Consumers vs. the Consumed: The Grocery Store

'If you want produce grown on the farm down the road you'll have to go to Kuala Lumpur.'

In my past few blogs I have discussed different environmental based development practices, which negatively impact small farmers and local peoples across the globe.  While I have touched upon the role consumers play in the exploitative agricultural system, I have avoided diving more deeply into the matter.

The politics of blame vs. responsibility is crucial to understanding the role consumers play.  It is easy for consumers to shift the blame to larger and more powerful actors.  I mean it appears as if consumers have relatively little sway over the system, but in reality consumers are fueling the system.  Even though big agribusinesses, multinational corporations, and state governments are making most of the development decisions consumers still walk into the grocery store every day and buy into the system.  In order to break down the exploitative system consumers need to take responsibility for their actions, step up, and speak out.

When consumers walk into the grocery store they are presented with thousands of different options.  I live in Massachusetts, yet when I walk into the grocery store I can buy pineapples, mangos, and bananas year round.  I’m no botanist, but I am pretty sure pineapples don’t fare well in the snow.  As consumers we demand this variety in our diet, but we often disregard where this food comes from.

The rise of grocery stores in the United States and other developed countries encouraged the demand for foreign foods.  To meet the demand for foreign foods development practices have shifted to favor produce desired by consumers.  It is no coincidence that I discussed monoculture, GMO seeds, and land grabs in my past blogs; they all tie directly into the food system driven by consumers.

Each of the practices mentioned above promoted an easier way to streamline foreign produce to consumers in different regions of the globe.  In India traditional farming is no longer economically viable and farmers would profit more by transitioning to high-value crops; however, for many farmers the transition is hindered by high initial investment costs and environmental degradation (Gandhi 1).

On top of that, even if small farmers are making more money growing high-value crops the transition still predisposes them to food insecurity.  A Kiel Institute policy report found that in Ghana the standard pineapple market is dominated by multinational corporations; however, small farmers can enter the market by growing organic pineapples (Kleeman 6).  So small famers have a chance to become profitable, that’s good news right?

Yes and No

  • Organic agriculture looks like a path to success for small farmers, but in the long run small farmers will be unable to compete in the competitive global organic produce market (Raynolds 181). Jumping to conclusions and avoiding future predictions are dangerous in the development world, historically causing avoidable problems.
  • When looking at this situation it is important to understand that small famers in Ghana only have to change their agricultural practices because of the system forced upon them in the first place. Large corporations and state governments created situations in which small farmers were marginalized and then left to find their own way back to success.  These corporations are essentially sponsored by consumers demanding foreign produce.

Grocery stores are stocking their shelves with high-value crops because that is what consumers are asking for.

If consumers ask, grocery stores will give.

If grocery stores give, small farmers are consumed.

The global food system is an incredibly complicated, but the base structure of the system is crystal clear.  So this presents the question as to why consumers are not concerned with the current system?  I mean organic is the new fad right?

The answer to this question may lie in what parts of the food system are particularly concerning to consumers.  While climate concerns, environmental degradation, animal treatment, and farmer rights are important in the minds of many, health concerns usually hold more sway in the minds of consumers (Haspel 1).  This highlights the nature of privileged consumers to think only of themselves.

Is there a way to change the mindset of Americans and other prominent consumers?  If there is one, I don’t know it.  The most I can do is educate those who are willing to listen and participate in movements working to combat the corrupt food system.

Citations

Gandhi, Varun. “The Real Shoots of Economic Revival Lie in Agriculture.” Hindustantimes. Hindustan Times, 10 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Haspel, Tamar. “The Surprising Truth about the ‘food Movement’.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Food, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Kleemann, Linda. Organic pineapple farming in Ghana: A good choice for smallholders?. No. 1671. Kiel Working Papers, 2011.

Raynolds, Laura T. “The Organic Agro-Export Boom in the Dominican Republic: Maintaining Tradition or Fostering Transformation?.” Latin American research review 43.1 (2008): 161-184.