Friday, December 08, 2006

Food Sundries

As the students I teach are taking the exams in their courses, I am cleaning out my inbox and wading through the pile of reading that (at some point over the past few months) I've pushed off. I've come across three related items about our ag system that are blogworthy.

First, in mid-October, Michael Pollan (of Omnivore's Dilemma notoriety) published a piece in the New York Times Magazine about the spinach debacle titled "The Vegetable-Industrial Complex". And, in light of the recent green-onion debacle, the timeliness and relevancy of the piece persist. In the piece, Pollan describes the industrial food chain and contrasts it with the local food chain that also had spinach on sale during the outbreak. Noting that such local production and distribution systems are also looked at as a means of acquiring fresh foods and supporting local farmers, Pollan makes note of why he didn't think twice about tasting a leaf: "I wondered why I din't think twice about it. I guess it's because I've just always trusted these guys; I buy from them every week." And then Pollan describes increased regulation as a threat to local food economics--imposing what may be unnecessary regulatory costs on local producers.

The point is intriguing in light of a recent Yale Law Journal article, entitled "Unpacking the Household: Informal Property Rights Around the Hearth" by Robert C. Ellickson. In it, Professor Ellickson explores the lack of legal devices in the household, and notes that such exploration could be applied to such things as family farms. I wonder if similar modes of inquiry couldn't be made of local communities and the cognizance local sellers of food have of their customers. That cognizance may be more of a motivator than even the bare economic possibility of losing customers, if we think in terms of small communities and the far-reaching consequences of violating the do-unto-others rule within such a community. But, in light of imperfect knowledge about production methods and food safety (as well as exit opportunities), this may not eclipse the need for regulation. And my intrigue may be based on my underlying notions of what close communities and local sellers are.

Of course, notions of community are slippery, which brings me to the third piece in this montage. A recent issue of the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law includes an article by Mohsen Al Attar Ahmed entitled "Monocultures of the Law: Legal Sameness in the Restructuring of Global Agriculture." In it, the author posits that intellectual property regimes and the monocropping nature of industrialized agriculture have an impact on the communities and people who make up the agricultural sector. I take the point to be, in part, that the larger turn from subsistence farming to industrialized agriculture has had an impact on the social fabric of farmers and communities. And that point may be relevant to the controls (if any) imposed by the informal association of local food producers and the communities they live in and serve.

All quite interesting.