EDITORIAL | Long Chains and Large Gains – The Politics of Food

The EU wants food chains that benefit the producer and the consumer, if only it was that easy

Paolo selling mountain cheeses from the Italian pennines at Verona market

A stone’s throw from Juliet’s balcony in the heart of Verona, tucked away in one of the linked squares, Paolo tempts customers with slivers of goat’s and sheep’s cheese. Deep in gothic Germany, in a converted stone building behind the ancestral seat of Hesse in Witzenhausen, Christine serves a tall glass of red cherry juice. At the Nar Restaurant, up the street from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul’s old town, Banu suggests layered walnut pastries to her guests.

These delights share a common denominator. They are artisanal, derived from indigenous produce — cheese from the milk of animals known for their environment, juice from the morello red cherries that characterise gâteau and kirschwasser, walnuts from Anatolia combined with the ancient method of rolling wheat flour dough so thin it becomes transparent.

Christmas markets have been a feature of continental Europe since the ‘dark ages’ and continue to thrive in every large city and major town, tempting customers with an array of traditional foods and handicrafts. Biscuits and cakes and sweets, cheeses of all types and shapes, cured and cooked meats, sausages and hot and cold drinks of festive cheer predominate in these markets.

Much of this produce is commercial, assembled or cooked or baked on a grand scale, but some is artisanal, made with sweat and tears and a whole lot of love, each cheese different from the other because it is hand-shaped, each batch of juice stronger, each pastry a little uneven.

In the main hall of the Royal Dublin Society, tucked away from the crafts, the stalls bump into each other. This is the food emporium of the now annual National Crafts & Design Fair.

At the corner of one junction, where there is amble space to linger or pass, three women offer slivers of cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s cheese to passers-by. Most will take the cheese and move on. Having paid a tenner entrance fee they are eager to sample everything. Only a few exchange notes and coins for cheese. Still, the vendors are happy. They are selling their stock.

A sign says, ‘meet the cheese makers’ and some of the people are prepared to engage in small talk. Those who know their Irish cheeses are delighted to put a face to the produce they have been eating for years. The small talk becomes large.

The cheese makers among the vendors take the chance to develop a theme that the European Union insists is part of their strategy to bring sustainable food security to its members and anyone else who joins in the research — agri-food chains and value food chains!

The cheese makers, however, are interested in only one element of these systems, the one that is known as a short chain. This is where the cheese maker meets and sells directly to their target audience, and gets the return they deserve and desire to keep on going on. No distributors, no wholesalers, no supermarkets, no space sellers and no one making a huge profit out of their blood, sweat and tears.

Across the European continent the relationship between the artisan and the customer is generally commonplace, at fairs and festivals, at market squares and street corners. Demand and supply is met by supply and demand. It is not like a trist, and it does not cost a fortune to arrange the furniture and pay for the allotted space.

The politics behind the food supply in most of modern Europe is like everything else, convoluted and corrupt. No one wants to pay €40 kilos for artisanal cheese, yet that is what it costs in the airport lounges, in the food emporiums and in the specialist shops. To get a fair price, anything between €15 and €20 a kilo, cheese lovers must go to a market stall where they can purchase their choice from the cheese maker.

This is the difference between the long chain and the short chain. It might as well be a log-jam.

Artisans, whether food producers, food innovators, bakers or chefs, insist that their produce and products, whether breads, cheeses, cured meats, drinks or pastries, are not for those who need low-priced supermarket goods or for those who can afford to pay high prices. They are for those who want to enjoy a food product with organoleptic qualities and that usually means everyone. Price therefore is key.

The organoleptic qualities of a fruit, herb, legume, oil or vegetable, a cut of meat or milk from an animal combined with the skill of the baker or the chef can make all the difference between a food that is ordinary and a food that is popular or traditional.

There is nothing new about this. Brilliant bakers and clever chefs have always sought good quality local produce. It is why we talk about New Nordic Cuisine and still go on about the Mediterranean Diet. These products are based on fresh, local ingredients. And they are designed to be served or sold as soon as they are ready.

Family farmers, small farmers, artisanal producers, food grocers, food coops and distribution coops are part of the societal fabric of many European countries. It is not unusual to see shops and stalls in the cities that are run by or served by co-operatives, who share the cost of the premises or space, and can charge competitive prices to their customers, who know that they exist and what they sell.

For farmers, including cheese makers, this also includes farmers’ markets and farm shops, street markets and food-specific fairs. This is generally known as direct marketing, but it is not want the EU is talking about.

The EU wants ‘more efficient, equitable, sustainable and better performing [food] value chains’. It wants to strengthen the ‘farmers’ position in value chains through innovative approaches that enhance transparency, information flow and management capacity’. It wants to ‘limit the negative impacts of agri-food chains on the environment, climate and health’. And apparently it is prepared to fund anyone who can come up a plan to ‘enhance the capacity of actors within agri-food chains to design new processes leading to new business models’.

Jérémie Forney, at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, believes this can only be achieved with collective knowledge, a concept that has been around for a very long time and is now rarely applied in capitalist society. ‘Collective knowledge creation is not limited to farmers,’ he says. ‘The same attention to knowledge should be given to others with different functions and activities along the food chain.’

The EU calls this the multi-actor approach. Unfortunately it is not an approach that is favoured by the majority of its member states, especially here in Ireland where only academics, bureaucrats and business people are allowed to participate.

Forney’s suggestion that countries should encourage the ‘collective construction of new agri-environmental knowledge and cultures’ was rejected in the Ireland of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Ever since the Whittaker-Lemass programme for economic reform was established as the norm for Irish society in the 1960s, Irish bureaucrats and politicians have shunned the idea of community autonomy.

They do not want to see new agricultural and food cultures that are based on Forney’s ‘three dimensions of food, knowledge and autonomy’.

Rachael Durrant of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in England argues that this is the problem, and until the control of governance is resolved sustainable food security will be impossible.

She believes that the transitions to sustainability include grassroots innovation, where the provisioning of food responds to ‘local situations, interests and values’. She argues for ‘alternative systems of food provision [that] destabilise industrial food regimes, and for regime reform among mainstream businesses and public bodies’ to force them to ‘adopt and embed more sustainable configurations of technologies, practices and organisational arrangements’.

Unfortunately those in academia who advocate sustainable food security as community-led reside in the humanities departments and those who advocate it as business-led reside in the applied science departments. And those who study the academics’ approach insist that the two are incompatible.

The tight relationships between academia, business and bureaucracy are, say critics of the current food systems, the reason why sustainable food security is not going to happen anytime soon and why food chains will continue to be long and large.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Irish newspaper, An Phoblacht, in January 2017.