insistence on having real choices with respect to food. The global food system increasingly wants people to eat what the system provides. Don't ask where the food came from, who grew it, how it was grown, what's in it or how far it traveled -- just eat it!

In other words, the global food system wants to impose its food choices on food customers. It wants people to have a say about what they put into their collective stomachs only when they can back up their requests with "the hardest of hard scientific evidence," as Saul puts it.

Saul argues, correctly I think, that globalism in agriculture has created flash points for far broader public concerns, which include mad cow disease, global warming and the availability of pharmaceuticals in the developing world. To the average citizen, it seemed that corporate structures "sought profits by limiting choice"-- not the best way to endear themselves to their customers. As Saul reminds us, "Globalization has felt like an inevitability and, so, like tyranny."

The real question now is whether the rejection of globalization will be played out as reactionary, isolationist and fuel for terrorism, or as a positive new nationalism that celebrates democracy and personal choice. Part of the answer is probably rooted in the opportunities, or lack of them, in the market place, especially where food is concerned. Saul points out that the end of globalization provides us with numerous new market opportunities.

Alternatives under attack
For more than a decade, alternative food production systems have offered consumers a wide range of choices—locally grown, place-based, produced using specific practices, special quality features, etc. Markets for these unique products have been growing rapidly, especially in the food service industry.

These emerging markets are sometimes attacked by global industries because they appear to threaten the dominance of the global food system. Discrediting the "science" of alternative foods seems to be a favorite line of attack. Food from global systems is based on "sound science, not sound bites," as one attack ad puts it.

Another line of attack is that there really is no difference between food from global food systems and food from alternative systems. "Milk is milk," according to one attack against organic dairy products. But if globalization itself is in decline, then such reactionary tactics will likely fail.

In view of the shift from globalization to nationalism, governments also would be wise to support policies that enhance rather than restrict personal choice. There appear to be some efforts underway, for example, that would make it a violation of global trade rules to label foods with local attributes, such as locally grown or locally produced. If true, such heavy-handed strategies would only push emerging nationalism in a negative, reactionary direction rather than a positive, market-driven direction.

New opportunities
Emerging markets also may provide new opportunities for those farmers who fall between the direct markets and the mass-produced, commodity markets. According to 2002 agricultural census data, during the past five years Iowa lost more than 17 percent of its midsize farmers (annual gross sales between $5,000 and $500,000). Most other states saw similar declines.

Yet these farmers in the "middle" can probably best produce the varied products that give food customers the choices they want in sufficient quantity to meet market demand. Farms under $5,000 in gross sales will not be able to supply a sufficient quantity of these unique products, in an efficient manner, to sustain a significant market. Very large commodity farms will find it difficult to remain flexible and innovative enough to meet changing demands or provide the array of unique products for this market. In these new markets, the comparative advantage goes to farmers in the middle.

Helping midsize farmers
Doing the research and promoting partnerships to create value chains that connect farmers in the middle with new customers of the post-globalization era is a priority for the Leopold Center. Many of the projects in our marketing, policy and ecology research initiatives focus on these "farmers in the middle." We hope we can make a small contribution to the evolution of a new positive nationalism that celebrates democracy and personal choice.


This article, reproduced in its entirety, first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of the Leopold Letter, a quarterly publication of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The newsletter also is available on the Web at: