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agro-food system

  Food is a basic condition of human life and the manner in which interlinked and increasingly globalized networks of knowledge production, on- and off-farm technologies, production, consumption and regulatory systems are bound together is the center-piece of any local, national or transnational agro-food system. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the agro-food system is defined as \'the set of activities and relationships that interact to determine what, and much, by what method and for whom food is produced and distributed\' (Fine, 1998, p. 3). Sarah Whatmore (1995, p. 40) has provided a simple diagrammatic representation of the agro-food system, a complex unity of four sectors: the agri-technology industry, the farming industry, the food industry, and food consumption. These four components linking knowledge, production and consumption, and agro-food production and processing have also been referred to as an agro-food regime (Friedmann, 1993), an agro-food commodity chain (Friedland, 1994), and as a food provisioning system (Fine and Leopold, 1993). Food-systems have specific properties and characteristics distinctive from industry and manufacture, may exhibit sectoral forms of coordination and integration (Allaire and Boyer, 1995), and may on occasion break down and collapse (famine). The dynamics and developmental tendencies of this agro-food system has obvious overlaps with the agrarian question (cf. agricultural geography; food, geography of; foodways).

A central dynamic in twentieth-century and especially post-Second World War agro-food systems has been the simultaneous industrialization and globalization of the food chain. The genesis of a transnational fast-food industry — the MacDonaldization thesis as it has been dubbed (Ritzer, 1998) — as a particularly aggressive form of agribusiness in the era of neo-liberal reforms is simply one obvious expression of these twin dynamics. The green revolution is a compelling case of the industrialization process at work on a global scale. Forged in the 1940s by US philanthropic foundations and the US government, the genesis of high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, sensitive to petroleum-based chemical inputs and forms of irrigation-based mechanization, is a textbook illustration of how various aspects of the farm production process — seeds, herbicides, pump sets — were appropriated by larger transnational companies (the seed and pharmaceutical companies in particular). This form of world-wide industrialization based on the US petro-chemical model involved the appropriation of various on-farm processes by capital (Goodman, Sorj and Wilkinson, 1987). In the second phase of the Green Revolution, precipitated by the molecular revolution and recombinant DNA, the process of industrialization has been deepened through new forms of appropriation (germ plasm, genetically modified seeds that are \'programmed\' for particular inputs — the \'Round-Up Ready\' syndrome) and the prospect of substitution (i.e. substituting land-based crops with synthetic and manufactured alternatives).

Industrialization of the agro-food system has its own peculiarities, however, which turn on the distinctiveness of agriculture rooted in the biological foundations of production (Mann, 1990; Kautsky, 1906). These natural and biological processes have resisted the standardization and normalization typically associated with capitalist production. As a result, capitalist enterprises have often found direct on-farm production too risky or unprofitable. As a consequence, the processes of appropriationism and substitutionism have proceeded apace without necessarily any involvement in production on the land by large capitals. As Kautsky (1906) noted a century ago, industrialization and capitalization occurs in the realm of credit, of processing and of value added after it leaves the farm gate. The expansion and control of these off-farm sectors — seed, fertilizers, machinery, processing — is often striking: in the UK, for example, just four companies control three-quarters of the farm machinery market, a level of concentration replicated in both American poultry processing and the French hog sector. Various forms of contracting in the First and Third Worlds, in which agribusiness contracts to small or medium growers to produce under tightly regulated conditions for specialized niche markets, have proliferated since the 1960s (Watts, 1994). The rise of a massive fresh fruit and vegetable industry which services the retail supermarkets has been synonymous with contract production and what one might called post-Fordist agricultural commodities (McMichael, 1995: cf. retailing, geography of). French researchers working on the agro-food commodity chain (filière) see the genesis of new niche markets as an index of a new \'quality\' based agro-food system (Allaire and Boyer, 1995).

While the globalization of the agro-food system proceeds, it is clear that the fast-food chains are in no sense representative of the food system as a whole. Indeed, there is no real equivalent to the \'world car\' in the realm of agrifood (Goodman and Watts, 1997). The world steer or the world chicken, while international in character, does not resemble the multi-site, decentralized production and assemblages of the Ford Escort or the Nike\'s Air Jordan. In some respects, the agribusinesses, while global actors, resemble the \'Sloanist\' enterprises rather than the iconic Toyota post-Fordism companies of the world car (Bonnano et al., 1995). Nonetheless, within the agro-food sector, there are important parallels between the just-in-time production systems and industrial districts which have concerned industrial geographers who study the changing contemporary landscape of industrial manufacture (see Boyd and Watts, 1997: cf. industrial geography). Indeed, flexible accumulation has been a trademark of agrarian capitalism, and many of the trademarks of the new industrial geography — contracting, segmented labour markets, outworking, non-traded interdependencies — can be traced in the workings of the pig sector in the US, and in Brazilian fresh fruit and vegetable growing (Goodman and Watts, 1997).

One of the distinctive features of national agro-food systems is their protected character. A combination of the power of agrarian constituencies coupled with the political premium placed on national food self-sufficiency has produced, in the case of the North Atlantic economies, enormously complex state-regulated forms of protection, tariffs and subsidies. Typically the effects of the technological treadmill and the emphasis of increased productivity has produced an agro-food system in which surplus management (e.g. the butter mountain in the European Union, or grain surpluses in the US) has been paramount. The GATT reforms of 1992 plus twenty years of neo-liberal reforms world-wide have left their mark on First and Third World agrofood systems alike, however, which, as at the end of the nineteenth century, have stimulated new forms of deregulation and tariff reduction. The aggressive role of the World Trade Organization has raised the spectre for many critics of unprecedented competition in agriculture with the result that Third World producers will be outcompeted by American or European growers and transnational agribusinesses will control ever larger parts of the agro-food chain. This restructuring of various national agro-food systems is a politically fraught process (McMichael, 1995) and has led Friedmann (1993) to see the emergence of a new international food regime in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War state-managed system, what she calls \'private global regulation\'.

One of the paradoxes of the unrelenting industrialization of the agro-food system — whether the rise of fast food, of genetically modified crops, of high-technology food processing, of truly global commodity markets shuttling cut flowers and strawberries around the globe — is the limits to which the process can proceed by virtue of the biological basis of the sector itself. Food carries enormous social, cultural, symbolic and nutritional significance for all human societies (Fox, 1997). Our biological, spiritual and ethical health rests on food in complex ways. Health concerns, coupled with a growing sensitivity to green and organic issues, have presented obstacles to the industrialization process typically associated with productivist or Fordist agriculture. Food scares (E. coli and Mad Cow disease, for example), a growing clamour for organic certification, and the fierce debates over genetically modified crops — in short, consumer concerns over health and sustainability — have both exposed the frailty of hyper-industrialized industries like poultry and beef, and initiated new concerns with \'quality\'. In this sense, the recent and quite radical institutional reforms of the 1930s state-regulated agricultural model — for example the New Deal pact in the US — in the name of liberalization and deregulation, has produced new concerns with quality, standards and health, all of which re-regulate the agro-food system. Out of this contradiction between industrialization and health/sustainability emerge new spaces for alternative agro-food networks — grower cooperatives, green worth, local community-based food networks — and for a serious debate over the politics of food (Whatmore, 1995). The outbreak of Mad Cow disease and its impact on the beef industry in the European Union perhaps marks a watershed, and a crisis, in the Fordist agro-food system. (MW)

References Allaire, G. and Boyer, R., eds, 1995: La grand transformation. Paris: Institute Nationale de Recherche Agronomique (INRA). Bonnano A. et al., eds, 1995: From Columbus to ConAgra. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press. Boyd, W. and Watts, M. 1997: Agro-industrial just-in-time. In Goodman, D. and Watts, M., eds, Globalising food. London: Routledge, 192-225. Fine, B. 1998: The Political Economy of Diet, Health and Food Policy. London: Routledge. Fine, B. and Leopold, E. 1993: The World of Consumption, London: Routledge. Fox, R. 1997: Spoiled. New York: Basic Books. Friedland, W. 1994: The new globalization : the case of fresh produce. In A. Bonnano et al., eds, From Columbus to Conagra. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 210-31. Friedmann, H. 1993: The political economy of food. New Left Review 197: 29-57. Goodman, D., Sorj, B. and Wilkinson, J. 1987: From farming to biotechnology. Oxford: Blackwell. Goodman, D. and Watts, M., eds, 1997: Globalising food. London: Routledge. Kautsky, K. 1906: La question agraire. Paris: Maspero. Mann, S. 1990: Agrarian capitalism. Durham: University of North Carolina Press. McMichael, P., ed., 1995: The global restructuring of agro-food systems. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Ritzer, G. 1998: The MacDonaldization thesis. London: Sage. Watts, M. 1994: Life under contract. In Little, P. and Watts, M. eds, Living under contract. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 21-77. Whatmore, S. 1995: From farming to agribusiness. In Johnston, R.J., Taylor P.J. and Watts, M.J., eds, Geographies of global change. Oxford: Blackwell, 36-49.

Suggested Reading Goodman, D. and Redclift, M. 1990: Refashioning nature. London: Routledge. Torres, G. 1997: The force of irony. Oxford: Berg.



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