Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

Slow food is also Commercial: a few words on terminology
13 July 2007, 9:26 am
Filed under: Economics of Eating, local v. industrial

Via google news alerts: an article about Charlottesville’s local food movements contained the following paragraph (emphasis added):

But, popularity has ruined organic’s virtue. Organic farms have swelled to thousands of acres and, with United States Department of Agriculture “Certified Organic” seals, now ship their products en masse to grocery stores. Sure, the food is still pesticide-free, but, proponents of the local food movement now argue, they aren’t any less commercial.

I think that this quotation illustrates the elitism that puts many people off of the local, organic, and Slow food movement. I don’t mean to say, first of all, that this elitism is intentional, nor that it overshadows the substantial benefits which are, I believe, the hallmark of this movement. However, insofar as the movement is perceived to be elitist this perception may slow adoption of, e.g., locavore or Slow-food type principles, and where this elitism is based on inaccurate or indeed wrong information, I believe that the movement ought to correct itself.

First, the idea that food would be anything other than commercial is itself a strange idea, and without much historical precedent: food is the archetypal commodity, as a) it may be stored for a period of time, b) it is easily traded and physically delivered, and c) its price is determined by an active trading market rather than on a cost-plus basis. There may be a strong case to be made that food ought to be in some way categorically decommodified, and there are certainly cases of upmarket foods being decommodified, but these arguments are not necessary for the widespread adoption of sustainable, ethical, environmentally conscious, or even passionate eating.

Second, it is trivial but important to keep in mind that farmer’s markets and firms like Zingerman’s and Whole Foods are commercial establishments. If the term commercial is being used, and I believe it is, as a derogatory signifier of mass-marketed or mass-produced foods, then it is inaccurate in such a way as to reinforce the already-present feeling that members of the Slow, local, organic, and environmentally conscious food movement(s) consider themselves to be participating in something other than a market. The kinds of foods and production methods that we in this movement want to see thriving already tend to be priced above market rates: when we use words like “commercial” to mean things like “sub-standard” or “unethical” or “flavorless” we only further reinforce the stereotypes which keep this thinking marginalized and ghettoized. It enables people who don’t participate to see the Slow Food or locavore movements as merely a way for upper-class consumers to feel morally superior to ordinary consumers.

Third, the use of a word like “commercial” masks and obscures legitimate concerns about food. Is the problem that foods in the U.S. are an article of commerce and the subjects of transactions, or is the problem that foods in the U.S. are grown and raised without accountability, that industrial farming relies on a monoculture which depletes the soil and threatens the ecosystem, that cattle live and die in appalling, filthy conditions? We should say those things. We should not use a shorthand which is explicitly value-neutral, and which encompasses an activity universal to human societies.

If there are problems with the organic standard, then those problems need to be addressed. However, insofar as, and to the degree that, an imperfect organic standard is better than industrial farming techniques, it is no criticism of that standard to say that it has become “commercial.” If Wal-Mart is carrying organic produce alongside non-organic produce, that means that the conversation about organic food has worked. It means that one of the messages about food quality has taken sufficient root in consumer consciousness. We should hope that local food becomes as “commercial.”

To be sure, the words in quotation above appear to have originated with the reporter, who is by her own account not an expert in organic or local food. But the usage is not uncommon among people who do care about where their food comes from. To the extent that it masks legitimate concerns and alienates mainstream consumers (who increasingly do care about food miles and origin labeling and grass-fed beef and raw milk), the term “commercial” should not be used as a pejorative. We should say what we mean.


4 Comments so far
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If one buys or sells food, one is engaged in commerce. The word she should’ve used is “industrial”. Organic ideals do not include industrial production.

One other note (as a law student I’m sure you’ll appreciate this): I think your first point is flawed. Food isn’t an “archetypal commodity” and certain foods didn’t become commodities until monoculture farming and silos came along. As it says in the link you posted, “In essence, commoditization occurs as a good or service becomes undifferentiated across its supply base…”

If you haven’t already read them, _Organic, Inc._ by Samuel Fromartz and _The Omnivore’s Dilema_ by Michael Pollan have a wealth of information on this topic.

Comment by Lulu

Thanks, Lulu. I am without many of my books, but I’m pretty sure there’s a section in an old and classic economics book (possibly even _Wealth of Nations_) which talks about food as if it were what we would call a commodity.

I do see and take your point, however. I think that the word which underlies our different understandings of commodities is “undifferentiated.” I think the term “commodity” relies on a common understanding of identity, and that identity is a notoriously problematic and easily deconstructed concept.

I have not yet read _Omnivore_ but it is on my short list. I will have to check out _Organic_ as well. Thanks!

Comment by lawforfood

Yes, I was thinking in terms of commodities exchanges. But spices, among other things, have been commodities long before the exchanges came around I suppose.

Anyway, I agree with your overall point. I don’t know about Wal-Mart though.

I came across an interesting article/site sort of related to all this here. Good to know there’s even a “Sustainable Commodities” initiative out there.

Btw, those books will probably be a lot of info you’re already familiar with, but still might be worth it for you.

Thanks, I enjoy your site… keep up the good work.
p.s. going to be at Zingerman’s this weekend, can’t wait!

Comment by Lulu

[…] which in some circles is being used as an insult when applied to food. Smells like elitism. (Law for Food — one to add to your blog roll for […]

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