Food Beyond Consumerism

For several years now I’ve been boring everyone who will listen that the future of food is about citizenship, and part of that is making food no longer a consumer product. Quite what that would mean in practice is something that has taken a while to work out but in a few blog posts I have started to sketch out the outlines of what this will mean.

A few weeks ago I set out a series of business models, mostly seen in the organic movement but modelled around avoiding food waste. Many contemporary business models that the food industry has develop are inherently wasteful of food, these other models take the avoidance of waste as a starting point. This is to accept a responsibility beyond simply making money out of food. The challenge is to create more business models that are founded on sustainable production.

Another part of the developments towards food no longer being a consumer product is the appearance of food without labels; food that is produced locally and probably in an artisanal way. As it has no labels it will be very hard to sell this food rather it will be exchanged or traded. This is not to advocate self-sufficiency but rather a community level of self-provisioning, making some food items ubiquitous, so they are exchanged and available to people in their locality. For instance salads, soft fruits, tree fruits, many types of vegetables, as well as eggs and honey could be a starting point for more sustainable food communities. It also punctures the artificial scarcity of food, which could and should be ubiquitous.

The next part of this emerging set of trends is the role of participation, people no longer want to simply purchase food they want to take part in its production. This may be as an investor, a volunteer, a celebrant of key points in the years or a combination of all these roles. As well an examples such as the Community Farm in the UK, I’ve also noted this in projects in Zurich. We need to move beyond people acting as monads cruising supermarket aisles but connecting with others, even if that is simply to say ‘hello’ to a familiar face in the shop/stall/delivery van. But we should be aiming for a level of engagement that is much greater than this, about being embedded in a set of overlapping communities.

The fourth part of this is social certification. All too often the discussion about sustainable food focuses on the technical aspects of production, which all to frequently boils down to aesthetics. It also leads to the idea that sustainable production is a simply a technical exercise without consideration of the social dynamics that surround it. One of the central innovations of organic production has been certification, creating a link between producers and those further along the food chain. The challenge is now to make that whole process more transparent, participative and reactive but not allow it to become simply an audit.

The fifth part of this menu is that of collective ownership, of viewing food as something that we control and manage not as individuals or families but as collective groups, as a commons. This will summon up images of collectivised farms but that is not what I mean at all. The model I have in mind is that of the many common resources we see managed by those who have a stake in it. This is a model that is beyond both the state and the market but nested in people co-operating with one another to manage something they all have a stake in. The instant and obvious model is that of the Internet, which is a commons that is transforming all of our lives, and yes there are problems with it, but it is run by and for those who use it, not a state entity or the market. Much of the code and software the underpins is created by skilled volunteers, on top of which and across which people make their livings, co-operate, communication and share.

If you consider these ideas for a few minutes it is clear that this will only be achieved by engaging in debates that include food but stretch far beyond it. These solutions will not be achieved through selective purchasing or being consumers, but also it will not be achieved by the experiments that I have highlighted here alone. Rather there needs to be a wider discussion about what has happened to our citizenship, how it is withered and been contained, with food just being one aspect of that process.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Fen says:

    I’m intrigued by the photograph…what/where is it?

    1. Matt Reed says:

      The FareShare SW warehouse for a wastefood banquet.

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