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…
On Friday, crude oil prices jumped in a new all-time high: the benchmark futures contract of light sweet crude was traded at US$139.54 in New York.
This new record was attributed to a comment by Iranian-born Israeli deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, who said that: “If Iran continues its nuclear weapons program, we will attack it. Other options are disappearing. The sanctions are not effective. There will be no alternative but to attack Iran in order to stop the Iranian nuclear program.”
The news stories did mention that the context for this comments is the primaries in Kadima, PM Olmert’s party, where Mofaz is a contender and that it is likely that the comments were made for ‘domestic consumption’. The reaction to the statement shows that in today’s highly connected markets distinction between the local and the global cannot be made easily. Mofaz’s Israeli political bravado injected volatility to global oil markets. Such effect, in itself is dangerous enough, of course, but the other ‘leg’ of the reflexivity circle is potentially even riskier. In fact, this side of the phenomenon may feed a social loop that can place Iran and Israel on a sure collision course.
How so? Mofaz is now aware of the impact that his words have on markets. However, if anyone may think that this would serve as a lesson and that future comments would be less vehement, then they do not know the Israeli political discourse. Mofaz will now celebrate his influence on global oil markets and will use last week’s price rise as leverage for creating more political capital. Moreover, the reaction to this comment will motivate Mofaz and other Israeli politicians to outdo it and to have even more impact. So, as long as the scandal-ridden Olmert government is haemorrhaging support we should expect increasingly more flamboyant statements from Israeli politicians about Iran, more volatile markets and a steady progress to the brink of a (possibly, nuclear) war in the middle east.