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…