Local Food: An Economic and Political No-brainer?

If economic life really was just about supply meeting demand, most Frenchmen and women would only eat local food. According to recent surveys, 71 per cent of this population consider that the geographical origin of what they eat is important to them,[1] [2] while 46 per cent go so far as to claim they look at how far it has travelled before buying it.[3] Moreover, such surveys suggest that the reasons consumers prefer local food include a desire to support producers from their region (88 per cent), because local food tastes better (82 per cent), protects the environment (79 per cent), and is more ‘authentic’ (77 per cent).[4] One must of course take great care in interpreting surveys of this kind, in particular, when consumers are not questioned about their perceived financial constraints, nor observed actually buying a local product despite its price being higher than an equivalent produced elsewhere. Nevertheless, one can reasonably conclude from this data that today considerable latent demand for local food exists in France. How, then, can this be squared with actual consumption patterns revealing that most food consumed in that country is produced at great distances from where it ends up on plates? For example, only 4 to 7 per cent of fruit and vegetables sold in French retail outlets is ‘local’.[5] Are distributors in general, and supermarkets in particular, simply not listening to calls to change their supply?

Understanding this gap between discursive expressions of demand and actual practice starts with putting the simplistic supply and demand formula to one side, then taking up instead analysis in terms of the institutions which structure not only food distribution, but the agricultural industry as a whole. In so doing, one not only grasps how the predominance of distantly produced food has come to be so pervasive in Western societies, but also the opposition proponents of local food chains have faced when seeking to challenge this domination of agriculture’s Institutional Order.

When studying this Order, the most obvious place to start is with its Commercial Institutionalized Relationship (IR). Put succinctly, at least in France, until the advent of the railways in the 1830s, most food was consumed within a radius of 100 kilometres of its production. Hitherto, food was either eaten on the very place of production (subsistence farming) or transported relatively short distances to market. Of course, exceptions to this rule existed for the rich and for imported products such as sugar and spices. However, the revolution in transportation introduced by the railways was seized upon by food wholesalers as a means of achieving a step-level change in the supply of farm produce to towns and cities in particular. Consequently, these wholesalers built warehouses and worked to build and consolidate networks of retailers to whom they sold-on agricultural commodities in either processed (e.g. flour) or unprocessed (e.g. vegetables) forms. In so doing, national markets for different foodstuffs began to emerge, bringing with them greater convergence over retail prices in particular.

Simultaneously, these very same wholesalers also worked upstream of the distribution of produce in order to concentrate the supply of produce in larger lots, facilitate its delivery to railway depots in small market towns, and, more generally, standardize and intensify agricultural production. Indeed, as supply chains grew longer both physically and through acquiring more intermediaries, arguments emerged to modify institutions within agriculture’s Sourcing IR. For example, whereas prior to the 1830s standards for farm produce remained informal and dependent upon local expectations, the lengthening of food chains generated support for national rules and norms (Stanziani,

2005). The latter developed relatively progressively until the 1950s when, following the disruption of agriculture’s Institutional Order as a whole (Muller, 1984), national, then European or international standardization of foodstuffs became a central plank in the intensification of farming that continued unabated into the 1990s. During this period, not only did farms tend strongly to merge into ever-larger units, to specialize in a limited number of products and produce them using inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, France as a whole rapidly became a highly urbanized country. In so doing, a key counterpart to intensive agriculture was a system of food distribution based upon supermarkets and, as of the 1980s, hypermarkets.

Crucially, however, none of these overlapping developments in agriculture’s Commercial and Sourcing IRs simply flowed automatically from technological innovations and spontaneous shifts in the structure of supply and demand. Rather these major displacements in socio-economic life were constantly shaped by political decisions concerning support for, or resistance to, technology, as well as to its likely impact upon population patterns and practices. Indeed, this point can be clearly exemplified by completing our analysis of French agriculture’s Institutional Order through briefly examining the histories of its Employment and Financial IRs. As regards the former, the emergence of national, then international, food chains can only be fully understood by recalling its dependence upon an ‘agrarian’ displacement which brought subsistence farming to an end, normalized the large, family-owned farm, but also encouraged the emergence of co-operatives and contract farming as a means of pooling or vertically integrating production. In short, without institutionalized transformations of agriculture’s Employment IR, ‘long’ food chains could not have come about in the way they did.

Just as crucially, the concentration of farmland in fewer hands, mechanization and recourse to costly inputs would also have been impossible without radical change within agriculture’s Financial IR. In order for all these trends to take root and receive institutionalized support, sources of capital needed to emerge in the shape of banks willing to lend money to farmers and, indeed, extend them credit on a permanent basis. In the French case, this source of capitalization was largely generated by the creation of state-supported banks (notably Le Credit Agricole), together with ‘price support’ systems based upon public subsidies (Muller, 1984).

To sum up a potted history of French agriculture, neither its trajectory towards intensification, nor the concomitant institutionalization of ‘long’ food chains could have occurred without the conversion of its Institutional Order, together with its dominant hierarchy of values, outlined above. Indeed, if other values were sometimes evoked (e.g. Equality around the supposedly lower retail prices for food set by supermarkets), this historically crucial development was above all driven by the values of Freedom (for producers and distributors) and Security in order to guarantee continuous flows of food supplies to the urban consumer. Indeed, for the purposes of this chapter, what is vital to retain is that contemporary calls and moves to develop local food chains constitute nothing less than a direct challenge not only to this Order based on ‘long’ food chains, but also to the priority it has given to the Security of urban populations and the Freedom of large distributors to become key players in markets as a means of achieving its goals. Before analysing how this confrontation between long and short food chains has played out within the Gironde, it is therefore necessary to explain in broad-brush terms the extent of this challenge to institutionalized practices and patterns of interdependence.

Local food’s most obvious challenge to Agri-food’s institutions and configurations of power has been located in the Commercial IR. Dominated by supermarket chains since the 1970s, at least in France, this IR has become largely shaped by compromises between these corporations and increasingly weak public actors. Putting to one side the influence supermarket owners have gained through financing political parties or contributing to local tax bases, their enduring power over commercial issues can be attributed to two sets of practices in particular. First, these corporations have restructured flows of foodstuffs around distribution networks that have become either highly centralized or based on large regional hubs. In both cases, most intermediaries have been eliminated in the name of logistical economies of scale, thereby increasing the dependence of farmers upon national or mega-regional buyers. Local food chains clearly seek to disrupt this dependent relationship and create more space for farmers not only to control the distribution of their products, but also to better influence the setting of its prices. The latter point relates to the second part of supermarket activity within the Commercial IR which concerns their ‘rules of exchange’ (Fligstein, 2001) with food producers. Increasingly this relationship has been formalized around contracts signed with either individual farmers or co-operatives. If such contracts can offer these actors some security (since the selling of their produce is guaranteed) it also affects price-setting in the industry more generally (Bernard De Raymond, 2013). The third and final part of supermarket activity structured by the Commercial IR concerns promotion and marketing. Armed with large advertising budgets and other such devices, supermarkets are well placed to control the image of a product. In the case of foie gras, for example, they have even used the symbolism of the peasant farmer for products that are now predominantly produced intensively by large farms (Jullien & Smith, 2008b). What local food chain proponents seek to do is to win back control over the imagery of extensive farming, thereby recuperating the value of Tradition as a source of legitimacy and social meaning.

In so doing, local food activists also of course seek to modify institutions and the balance of power within Agri-food’s Sourcing IR. Structured around institutions that constrain and render possible the production and processing of food, most of these are set at national, European, and even global scales. For this reason, proponents of local food have sought in particular to influence reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), for example to obtain derogations from some aspects of food hygiene laws (e.g. around the use of wooden containers in the making of Comte cheese). However, given that defenders of intensive and ‘distant’ food production built and have ‘maintained’ the CAP since the 1950s, modifying Agri-food’s Sourcing IR in the name of local Traditions is always met with considerable resistance.

Finally, although Employment and Finance issues may seem less central to the local food agenda, it is important to grasp that the IRs which structure both also participate strongly in rendering change from these angles to Agri-food’s Institutional Order an object of permanent struggle. Producing and distributing local food typically requires labour to be trained and organized differently to that of farms committed to longer value chains. Because, as we saw in chapter 5, representatives of the latter have dominated training and employment policies for more than half a century, again defenders of the status quo begin any negotiation in this domain with a head start over their local food adversaries. Similarly, converting a farm towards local food production and distribution necessitates capital which banks—i.e. the very financiers who since World War II committed themselves so wholeheartedly to intensive farming and ‘distant’ food—are often reluctant to lend.

In summary, actually challenging the Agri-food industry’s Institutional Order from the angle of local food is thus anything but a ‘no-brainer’. Although many good reasons can be expressed for doing so, at least in today’s France, turning this list into a political project, armed with solid values and tooled up for battle with dominant actors and institutions, is a momentous undertaking. Indeed, just how big a task this is can be grasped even better by examining how it has fared in specific areas and food chains.

  • [1] This section is based partly upon an on-going PhD thesis undertaken by Pierre Naves undermy supervision. Despite his considerable indirect input to these pages, I of course take fullresponsibility for what is written below.
  • [2] BEUC—The European Consumers’ Organisation, Where does my food come from? 2013, p. 16.
  • [3] Credoc, ‘Les Fran^ais avancent a grands pas sur la longue route ecologique’, Cahier derecherche, issue 272, December 2010.
  • [4] Observatoire Cetelem, ‘Le consommateur europeen en mode alternatif’, 2013. .
  • [5] .
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