Bananas and oil… Inequality in food pricing (again)

June 23, 2008

This op-ed by Dan Koeppel (here) incites a perfect opportunity to respond to Yuval’s thoughtful urging for an expanded post about inequalities in food pricing.  Last time it was carrots; this time it’s bananas.


“That bananas have long been the cheapest fruit at the grocery store is astonishing. They’re grown thousands of miles away, they must be transported in cooled containers and even then they survive no more than two weeks after they’re cut off the tree. Apples, in contrast, are typically grown within a few hundred miles of the store and keep for months in a basket out in the garage. Yet apples traditionally have cost at least twice as much per pound as bananas.”

After this central observation, which privileges the constitution of inequalities between food items (objects), Koeppel goes on to explain how the banana was engineered into a circulable product: it was ensconced in a network of railroads, communication lines, refrigeration techniques, marketing campaigns, biological standardization and disease control.  If the banana ‘acts’ as the Big Mac of the fruit world, it is because it is conferred with such agency through an infrastructure that supports its coming into being as an inexpensive and mobile staple.

As Koeppel points out, “bananas have always been an emblem of a long-distance food chain.”  But with the price of oil rising every day, he remarks that “Perhaps it’s time we recognize bananas for what they are: an exotic fruit that, some day soon, may slip beyond our reach.”  Because the banana is not a local product to us, the idea of a valuation chain that can fall apart is not at all surprising.  

The carrot in my original example, however, is raised locally on the tropical island of Jamaica.  Its disappearance is more of a mystery.  Even though ‘oil’ might in small part explain how a U.S. carrot might out price a Jamaican carrot on Jamaican soil  – Jamaican currency is so depressed that oil must be relatively more expensive to island producers – it is still not enough to fully explain the power of the U.S. price.  Perhaps that’s because oil is only one part of the network of global food production along with the numerous other elements mentioned with regards to bananas above. 

We do not doubt that objects can be valuated differently, but my question is about the calculative underpinnings that sustain inequalities between food producers (humans).  It is one thing – as SSF has done – to show that pricing and valuation of goods is socio-technically produced.  It is quite another to pinpoint just how these prices have, in actual cases, participated in created economic inequalities capable of wiping out entire agricultural industries and shifting the geo-politics of production in favor of some populations over others.  What’s missing in our field is a wider notion of how human history is intertwined with process of valuating objects and what Callon has called ‘economicization’.

The broader question I’m trying to raise is: What are politics and power dynamics going to mean to SSF?  The greatest criticism the research program faces is the same as that faced by laboratory studies – the inability to move out of the organization of micro-activities.  These micro-studies can certainly be the foundation for how visible and naturalized forms of lived power relationships come into being without resorting, as critical analysts do, to technically and materially empty movements of change (i.e. the general spread of capitalism, globalization or neo-liberalism).  But the difficult empirical work has not yet been done to fully show how… 

11 Responses to “Bananas and oil… Inequality in food pricing (again)”

  1. alisonkemper1 Says:

    I see in this post some concerns about economic justice.

    Can SSF help to explain why economics that reinforces unequal distribution of value created has increasingly dominated the landscape?

    I have been warned that anything published in Accounting, Organizations and Society is the work of Marxists. Peter Klein at organizations and is pretty sure that performativistas are another weird lefty gang.

    Are we another form of dirty hippies guised as social scientists? Why do we care about the price of bananas?

  2. marthapoon Says:

    Is interest in inequality necessarily about justice? SSF has a bad rap in sociolology for being about elites. I thought the post was about ‘bredth of
    question’ more than anything else…!

  3. alisonkemper1 Says:

    The range of discourse is itself a political decision, is it not?

    If you begin to speak of the inequality of distribution, you will begin to look for an answer to some difficult problems that others do not wish to open.

    The only rightist response to the creation and buttressing of systems of unequal distribution of goods is willful obfuscation.

    If you ask why the low prices of bananas picked by black people in Jamaica are predicated upon the lower worth of the pickers’ labour, you are asking a dangerous question.

    BTW, isn’t almost all fruit in North America picked by Mexican and Caribbean people, whether as migrants or as workers in their homes and native lands?

  4. marthapoon Says:

    A choice of discourse may be political but the question is, is is this politics always necessarly defined on a classical spectrum of left and right? Aren’t there analytic questions that (are politically interesting precisely because they) defy these (rapidly shifting) classifications?

    What you write about labour is interesting, becuase contrary to your reading, I actually thought this piece was about how the labour of the local Carribean worker is potentially higher in value than elsewhere since this fruit is actually more expensive that the one coming from abroad.

    In any case, the question was most certainly not sociological in that it was not stated in defense of a type of person, a race, or a social group (Afro-Carribean). Rather, it was purely STSy in that it questioned how evaluation mechanisms make long distance produce cheaper than local produce.

    Rather than assuming that globally financed methods were necessarily more efficient than local methods of production I was asking SSF had to tools to show how this relationship was constituted and translated into prices that support this (inequality inducing) configuration.

  5. alisonkemper1 Says:

    I have no idea why North Americans needed bananas so cheap that it was worth having paramilitary forces aligned with fruit companies. It makes little sense to me.

    But we must also explain why tropical fruit prices have fallen in real terms so radically. We don’t demand cheap bananas and pineapple, we demand them at a cost not much higher than zero.

    We are willing to pay for mangoes, papayas, durian, pomelos and lichis. But we have to use masked goons all over Latin America to gain the prices we want for bananas.

    We must explain both phenomena: the violence as part of the price, and the difference with other tropical fruit.

  6. marthapoon Says:

    I think your use of the world ‘need’ is exactly at issue here. How is the need for bananas, the deep attachment to them, come into being in places where they don’t growl; while simultaneously making other products undesireable in places where they DO grow.

    The qualities that make bananas desireable – transportability, long ripening time, thick moisture conserving skin, unbruisability, high caloric content, packability, price – are inherent of bananas at time zero. These are networked qualities that are conferred and built into them over time. Biological, logistical, chemical, and economic expertise are all important for the transformation of this fruit into the sine qua non of tropical fruit.

    Likewise there is process through which the local carrot has been made unconsumable to Jamaicans, even though it grows in their own back yard.

    The processes of differentiation are not only between types of fruit but also work among them.

    These kinds of ideas are discussed in ‘The Economy of Qualities’ by Callon Meadel & Rabeharisoa…

  7. marthapoon Says:

    two corrections for a too quick reply:
    1) bananas don’t growl. they grow.
    2) the qualities… are NOT inherent


  8. […] 25, 2008 After last evening’s raucous discussion about the price of bananas and its implicit politics, today there is a notice of a closed workshop […]

  9. […] Martha’s and Alison’s very interesting exchanges from a few days ago, I thought commenting on the relations between SSF (or works related to this […]

  10. hungrybritain Says:

    With the current uncertainties with food prices there is a greater need for us to conserve and be increasingly
    economical about food consumption at home. We have become wasteful as consumers of food and have never really had a need to feel otherwise before this crisis started. Blaming the rampant consumerism of the supermarkets has now irrelevant in this discussion. The situation now is that if we don’t change our food habits this situation could easily escalate completely out of control. The responsibility is now on us all to change our food buying and food consuming habits.

    Simple food saving tips are things we need to get used to and practice more regularly. Most of these are common sense and can be quite creative. You can find a list of free food saving tips at sites such as amongst other similar sites as well.

    We all need to contribute to a fairer and more food wise program for ourselves.

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