20 / 09 / 2015

Moving away from bi-polar interpretation

Author: Miķelis Grīviņš

The amount of science generated evidence describing food systems has been growing in last decades…  and so has the diversity of explanations applied to describe the processes in these systems. Among these interpretations commonly there are explanations based on simple, yet analytically strong binary oppositions such as long vs. short, global vs. local, sustainable vs. intensive, etc. Clearly, theorization like this can be beneficial when we try to generalize and attach value charged meanings to the food system around us or when we try to describe our desires for final shape of the system. However, the approach falls short when confronted with the diversity of real everyday practices. In fact, the complexity of everyday practices of initiatives involved in food chains rise important questions and serves as a basis for strong critique to the bi-polar explanations. Some examples may just serve fine to explain the point I am making. For example, in interviews, conducted in Latvia, we encountered the following conflict – one of the farmers supplying products for the local box scheme decided that she could also bake bread.  She had her own bio-flour and had some baking experience. So she started to offer box scheme clients home-baked bio-bread. Her offer was well received and all went well up to the point when it was discovered that she is not using her own bio-flour anymore. Nobody is really sure of what happened to her own flour and why she decided to change the ingredients, but as it turned out for some while she had been buying the bio-flour in one of the main retail chains. After this she was excluded from the box scheme community, yet the baker felt cheated. She explained that she was the one who baked the bread and it was that she used only biological products. Some may say that the example given is an extreme case and that it does not pose a real problem – box scheme should exclude the baker and continue to educate other stakeholders involved. But that is precisely the point – it is simple when we try to explain the situation judging from the intended ends. Yet, the practice introduces deviations from simplistic interpretations, it poses questions about the means. There are indisputable links with localness and the product was organic in this case. Some may suggest that the real problem here is trust – farmer cheated the consumers and the trust was broken. However, it depends on how these actors perceive what constitutes the sold product – for farmer it is her baking skills while for clients it is origins of ingredients. For this case we also have to mention the pressure of clients, who are always in a search of new – “artisan” products (shopping mall like cultural experience) and not ready to selflessly support weakest actors in food chains.

We could continue the analysis of the example but let us move forward and use an example representing more institutionalized surroundings- one of the biggest retail chains in Latvia after observing that some of their consumers would be willing to pay more for local artisan products realized that it could be both an opportunity and a possible threat to them. So, they decided to invite some local, very small home-producers to sell in their biggest retail shops. Unfortunately, as it turned out, there were no legal ways how to do it – local regulations were quite strict on how small producers can sell their products. The retail chain then used its influence to force the state to introduce a way how the problem could be solved. This resulted with an introduction of a new form of collaboration that was quickly caught by other market actors as well. So now it is typical that in the biggest retail shops next to the global, conventionally produced products a bunch of local artisan products can be bought. This would not be possible if it was not for the power, held by retail chain, which was used to pressure governing actors to introduce the change. And these are not the only examples that can be given. Clearly, these stories generate more questions than answers. However, what unites these cases is the inter-connectedness they illustrate and possibly the potential that could emerge from the understanding of these relations.

The examples given should not serve as a one way interpretation that we should totally abandon the dichotomies. As was said, from the theoretical point of view, these dichotomies serve as ideal types that allow orienting in the diversity. Yet, to comprehend the reality we should rather search for the way how to bridge the gap between them. And recently the researchers’ interest in how to go beyond the simplified binary interpretations of agro food systems has risen. In most cases it has meant that researchers introduce new categories that fill the gap between the two. However, even this cannot be a long term solution because it just creates more of the gaps (though – smaller gaps) to deal with in the future and misses the central point – the need to catch the relations between the opposing ways of seeing things. Thus, the common solution so far has been to move away from bi-polar dichotomies in order to praise tri- or four- sided interpretations.  So the medicine used to cure the illness has the same characteristics that the illness has. The real solution would be to stop thinking in categories of ideal types and to introduce explanations based on relations between the two. That is what I and Talis Tisenkopfs have done in our recently published article “A Discursive Analysis of Oppositional Interpretations of the Agro-Food System: A Case Study of Latvia”. – We have moved to analysis of strategies how the binary oppositions are adapted in practice. That is, we have analysed the ways both interpretations are merged for practical purposes. In the article we identify three types of adaptations how interpretations are merged: (1) partial affiliation - choosing just one of few selected aspects of opposition categories. Anti GMO movement in Latvia is a good example of this adaptation strategy. Many stakeholders have announced their anti GMO sentiment, and this was appreciated by their clients and partners. Yet, most of these stakeholders have not participated in any other food related movements. Thus, anti GMO reaches their border up to which they feel safe to participate. (2) Multi lingual communication - burrowing the language of opposite category. The need to translate the arguments used to justify support to local food into economic terminology is a good example of this category. Thus, localness is explained through global terminology. (3) Finally, underdeveloped aspects – using one category to fulfil the gaps of the other category. For example, often enterprises representing the local or organic perspective are not sure how they should steer the enterprise. They feel the need to develop (which already could be quite a conventional notion) and they find means for the development in the conventional interpretation of enterprises (for example, starting to produce more, searching for export markets and losing the interest in local and organic). These are the three adaptation strategies we propose. However, these are not the only strategies. Rather, the three illustrate the direction where the solution could be found and leave the space for future explorations.

The full reference to the article: Grivins, Mikelis & Talis Tisenkopfs (2015). A Discursive Analysis of Oppositional Interpretations of the Agro-Food System: A Case Study of Latvia. Journal of Rural Studies 39: 111-121.