The Global Food System and Nodes of Power
51 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2009
Date Written: August 2, 2008
Much attention has been paid to the emergence of a globally integrated food system in recent decades, where a few firms dominate in certain agriculture and food sectors, from inputs for food production to where farmers sell their raw agricultural products, to where consumers shop for groceries. Production centered notions of power, dominant in earlier analyzes of the industrialization of the agri-food system, have been challenged in recent years by the emergence of new actors - actors focused on the demand side of the system, led by the transnationalization of retail. Strategies based on food quality and considerations on their conditions of production unleashed a dynamic in which social movements, NGOs, and the politicized consumer began to overshadow the historic actors of agribusiness (examples of which we have discussed above). More recently, however, food inflation is firmly placing an upper limit on quality considerations and supply conditions are restored to center stage as market dynamics swing to the emerging economies. New sets of relationships in this system have hardened into new structures for the food system. Traditional controllers of supply both upstream and downstream see their power and their profits enhanced. At the same time, strategic importance of control over natural resources - land and the necessary minerals for productive land use - has stimulated a wave of new entrants: emerging economy governments, investment funds and new private actors to challenge the historic incumbents of agribusiness. The reality of power in the form of control over physical and technological assets has been forcefully reasserted. However, power is also still accumulated in different nodes among these global production networks. In this paper prepared for Oxfam America, we document and define eight critical issue areas where power is accumulating: a) in the shift from public to private governance; b) the closing off of access to markets; c) the rise of intellectual property regimes; d) the changes in access to capital; e) the control over necessary logistics; f) the informalization of labor in the global system; g) the rise of marketing and branding; and h) the shift from public to private decision-making about food. Throughout it all, we focus on the implications for farmers, consumers and communities of the food system in which we are embedded, and suggest potential leveraging points for changing agriculture and food to a more sustainable, equitable system.
Keywords: global production networks, global food system
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