Organic food, business models and waste

Rebecca and Suzanne have asked me to say something about food ‘waste’ in regard to my work with small organic producers and I’ll endeavour to do that. I’m very conscious that this is a Royal Geographical Society event and I’m not a geographer – but I think that may be the point of my contribution (slides here).

When I started researching organic farmers nearly 20 years non-organic farmers often referred to them as ‘wasters’. This was a multi-layered charge. We can see it as referring to the stoned, slacker, waster – the hash befuddled Hippy of stereotype. But it was more profound than that as the charge against them was that they were wasting an opportunity, which is much more interesting. Organic farmers were seen as wasting land and opportunity by not maximising the amount of food grown, that what we might describe as ‘productivism’ has a moral component. The late Norman Borlaug, the so called Father of the Green Revolution often repeated the same charge about those worried about food quality or the environmental impacts of agriculture.

In reply the organic farmers accused their non-organic peers of being ‘polluters’ – that their excessive use of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and other ‘cides’ were destroying the ecosystems on which we depend. It is interesting that we arrive back at the term of ‘excess’. Of course for many organic producers the production of any of the ‘cides’ was excessive, as it was unnecessary to use them in farming in a healthy and a profitable way. Non-organic farming was (and is) wasteful of precious resources as well as being damaging it is therefore inherently wasteful. As many others have observed, most discussions of agricultural production become very quickly talk about a moral economy rather than a technical problem.

I entered into research organic agriculture just as it entered its greatest period of boom and the accusation of being ‘wasters’ was not being met by market reality. For a period between about 1997 to about 2005 many organic farmers and growers could to produce enough organic food. I would talk to small farmers who took calls from butchers looking to buy their animals, box schemes such as Riverford were working through the problems of accelerated growth, as they struggled to match demand for their produce. Organic milk literally could not be produced quickly enough to meet demand as dairies raced to bring it to shoppers. If there was a moment of waste it was this time, when there was a chance to make a step-change to agriculture that wasn’t realised.

The irony of this position was that many of what we see as ‘alternative’ means of supply – box schemes, Community Supported Agriculture – are because before the boom many organic farms were struggling to sell all that could produce. So these alternatives were ways of avoiding wasting produce and returning profit to the farm. At its root the CSA is selling a share of the harvest, of sharing risk. In this way subscribers get a proportion of the harvest whatever its size and in this way waste is minimised. Box schemes, where you get what is grown in the planned rotation and by the season is another waste avoidance system. It places the challenge onto the receiver of the box of what they are going to do with the veg. Both schemes through direct retailing avoid the perverse logics of the multiple retailers grading systems again avoiding waste.

A slightly less well-known area where organic farmers have sought to lessen waste is the promotion of rose veal. Diary farming systems always produce ‘waste’ male calves with an export ban in place many Billy calves are simply shot on the farm. In order to stop this distressing waste the Soil Association has promoted high welfare, pink veal. Consumers may have got used to nose to tail eating but eating very young often raises questions.

This focus on reducing wastes incorporate into business models can also be seen in enterprises that seek to grow low carbon beef on marginal land. By putting hardy breeds out to graze all year, with minimal supplements, selling directly to the end consumer, powering the farm house with renewable energy and then fuelling the delivery van with recycled cooking oil, the question of whether beef is a low carbon product becomes debatable – see this business as an example. Farms such as this – using marginal land, rare breeds, and waste as fuel build different models of how the farming-retailing business can work.

At the inception of the economic crisis in 2008 organic food found itself caught up once again in the moral economy of excess as the multiple retailers decided that people would it as pat of the excesses of the boom & reject it as part of their new austerity diets. Organic products were removed shelves before customers got to express any preferences and although there was a resurgence in some products such as milk and yoghurt, organics in the supermarkets has struggled since. Austerity has in contrasted suited those smaller farms and producers who sell more directly. Rather than the rather vague ‘halo’ effect in your supermarket basket meeting and dealing with the producer assures you of the benefits of your purchase. The businesses built up to be ecologically resilient and waste as little food as possible are also economically robust.

If we look at small food and farming businesses many of them are built with food waste at their core, to cope with the needs of an insurgent agricultural movement. These models, box schemes, CSAs or even labelling schemes, assumed that the person buying them, (let’s call her ‘the diner’) could afford the extra time or extra money to join in with this insurgency. Together the producer and the diner could change the (agricultural) world. Yet, this model is out-dated. If we read a couple of social theorists then we can see this in vivid detail. Paul Mason in his recent book ‘Post Capitalism’ picks up a lot of the insights of Manuel Castells, and adds his own ideas to them, and if we look to the work of Zygmunt Bauman the theme of waste appears again. They suggest challenges that the organic movement is beginning to wrestle with.  As Castells’ suggests this is very much about what happens in the aftermath of the economic crisis, using the archaic use of the word ‘aftermath’ – the growth that happens after mowing.

Bauman points out that the logic of modernity is to create waste, both wastes from humans and also ‘wasted humans’. Mason suggests that the present ‘economic crisis’ is going to be the normal and that to allow people to have meaningful lives we are going to have build alternatives that are beyond capitalism in the present. The challenge this presents to food-farming businesses is how do you create a business from this, which builds on the lessons of the ones I have outlined above but have to incorporate those people that can’t pay but need to eat. In the past 3 years I’ve been working as part of an EU project called SUPURBFOOD and some of what we have been seeing are those post-capitalist experiments in action, with our focus being on Bristol.  I would point to 2 examples that capture some of these future challenges, both embedded in the contemporary urban experience.

The first is ‘De Site’ in Ghent, Belgium. This a brownfield site, where a team of community workers worth immigrant families to grow vegetables from a site literally built amongst the ruins. To gain a small allotment those wishing to take part have to pay for it, using a currency issued by the project and the only way they can earn that is to work. A few hours work on the site earns you enough for a small plot of land on which you can grow your own food. If you have excess you can sell that through the community shop run by the project, where it is sold at very affordable rates or a higher rate it you feel you can afford it. This means that no real money is used, it does interfere with benefits, you don’t need an ID card or official papers to take part – and they don’t ask for them. The community of this impoverished, post-industrial corner of Ghent grow some of their own food, have work and build solidarity with one another. Is it organic? is it certified? Not in that sense but does it fulfils the broader ambitions of the movement?

My other example is FareShare SouthWest in Bristol. This takes perfectly edible food that is in danger of being thrown away, because of the strange rationalities of international logistic systems. Packages that are not accepted by the store, so it is cheaper to dump it rather than truck it back or over-orders not sold in ‘the season’ and not worth warehousing. All of this perfectly edible food is rescued and redistributed to charitable projects across the south west. Many of the volunteers in this project are finding their way back to work after long periods of unemployment. People in danger of being wasted being rescued by the food they are saving. Is it organic no, but does it say something about the future of the food movement yes.

Quickly because time is against us the salient feature of the emerging business models are:

  • The end of the ‘organic’ premium, ethical consumerism is coming an end as consumerism is ending – and it has to be ended.
  • Some people need food for free – and at times it can be free such as during harvest periods or seasonal gluts, but how do you make a living out of that?
  • People want to take part; they want to produce at least some of their own food, to be co-owners through brands, volunteering on farm, via on-line communities, festivals and social events, or all of these. People will pay for this but you need to be close to them.
  • This is not about markets or marketing but relationships and engagement, moving to a new set of business logics.
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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on FoodMattersSymposium and commented:
    One of our panelists -Dr Matt Reed has posted his talk from the day -Thanks Matt

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