Breaking new ground in food regime theory: corporate environmentalism, ecological feedbacks and the ‘food from somewhere’ regime?
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- Campbell, H. Agric Hum Values (2009) 26: 309. doi:10.1007/s10460-009-9215-8
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Early food regimes literature tended to concentrate on the global scale analysis of implicitly negative trends in global food relations. In recent years, early food regimes authors like Harriet Friedmann and Philip McMichael have begun to consider the sites of resistance, difference and opportunity that have been emerging around, and into contestation with, new food regime relations. This paper examines the emerging global-scale governance mechanism of environmental food auditing—particularly those being promoted by supermarkets and other large food retailers—as an important new dynamic in our understanding of the politics and potentials of food regimes. Commencing with an examination of Friedmann’s corporate environmental food regime, two key dynamics are identified as being pivotal in the rise and decline of global-scale regimes: securing social legitimacy for food relations and the importance of ecological dynamics in global food relations. By extending McMichael’s notion of ‘Food from Nowhere’ versus ‘Food from Somewhere’, the paper interrogates the emergence of a cluster of relations that comprise ‘Food from Somewhere’ and examines whether this cluster of relations has the potential to change some of the constituent ecological dynamics of food regimes. These ecological dynamics have historically been problematic, amply demonstrating Marx’s metabolic rift as the early food regimes solidified relationships between ‘ecologies at a distance’. By using socio-ecological resilience theory, ‘Food from Somewhere’ is characterized as having denser ecological feedbacks and a more complex information flow in comparison to the invisibility and distanciation characterizing earlier regimes as well as contemporary ‘Food from Nowhere’. The conclusion of this article is that while ‘Food from Somewhere’ does provide one site of opportunity for changing some key food relations and ecologies, the social legitimacy of this new form of food relations does rely on the ongoing existence of the opposite, more regressive, pole of world food relations. The key question for resolving this tension appears to be whether new food relations can open up spaces for future, more ecologically connected, global-scale food relations.
KeywordsFood regimesAgri-food theoryResilienceFeedbacksAuditGovernanceGreen capitalism
This article uses the concept of food regimes to interrogate whether there are any grounds for hope that we might one day achieve a more sustainable set of ecological relations that can operate in a stable form and at a global scale. In its early iterations, Food Regimes Theory (FRT) provided a compelling alternative to the rather linear and deterministic narratives of agricultural change that characterized the ‘New Rural Sociology’ (see Introduction to this Special Issue). While Food Regimes Theory dwelt on some pessimistic subject matter—the collapse of colonial food systems, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the deceptive logic of the post-WWII Aid initiatives—it nonetheless established the grounds by which key sets of food relationships might be reconfigured in dramatically changed form. In short, it broke out of the linear history of food industrialization, and opened the space for alternative visions of our food futures. Commencing with Harriet Friedmann’s latest work—identifying a ‘corporate environmental’ food regime—this article investigates two dynamics that lie at the heart of the potential stability and sustainability of the corporate environmental food regime—the achievement of social legitimacy and the embedding of ecological feedbacks within this legitimacy. These two dynamics provide important insights into the stability and potential viability of a ‘Food from Somewhere’ regime.
Positive scenarios for future food regimes: after Midas’s feast
Most discussion of the theoretical notion of Food Regimes commences with the publication of an article by Friedmann and McMichael in Sociologia Ruralis in 1989. That article—using the theoretical apparatus of both French Regulation Theory and political regime theory—reinterpreted the colonial (and post-colonial) elaboration of global-scale food relationships to identify a key set of relationships that underpinned stable growth in the world economy. Further, they argued that this key set of relationships had coalesced in two very different ways in two key periods of capitalist history: a first regime comprising colonial food relations, and a second regime based on post-WWII food and aid policies in the West. After the publication of Friedmann and McMichael (1989), most attention turned towards positing what new stabilizing conjuncture might emerge out of the agricultural crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. A range of possible conjunctures and sites of action were discussed, ranging from somewhat negative prognoses based around the upcoming conclusion of the GATT Uruguay Round of negotiations, to more positive visions of new potential scenarios for a more just and sustainable food system. This article concentrates on the latter of these two trajectories, by focusing on the work of Friedmann (1993, 2005) which articulates the politics and trajectory of a putative ‘greening’ regime in the post-WTO era. In particular, and given the overall pessimistic tone of much of the Food Regimes literature, this article will attempt to build on Friedmann’s attempts to identify the conditions and coalitions that might underpin future development of a more sustainable regime of food relations at a global scale.
The early attempts to examine alternative food politics through the lens of Food Regimes tended to look at activities lying outside global-scale regime relationships. In an influential 1993 collection Food for the Future, edited by Patricia Allen, Friedmann restated the case for a food regimes-based understanding of agricultural history. In that chapter, however, she mixed a pessimistic assessment of the ‘crisis of the 2nd Food Regime’ with a more positive analysis of what a new food regime might look like. While Friedmann did acknowledge the looming shape of the new neo-liberal world order of food, she suggested that in order for a food regime to move out of the stability/crisis cycle, it had to become established on a set of more sustainable relationships—which had not yet happened in any visible form.
Her analysis used Polanyi to elucidate the destructive power of distanciated and socially disembedded food relations.1 Two key relations (echoing much of her earlier work) emerged as lying at the heart of unsustainable relations in the two historical food regimes: distance (between production and consumption) and durability (of key food commodities like wheat). Her argument was that a ‘sustainable’ food regime needed to subvert these dynamics and create sites for re-embedding food in local settings. The positive outcome that could be achieved through subversion of distance and durability was to enable a turn towards locality and seasonality: thus re-embedding food within locally and ecologically-appropriate food systems. She cited the kinds of local-food initiatives—from urban gardens to locally-protected varieties—that would later inspire the Slow Food and Civic Agriculture movements (amongst others). In summary, Friedmann (1993) concluded that the appropriate site for reshaping global food relations in more sustainable ways lay outside the global-scale relations of regimes: it is sited at the local, regional, communal and ecologically-embedded level of food relationships.
The emergence of WTO-era food politics: food from nowhere and somewhere?
After the early Food Regimes literature, the unfolding of a corporate/WTO food order post-1995 unleashed a set of highly significant dynamics which had an impact on how both Friedmann and McMichael subsequently used the idea of Food Regimes to understand emerging global food relations.
The establishment of the WTO in 1995 did create a new set of global governance structures with a number of intended and unintended consequences. The new arrangements of world food governance set in place the basis for strong liberalization and commoditisation of corporate supply chains (harmonizing production standards, rendering supply chains endlessly substitutable, creating limits to the extent and power of national food regulation, and moving against regional identities to foods) resulting in what McMichael later termed the ‘Food from Nowhere’ regime.2 This cluster of relations operates on invisibility: obscuring the social, geographical, economic and technical bases of its production regime.
The liberalization of international mercantile, industrial and financial circuits in food production did result in a round of consolidations in the industry and a continued expansion of size and power of key food corporates. New sets of global-scale trading regulations and governance mechanisms were deployed with reasonable success, and entities like the Codex Alimentarius Commission became seemingly co-opted into this new corporate regime. This all took shape, admittedly, under the influence of a set of regional dynamics (like the East Asian import complex), rather than as a single global trajectory (McMichael 2000b). The detailed elaboration of the emerging Food from Nowhere regime has been addressed by McMichael (1993, 2000b, 2005) and will only form a minor part of this narrative. However, even in that literature, the nature of alternative food politics was present as a counterpoint to the corporate trajectory (see McMichael 2000a).
In any discussion of Food Regimes, it is important to note that this concept has a comparative macro-status, and in no way assumes that all food production and consumption conforms to this pattern. Certainly other forms of production and consumption of food may be marginalized or emboldened by the arrogances of the corporate food system, but there is a substantial arena of food production and consumption beyond that of the food regime.
Even more explicit elaboration of the key sites of resistance to the emerging WTO-based corporate regime is made in McMichael (2005) where he argues that one of the key dynamics of all food regimes is their ability to stabilize contradictory forces. In each food regime, the key dynamics of the regime have simultaneously created consent and resistance. In the latter case, McMichael (2000a, 2005) points to movements like La Via Campesina as the kind of site of resistance that is partly generated in reaction to the central trajectory within the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime.
Furthermore, McMichael (2000a) identified that other deus ex machina contributions in the 1990s discomforted the emerging hegemony of ‘Food from Nowhere’. These came, in particular, from social movements and the sudden emergence of a global consumer backlash against GM foods (McMichael 2000a). In other words, while the 1990s consolidated the formal powers of food corporates under the WTO, the 1990s also witnessed the growth of food-related social movements and alternative agriculture. The new millennium saw these forces come into stark conflict during the WTO Doha Round of world trade negotiations. The protests in Seattle and Cancun displayed a level of developing country and NGO power that was relatively unforeseen as little as a decade earlier.
In Friedmann (1993), there are actually two alternatives mooted to the emergent corporate food order. She concentrated mainly on the local/seasonal food system, but also briefly mentioned and then dismissed the alternative pathway of ‘corporate greening’. At this early stage, she took the position (later articulated in more detail by Guthman (2004) and popularized by Pollan (2006)) that new corporate products claiming niche ‘environmental’ or ‘alternative’ qualities—like certified organic—should be subjected to critical scrutiny and could not be simply assumed to have genuine transformative potential over corporate-dominated food structures.
Twelve years later, and some signal successes and setbacks to the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime had prompted a slight readjustment of emphasis. Friedmann (2005) suggested that while crucial experiments in local food systems and resistance-from-the-margins are continuing to emerge (and by 2005, she had the full range of Slow Food, La Via Campesina, anti-GM and other social movements in deployment), these Social Movement-inspired sites of resistance are actually in a complex political dialectic with the emergence of ‘green capitalism’ (see also Friedmann and McNair 2008). This swirling tension between Social Movement-inspired critique and capitalist appropriation forms the heart of a posited ‘corporate environmental’ food regime that can actually operate at a global scale.
Friedmann’s (2005) argument is central to the concerns of this article. In a retail environment characterized by an increasing number of food scares (and associated risk responses by large food retailers) she suggests that certain emerging, and propulsive, food relations are defined by wealthy consumption niches, supermarket retail strategy, environmental rhetoric, complex new forms of audit, inspection and traceability and emblematic new products like certified organic and the new GlobalGAP audit system developed by European supermarkets.3 This propulsive set of food relations manages risky foods, traceable foods, green/safe foods and foods that actually brand as being geographically situated. Furthermore, this new set of relations is clearly operating at a global scale rendering local production conditions visible over global-scale distances—with reside-free kiwifruit being produced in New Zealand under myriad GlobalGAP quality criteria and then sold through UK supermarkets, and Kenyan organic green bean producers being audited by European certifiers and sold through Swiss food cooperatives. It is what might be termed the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime operating in complex opposition to the invisible relations at the heart of McMichael’s ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime.4
The rest of this article will consider some of the key qualities and claims around this set of new food relations: most specifically what are the key conditions that might underpin its stability? While Friedmann (2005) and Friedmann and McNair (2008) cover an impressive sweep of historical and contemporary dynamics, in this article, two issues are concentrated on in order to illuminate some of the processes that may underpin, and potentially be transformed within this regime: social legitimacy in food regimes, and the role of ecological feedbacks in securing legitimacy/sustainability. This article will show that it is the interaction of these two dynamics that gives the strongest indication as to whether the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime has propulsive qualities.
The importance of social legitimacy in the food from somewhere regime
This section will examine a dynamic that others have described, with some concern, as the ‘cultural turn’ in food regimes analysis (Araghi 2003). Unlike more classically informed political economy approaches, the importance of social legitimacy in stabilizing periods of productivity and growth has always been a central concern of French Regulation Theory—a key influence on Food Regime Theory.
beneath the natural appearance of a working regime lie unstated assumptions that are in effect implicit rules guiding relationships, practices, and outcomes—such as which countries specialize in growing certain crops and which countries are importers.
Furthermore, the slow collapse of these cultural compromises and legitimacies was a central dynamic in exposing and unraveling the contradictions of both these regimes. For example, Friedmann (2005, pp. 232–233) identifies the transition from the culturally legitimate notion of ‘Aid’ to the culturally delegitimated notion of ‘dumping’ as part of the declining power of the post-WWII Regime. Similarly, the cultural framing of new pesticides within a wider framing of technological optimism, progress and development began to unravel around the ecological/health critique mobilized in Silent Spring. Friedmann (2005) identifies the power of social movements to legitimate or challenge the prevailing cultural order of the different regimes—unquestioningly accepting or, eventually, calling into question the key implicit cultural framing of each regime. An important proviso is that in each of these historical cases, the dominant regime endured for long periods of time before losing social legitimacy.5 The durable cultural logic of each was characterized by the ability to disguise what Marx had, during this very period, described as an irreparable, yet invisible, metabolic rift that increasingly disrupted the interaction between human beings and nature. Even at an early stage, Marx identified one of the defining qualities of modernity was an ability for humans to physically (and thus psychologically) distance themselves from the ecological consequences of their actions. Marx argued that it was intrinsic to the dynamism behind the capitalist form of society that a rift had opened up within the social ‘metabolism’ between humans and nature.6
Compared to the earlier regimes, the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime appears to have both enduring cultural framing (the era of cheap food) and an emerging acute problem of cultural legitimacy. There are a number of things that might have contributed to this shift toward a more unstable cultural legitimacy for food relations. While there is limited opportunity in this article to extensively review all the potential dynamics behind the collapsing legitimacy of earlier food regimes, there are at least seven that are worth briefly mentioning in the context of ‘Food from Nowhere’: (1) a general decline in technological optimism and trust of science in the period after the 1960s; (2) the rise of New Social Movements—particularly those with a specific interest in food and the environment; (3) mass media and information technology making it much easier to politicize the previously invisible relations typical of ‘Food from Nowhere’; (4) emerging dynamics of ‘risk’ politics, environmental problems and food scares; (5) the emergence of a popular group of authors like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, and celebrity chefs like Rick Stein and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who have taken strong political positions and popularized the politics of eating; (6) the rise of retailer power amplifying the potential impacts of consumer preferences on supply chains (see Lawrence and Burch 2007); and (7) a perceived nutrition crisis in the Western world—popularly attributed to ‘fast foods’, convenience foods and an abundance of ‘cheap calories’ (see Dixon this issue).7
It is within this set of cultural dynamics that a cluster of food relations that can be termed ‘Food from Somewhere’ has emerged. Just as the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime is concentrated in the cheaper end of the food market and rooted within a set of cultural framings that emphasize cheapness, convenience, attractive transformation through processing and rendering invisible the origins of food products, affluent consumers in Western societies are attaching cultural status to foods which they perceive to be opposite; that is, attractively socially- and ecologically-embedded. Similarly, such consumers are showing loyalty to retailers who are able to articulate that they sell ‘Foods from Somewhere’ (both socially and ecologically).
Having, therefore, embraced the cultural turn (or more accurately the centrality of cultural politics in the legitimation of food regimes) as being critical in understanding the emergence of ‘Foods from Somewhere’, it is important to go one step further and enter the relatively unexplored consequences of an ‘ecological-turn’ in food regimes analysis.
The ecological dynamics of food regimes
Through the 1990s, some space opened up in the Food Regimes debate for discussion of ecological dynamics. Implicit in Friedmann (1993) was a normative argument that to overcome distance and durability, we need localness and seasonality. Put in other terms, to become sustainable, small-scale food systems need to be both socially and ecologically embedded.8 In 2005, Friedmann opened up even more of this terrain by identifying a set of ecological crises as contributing to the overall contradictions that undermined the stable order of prior regimes and set the basis for trying to understand if there is a new eco-logic to the corporate environmental regime. This set of ecological dynamics is worth exploring in a more depth.
Within the 1st Food Regime, the ecological implications of establishing global-scale markets around selected food durables are clear. Cronon (1991) is cited, and aptly too, as his celebrated narrative in Nature’s Metropolis explored the way in which the historical emergence of Chicago brought three distinct ecosystems into dynamic engagement (and decline) as a consequence of the opening up of the Midwestern beef, grain and lumber trades. The specific material qualities of each commodity, and the unique character of the respective ecosystems, helped co-produce particular commodity chains, sets of property relations, a style of commerce, traceability system, institutional framework of land-based production and specific commodity cultures. Without using the same theoretical language, Cronon’s analysis examined the eco-social co-production of almost every aspect of 1st Food Regime relations bar the actual international trading arrangement.9
Over all the specific sites of eco-social process that Cronon identified was overlaid the global-scale production/consumption relations of the 1st Food Regime, putting into place complex and consequential relationships—ecologies at a distance—that would eventually breach a series of ecological thresholds and result in a catastrophic collapse of the kind most often symbolized in the Dust Bowl in the American Southern Plains. The key eco-social dynamic of the 1st Food Regime (and its key driver of extensive accumulation) was that the consumption of ‘ecologies at a distance’ introduced critical instabilities into the regime that would eventually contribute to its structural disarray (Friedmann 2005, p. 239).10 However, this did not undermine the overall stability of the regime, as the cultural legitimacy of the regime was not directly linked to such ecological consequences: most of the negative ecological and social effects were happening on the other side of the metabolic rift—at a safe distance from consumers in the industrial core.11
The emerging ecological problems of the intensive agricultural regime underpinning the post-WWII regime have been recited at length elsewhere (e.g. McNeill 2000). The new technological package of fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery and new stock/crop varieties allowed for a significant new phase of increased production from finite areas of farm land and finite animal bodies (see Haggerty and Campbell 2007). This strange magic of intensive accumulation came at a significant environmental cost. The system operated on increased levels of industrial inputs, reduction in internal natural cycles on farms, pressure on landscapes and animal bodies (particularly in new factory farm systems) and a growing list of environmental ‘externalities’ (including impacts on biodiversity, air quality, water quality and soil).12
As Friedmann (2005) argued, most of these ecological crises would eventually be taken up as political causes by social and political movements at a level that never occurred in the declining moments of the 1st Food Regime. However, it can be argued that another key threshold also signaled a significant breach in the cultural legitimacy of the 2nd Food Regime: the emerging evidence of threats to human health arising from new agricultural practices. This new trend was evidenced by the emergence of series of ‘food scares’ like Alar residues on apples, E coli outbreaks, salmonella in eggs and Mad Cow Disease. These are excellent examples of the mutual reinforcement of actual ecological crises in intensive agriculture and the emergence of cultural de-legitimation of the regime. They are also arguably the key historical events that led to the emergence of the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime.
The mechanism that emerged to start binding together many of these disparate dynamics took the form of an emerging body of new governance forms created by private capital (in alliance with other parties) to secure new production/consumption relationships. Alongside Friedmann, Campbell (2005, 2006) suggests that new forms of environmental governance in agri-food system are emerging (involving negotiations between private sector firms, state, citizens and social movements) that provide the underpinnings of a new form of organization in high value food systems. What repeatedly emerges in the discussion of the new corporate greening typical of the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime is whether, in the end, such activities can make any claim to being sustainable.13 In order to pose questions of the sustainability of the corporate environmental regime, the rest of this article will introduce recent theories within ecology about eco-social resilience and, more specifically, the role that eco-social feedbacks at a global scale might play in underpinning the sustainability of food systems.
Resilience, ecological feedbacks and sustainable regimes?
In the work of ecological theorists inspired by Lance Gunderson and Buzz Hollings—the inventors of social-ecological dimensions to the concept of ‘panarchy’—ecological sustainability is not understood as being represented by a static set of systemic conditions that can be declared ‘sustainable’, in their ‘climax state’ or managed according to ‘maximum sustainable yield’. Rather, sustainability is a quality that emerges dynamically over time as a quality of resilience in social-ecological systems.14 In other words, social-ecological systems that involve social mechanisms of management, and thus can adapt and change in response to critical signals, have the redundancy or resilience to withstand shocks and, as such, are those most likely to survive over the longer term. While key resilience theorists (like Fikret Berkes) use examples from local-scale adaptive management of ecosystems as his examples (see Berkes and Seixas 2005; Berkes and Jolly 2001), it is also instructive to examine the longer term environmental history of colonial and industrial societies to see examples of a lack of resilience, breaching of ecological thresholds, linear trajectories of change that eventually reach tipping points, and a lack of redundancy and buffers to withstand a variety of shocks. Both the 1st and 2nd Food Regimes can be argued to have amply demonstrated these qualities.
While it is not the purpose of this article to examine all the non-resilient dimensions of the early food regimes, it is relevant to the question of the putative ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime to focus on one set of dynamics that seems important to both: the centrality of strong ecological signals and feedbacks in enabling positive social adaptive responses to shocks and threats. The issue of feedbacks in food systems is the subject of a recent article by Sundkvist et al. (2005) who speculate that local-scale food systems are more sustainable because they have ‘tight feedback loops’ linking consumers, producers and ecological effects. In such systems, positive adaptive responses are more possible because of earlier and stronger signaling of negative ecological effects requiring a change in behavior in the system. Sundkvist et al. (2005) end their argument by speculating as to whether ecological feedbacks can operate over longer distances in the world food system and whether new environmental and food audits can act as a vector for genuine ecological feedback. What is missing from this example is any kind of critical engagement with the emergence of audits as a new form of global governance in food relations. This kind of critical context to theories of social-ecological feedbacks can be usefully provided from within the Food Regimes framework.
The peculiar quality of the 1st and 2nd Regimes, if revisited in these terms, is that the central qualities of distance and durability directly undermined the potential for system-wide ecological feedbacks and signals. In fact, all the positive feedbacks in the system were pointing the wrong direction ecologically speaking; signaling continued, limitless expansion, land conversions, resource use and settlement. As described earlier, the earlier food regimes linked ‘ecologies at a distance’—a situation of prolonged metabolic rift between the bases of production and consumption of food—but effectively culturally disguised and rendered invisible (or at best irrelevant) by the powerful cultural narratives of development and empire (see McMichael 2000a).15
The global-scale parties to the regime were generally situated at a comfortable distance from problematic sites of production that may have been creating negative ecological effects. Key sites of governance and decision-making were well distanced from negative ecological effects. Just as commodity fetishism and Marx’s metabolic rift obscured the violent social conditions of production of commodities, so too it obscured ecologically catastrophic conditions as well. Put simply, in the 1st, 2nd, and ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regimes, food relations create enormous consequences both socially and ecologically at a global scale, but generally appear to consumers to have no consequence but price. Behind the price tags lie invisible consequences—Davis’s emaciated famine victims in nineteenth century India, farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1920s, and the emergent critique mobilized by peasant politicians that later coalesced around Social Movements like La Via Campesina.16 In the absence of sustained eco-social feedback indicating emerging political and ecological crises, ecological catastrophe played an equal part to collapsing economic relations and social legitimacy in the decline of the 1st Food Regime. Put simply, eventually the metabolic rift becomes too great to sustain either culturally or ecologically.
Feedbacks and the socio-ecology of corporate environmentalism
This leads to the pivotal question of this article. Given that the global-scale food relationships launched around the Industrial Revolution and reconfigured after WWII had catastrophic ecological consequences, are the ecological outcomes of global scale food relations always disastrous? What the rest of this article will explore is the opposite tendency. While always operating behind a dominant backdrop of global ecological crisis in food systems, an examination of the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime suggests a linked set of tendencies which draw together a group of potentially positive effects. These dynamics can be seen in the way in which the previously discussed social (il)legitimacy of the 2nd Food Regime began to operate in coordination with emerging ecological feedbacks.
First, the cultural dynamics legitimizing much of the corporate environmental regime have shifted perceptibly in the positioning of nature and environment. Previously, nature featured in Western thinking as something ‘out there’, safely thriving or failing at a distance to the Western consumer. The powerfully destructive logic of Silent Spring was that it created a trail of evidence that eventually incorporated the health of wealthy western consumers as being part of the ecological problem, not a separate sphere of activity. This critique of industrial food had been present for many decades, but such critique had been a muted theme in the dominant nutritional and health discourses of the early to mid-twentiethth century. The food and health crises that marked the declining years of the 2nd Food Regime shifted these concerns to centre stage for wealthy western consumers. To paraphrase Beck (1992), the risks of modernity eventually boomeranged around and hit us in the belly—through toxic additives, residues, cheap calories and diets rich in fats, salt and proteins.
It is possible to argue that ecological feedback was, by the declining years of the 2nd Food Regime, starting to operate at a global scale via our embodied health as consumers of global food. This represented a transition in the kind of cultural framing identified as critical by Friedmann (2005). Industrial food shifted from being ‘scientific’ and ‘safe’ (as well as ‘cheap’) to being ‘toxic’ and potentially injurious to our long term health. These culturally-framed health issues then operated as a compelling site around which the wider concerns about the environmental effects of industrial food systems being promulgated by New Social Movements coalesced into actual consumer reflexivity in food purchasing decisions. It was this shift in the embodied ecology of wealthy consumer purchasing that provided one of the key supporting dynamics for corporate environmentalism.17
Second, the new structures and institutions of the corporate environmental regime are building up around vectors and networks of information that undoubtedly create greater feedbacks at a global scale. As Campbell and Le Heron (2007) argue, the new risk politics of food has shifted from being at the margins of elite consumption niches to providing a guiding logic for considerable political negotiation and reconfiguration of many supply chains servicing these niches in wealthy markets like Europe. The arguments put forward by Campbell (2005) and Campbell and Le Heron (2007) align closely with the key dynamic Friedmann (2005) identifies in the Corporate Environmental Regime—the dependent reproduction operating between new greening corporates, professional auditors and food-related social movements. The new-found need of some corporates to underwrite and reproduce the cultural claims of social movements in entities like GlobalGAP points to just how significant the politics of cultural legitimacy have become in securing the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime. The powerful audit cultures of the corporate environmental regime; the new language of measurement of food safety and environmental performance; the definition of quality to include ecological variables; and the cultural re-valorising of taste, localness, history and safety as branded, profit-generating drivers of new investment, can all be argued to have created information flows and feedbacks between consumers and distant ecologies.
Are these flows so dominated by corporate capital that they are intrinsically untrustworthy and meaningless as real indicators of ecological effects? While it is clear from the initial body of research into the new food audit culture that most of the signals are flowing from the relatively empowered retail end of the food chain back down to producers, Campbell and Le Heron (2007) argue against any completely pessimistic dismissals of the integrity of these new relationships. Rather, corporates that seek profits at this high end of the market are still subject to the same politics of risk and de-legitimation as anyone else. One food scare, or exposure of ‘greenwashing,’ can destroy a hard-won market advantage—or so they fear. In the new politics of risk, corporate retailers cannot entirely control the outcomes—hence the passion with which many such entities have joined the audit revolution. Such audit systems are clearly inefficient in a pure cost/benefit sense, unless viewed through the metric that credible and defensible risk management equates with securing lucrative market share in high value food retailing.
A useful example of these new politics within global-scale supply chains is demonstrated by the GlobalGAP (previously EurepGAP) alliance (see Campbell 2005, 2006; Campbell et al. 2006; Friedmann and McNair 2008). Formed as an alliance of leading supermarket and cooperative chains, GlobalGAP was initially a crisis-response to consumer fears over pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables. Driven by the ability to capture elite market share, this powerfully emergent new kind of hybrid governance structure (operating as a negotiated compromise between private sector and social movements) gained a solid hegemony over fruit and vegetable supply chains into Europe and expanded its vision from ‘residue free’ produce to include a range of other ecological qualities in production. While the outcomes of the rise of GlobalGAP are complex (see Campbell 2005; Friedmann 2005; Friedmann and McNair 2008), the key point for this article is made: corporates joined GlobalGAP in response to new consumer politics. They adapted it and were themselves reconstructed in dynamic interaction with other key parties to the alliance. The terms of this relationship, however, intrinsically relied on more dense feedbacks operating across the metabolic rift that lay at the heart of prior regimes.18
The final section of this paper will consider the ambiguous tensions that can reside around the operation of such feedbacks at a global scale: particularly how this might operation in dynamic tension between both ‘Food from Somewhere’ and ‘Food from Nowhere’.
Discussion: the sustainability of the food from somewhere regime
The argument mobilized in this article supports the need for an ‘ecological turn’ in Food Regime Theory. Prior uses of Food Regime Theory have implicitly recognized the role of ecological crises in the decline of food regimes without giving quite enough recognition to their importance. This recognition of ecology as a dynamic contributor to the historical and spatial contingencies of Food Regimes enables the more challenging normative questions about future sustainability to be asked. Further, recognizing some of the key ecological processes that went wrong in the prior food regimes—namely a lack of resilience, redundancy, feedbacks and capacity for adaptive response at a global scale—gives a useful basis for asking more normative questions about the sustainability of new conjunctures of food relationships like the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime.
If we simply concentrate on one set of resilience dynamics—the need for ecological feedbacks and signals as a trigger for adaptive strategies—then the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime displays some interesting tendencies. It does have a far more dense set of ecological feedbacks than the configurations characteristic of other contemporary and historical regimes. Social movements and NGOs are an increasingly powerful vector of new environmental knowledges operating at a global scale. Even state and supra-statal organizations like the OECD have become participants in the promulgation of globally harmonized sets of environmental standards and indicators (e.g. OECD Agri-Environmental Indicators) designed to operate as sets of global standards in food trade and environmental management. Alongside them, the new private sector environmental audits, negotiated between many parties, do have an impact on production practices, have undoubtedly reduced synthetic chemical usage, and are becoming a strong platform for engagement with soil, water and energy issues in agriculture. The rapidity with which ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime participants are now rushing to incorporate carbon footprinting and ‘food miles’ criteria in their audits signals that some kind of adaptive response to negative ecological feedback is taking place.
While the use of concepts from social-ecological resilience theory does open up the space to discuss such global-level dynamics, it is very important to note that it both supports and challenges some of the sustainability claims of the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime. An important proviso is that feedbacks form only one dynamic in resilient systems. How resilient are such large-scale arrangements to sudden shocks to the system? Given that many parties have invested a considerable amount in creating the new infrastructures and supply chains of the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime, these may potentially re-solidify arrangements in a rather brittle form; lacking the flexibility and adaptability of more emergent local networks. Some apologists from within the corporate environmental sector argue that they are actually demonstrating rapid responses to new issues like carbon footprinting, but solid evidence of rapid adaptive management is needed before dismissing this particular critical issue.
A second, and critical, issue is whether an arguably improved ecological dynamic in the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime is balanced by improved dynamics in some of the other, more traditional, analytical foci of food regimes theory. In other words, is the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime more equitable, less exclusionary and less exploitative of vulnerable agricultural producers? As Lawrence and Burch (2007) argue, the shift to retailer power in agri-food systems has not necessarily changed power relations for the better. Friedmann (2005) and Campbell (2005) have both questioned the degree to which supply chains like GlobalGAP create powerful forces of incorporation and exclusion: privileging producers like New Zealand kiwifruit growers who can meet its stringent standards, and excluding many Third World suppliers who are not resourced, or culturally positioned to meet Euro-centric production standards. Privileging supply chains to buy ‘Food from Somewhere’ may create more ecological feedbacks but doesn’t automatically reflect support for more equitable relations at the producer end of the supply chain.
Finally, even if new supply chains configured under the logic and key relationships of the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime do represent an improvement on the ecological dynamics of prior global-scale food relations, and even if the use of Fair Trade certification or other mechanisms do allow for some amelioration of the highly unequal power relations between producers and the food industry, there is still a wider meta-relationship that must be considered. From the evidence presented in this article, it is arguable that one of the key driving dynamics behind the formation of a ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime is the ongoing presence of the much larger and much more problematic ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime. It is arguable that a powerful binary dynamic is operating between these two regimes. The cultural legitimacy that drives elite purchasing decisions supporting the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime are arguably linked in a binary with the mainstream structures of cheap industrial food provision. The flight to the quality end of the world food market is partly premised on the ability of wealthy consumers to purchase foods that are demonstrably different from mainstream industrial foods—the foods emblematic of Friedmann’s Wal-Mart pole to world food relations. Put simply, foods must not only be demonstrably from somewhere, they must also provide legitimate assurance that they are not food from nowhere: their raison d’etre requires the existence of both poles!
Regulation theory has always been fond of propulsive new arrangements in the historical emergence of commodity complexes—like the revolutionary impact of Henry Ford’s assembly line in the 1920s. It is clearly still too early to conclude that the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime is going to have the same propulsive qualities. While the above cluster of provisos over the potential virtues of the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime has led the likes of Michael Pollan to flatly dismiss corporate environmentalism as just business as usual for food corporates trading in things like certified organic foodstuffs, there is more attraction in the historical subtleties of Friedmann (2005): particularly her use of Sandler’s critique of Marxist understandings of environmental politics. The outcomes of periods of struggle are often unexpected and perhaps less transformative than social movements hope. The crisis following the 1st Food Regime gave us ‘not socialism but welfare capitalism’ (Sandler, in Friedmann 2005, p. 233). Friedmann’s sentiment—that sometimes the opening up of space for an alternative regime structure does lead to modestly hopeful outcomes—aligns with the conclusions of this article. In these terms, the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime represents a breach in the fabric of the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime, rather than a new set of clothes in itself. Its exciting potential lies in what might emerge out of a space where cultural politics, ecological process and reflexive consumption have given new social movements more power over the design of food supply chains than they have ever experienced before. While the ‘Food from Somewhere’ Regime is, at this point in time, linked in a binary relationship with the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime, the attraction is not equal. It is hard to make an argument that the Wal-Mart pole needs organic food in order to keep supplying cheap, invisibly sourced food commodities to industrial food chains in quite the same way that “Food from Somewhere’ operates as a form of cultural reaction to the industrial pole. Seen in these terms, ‘Food from Somewhere’ appears as a small but important new set of counter-logics, currently linked with, but stretching out from the main cloth of the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime—stretching over the metabolic rift in a genuinely novel set of ways.
The initial discussion of the WTO governed regime described the emerging ‘corporate food regime’ (McMichael 1993). More recent uses have described this as the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime—a term that has received acclaim amongst agri-food scholars as well as signalling something important for the argument in this article (McMichael 2002). Henceforth the corporate industrial pole of the post-WTO order will be described as the ‘Food from Nowhere’ Regime.
While she uses the narrative of the food regime to describe this cluster of relationships, others have approached this emerging set of phenomena via the lens of new forms of global governance, standards and benchmarking which are reconfiguring and reconstituting production–consumption relations (see Larner and Le Heron 2004; Le Heron 2003, 2005). For a review see Campbell and Le Heron (2007).
The name ‘Food from Somewhere’ was first used in McMichael (2002), although, in that usage refers predominantly to the situation of food in localized social and economic settings rather than combining food localism with global food audit relations—as is argued in this article. As a term, ‘Food from Somewhere’ provides both a clear link to its ‘Food from Nowhere’ twin—as this article will go on to argue—as well as superseding the original primary focus on food corporates implied by Friedmann’s terminology of a ‘corporate environmental regime’.
Even now, ‘feed the world’ discourses from the post-WWII regime are circulated by some groups.
See Moore (2000) for a review of use of the idea of metabolic rift by Marx, Braudel, and Bellamy Foster.
What is notable in this list is the absence of much cultural impact of the fraught ecological, economic and cultural consequences being experienced by producers in impoverished food producing regions. While Fair Trade labelling has opened up one such line of consumption politics it could not, in truth, be considered a major driver of elite consumption changes in the same way that embodied health has operated.
This is not the only place in which ecology entered the food regimes narrative. See, for example, an early discussion of ecological dynamics and food regimes by Le Heron and Roche (1996).
Although, in some respects, his discussion of the invention of the Chicago Board of Trade and futures trading implicitly suggested that it had global-scale powers of incorporation and ordering.
It is important to emphasise that these external effects were more than just ecological. Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts (2001) powerfully links ecological and social catastrophe in the newly subjugated food producing zones of the British Empire in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
There were, of course, exceptions like the emerging organic agriculture movement’s critique of destructive colonial soil exploitation (Stuart and Campbell 2004).
See Walker and Salt (2006), Walker et al. (2004), Folke (2006) for an analysis of a cluster of effects that are described variously as social-ecological resilience or incorporating ‘panarchy’. Agricultural examples can be seen in Allison and Hobbs (2004), Beilin (2007), and Milestad and Darnhofer (2003). An important first attempt at understanding resilience in wider commercial food systems is Anderson (2007).
Which is not to say that ecological critique was completely absent. Stuart and Campbell (2004) identify strongly linked strands of ecological critique and anti-imperialism in parts of the early organic social movement.
I am indebted to Ruth Beilin for her insight that ‘Food from Nowhere’ is ecologically linked to the ‘landscapes of anywhere’—where local ecologies can be replaced by generic (and artificial) food production platforms.
Which does not make the popularizing of ecological politics around agriculture any less influential. The combination of ecological and health politics are potentially strongly mutually reinforcing.
While GlobalGAP is strongly organized around a group of European retailers, other alliances have formed around NGOs and/or other combinations of industry participants. Consequently, GlobalGAP sits alongside other global audit entities like the Marine Stewardship Council, Forest Stewardship Council, Dolphin-Friendly Tuna, Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Slow Food and many others.
This paper emerged and was refined as part of a stimulating dialogue that emerged between a group of scholars over the last 2 years. I would particularly like to acknowledge the detailed commentary and constructive engagement of Jane Dixon, Philip McMichael, Harriet Friedmann, Farshad Araghi, Ruth Beilin, Chris Rosin, Julia Haggerty and three very useful anonymous reviews on an earlier draft of this paper.