Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Of Revelations and the Short Food Supply Chain
There are moments in my life when clarity strikes and an issue I’ve been grappling with suddenly dissolves into an understanding. I am always relieved when these moments occur, but at times they can leave me doubting my intelligence: how could I have ever been so baffled in the first place? Today, listening to Dr. Yuna Chiffoleau discuss short food supply chains and related topics, I experienced two such moments, and I’m genuinely amazed (and ashamed) at how long it took me to absorb these points.
The first revelation came as Dr. Chiffoleau explained how the short food supply chain recognizes value in otherwise immaterial assets. For example, a short food supply chain reestablishes and strengthens the link between producer and consumer by creating a relationship where in conventional long food supply chains there is none. If intermediaries are reduced, then consumers may actually purchase directly from the producer or at the very least from a supplier who can relate the story and background of the producer. A short food supply chain also stresses the cultural significance behind a product if the product is one tied to a specific method or place of production of cultural import. In a long food supply chain this significance can become cheapened or even lost, but a short food supply chain ensures the story and import of the product is still intact at the time of purchase. Another example is that short food supply chains encourage product authenticity: I say “encourage” because this is not always the case, as we see in Dr. de La Pradelle’s account of vendors in the Carpentras market stretching the truth as to where and how their products are made (Market Day in Provence) as well in Dr. Chiffoleau’s admission that some producers do “lie” a bit when asked about their use of pesticides on their vegetable crops. This dishonesty shocks me, to be honest, for I see no reason why there cannot be open disclosure as to the methods and origins of production, and I see this as a huge problem in our current food system. If we are to place trust in these producers and vendors, it seems to be human decency to honor and respect this trust. I understand that consumers ask with an idea in mind as to what they want to hear and that the “liars” are merely playing a role in a game where everyone understands and accepts the rules that allow for this ilk of behavior, but I find it disheartening nonetheless. That aside, the three aforementioned examples demonstrate how endorsed yet intangible values—producer-consumer relationships, cultural significance, and authenticity—are expressed within short food supply chains. So what, you might ask, was my “aha!” moment? Just this: these “immaterial assets” are very similar to the ecosystem services economists and policy-makers are working so hard to define and valuate as environmental goods. Both are non-market goods now recognized as marketable, but while ecosystem services are actually being assigned monetary values (albeit controversial) the assets specified through short food supply chains do not appear to be monetized just yet. Sure, items of high cultural significance could be priced reflectively (think cheese bearing the Roquefort name…) and perhaps my understanding of short food supply chains is incomplete, but Dr. Chiffoleau spoke little as to the economic implications of short food supply chains compared to the social and cultural incentives and subsequent impacts. De la Pradelle would certainly have us believe that these “immaterial assets” are not reflected in the market price, as she repeatedly claims how the products and prices are the same as if they were sold in a shop with a fixed-location. Will these “immaterial assets” soon become linked to cost and valued outside of social constructs?
This first “aha!” moment leads me directly to my second, when I abruptly came to see that I was missing a major factor in the relationship between economy and society. I’ve repeatedly come back to the belief that the economy plays a significantly negative role in shaping and defining social behavior, but for some inane reason beyond my scope of comprehension I never once thought to question the possibility of the economy playing a positive role. It’s safe to say that I’m not a fan of money and markets—I believe wholeheartedly in the adage that “money is the root of all evil,” but in spite of this I like to believe in positive social influences driving “alternative” agriculture and, as it is defined in France, short food supply chains. However, it was only when Dr. Chiffoleau talked about the different social networks (friendship and cooperation networks, to name a few) that arise from market interaction did I grasp how economic endeavors do not always result in negative outcomes. I understood the concept of personal satisfaction derived from consumption and utility, but this seems shallow and less auspicious than concrete social relationships that trace their origins from constructed markets. I’ve hated the economic element of human life for so long I’m not sure how to process this newfound appreciation, but I hope it will allow me to explore the economic components of food systems without the automatic (and, as it turns out, perhaps unwarranted) dismissal as to any associated benefits. Time will tell.