Issue Number Four: Food Infrastructures

Food Infrastructures: A Preview

What is the difference between feeding eight people and eight billion people? How does scale inform or determine what’s for dinner and what’s in the crates on the supertanker? Xaq Frolich, Mikko Jauho, Bart Penders, and David Schleifer give a little preview of Issue Four…

What is the difference between feeding eight people and eight billion people? How does scale inform or determine what’s for dinner and what’s in the crates on the supertanker? What processes has a food product gone through before it enters the shopping basket or arrives on the plate?

Issue 4 of LIMN will analyze food infrastructures and address scale in food production, provision and consumption. Our goal is to sidestep the tendency towards simple producer ‘push’ or consumer ‘pull’ accounts, focusing instead on the connective spaces in between. By describing and analyzing food infrastructures, our contributors examine the reciprocal relationships between individual choice and personal use and the socio-material arrangements that enable, channel and constrain our everyday food choices.

The notion of ‘infrastructure’ brings to mind roads and electricity grids, telephone lines and water pipes. Thus it is perhaps no surprise that the still growing body of research on large technological systems and infrastructures has mostly focused on things like electricity, water supply, communications and transport. The food system has received much less attention. In this issue we want to take some steps to rectify this situation. What insights can be gained when systems of food production, provision and consumption are approached as an infrastructure?

Infrastructures are those invisible, taken-for-granted, and often mundane arrangements that support the carrying out of everyday tasks. These arrangements reach beyond singular sites or practices. For example, the act of shopping for food typically takes place in a retail space with a characteristic internal organization and involves products that are standardized. Only when the organization is changed, or a desired product is missing, does the arrangement become foregrounded.

Infrastructures are comprised of physical artifacts and natural resources as well as forms of knowledge, laws and decrees, organizations and institutions. Food infrastructures relate to other infrastructures. For example, the organization of retailing depends on the transport system that secures a steady flow of products and customers and the electricity system for cooling and heating. Infrastructures operate on multiple scales, ranging from global chains of provision to local configurations of consumption. The food infrastructure is not a closed and coherent system, but rather a distributed network of operations, which involves many types of actors and whose coordination is always open and in question.

Infrastructures are invisible until they break down. They are essential to the smooth operation of society. In this sense they are vital systems, indispensable to the reproduction of contemporary forms of life. Infrastructures create conditions for economic activity, increase collective security, and introduce reliability and predictability into social life. However, this also makes them vulnerable and in need of protection. The availability of food and its efficient distribution to the population is a case in point. Typically, advanced societies have in place elaborate plans to ensure national primary agricultural production and food provision in times of crisis.

Infrastructures incorporate standards, some explicit, but many rather implicit. In formulating the scope and scale of infrastructures tacit conventions of need and entitlement operate, which have a self-fulfilling character. This gives infrastructures an inherently normative dimension. They carry conceptions of proper use, thus inscribing a certain end-user or consumer. However, the relationship of infrastructures and consumption patterns is reciprocal; consumption in turn shapes and modifies the infrastructures in which it is embedded.

These are some aspects of how the food system resembles and interacts with other vital infrastructures. However, it is also interesting to reflect how the food system might differ from them. One example is the relation to markets. Many vital infrastructures have had a long-standing status as semi-public goods. Market-based mechanisms have been introduced only quite recently, when large state-supported technological systems have been privatized and opened to competition in the name of efficacy. But unlike electricity or water supply, food provision has ‘always’ been thoroughly structured by market devices.

The systems that deliver safe food and water to billions of people, while perhaps less visible than bridges and electric lines, are critical to human health and indispensable to human life. But understanding scale in food systems not only means understanding the immense work of feeding large numbers of people. It means understanding how foods are targeted to nationally and demographically specific market segments. Temporally and spatially, it not only means understanding the constant flows of food across geographic regions but also acknowledging the seemingly continuous preparation of food within households. It not only means understanding how production and delivery operate quickly enough to beat microbial growth and fashion cycles but also how long-term continuities across lifespans, cultures and millennia shape what we eat for breakfast.

In this broad view, food infrastructures involve but are not limited to market activity. Managing risk, avoiding disruption, nourishing families and transmitting pleasure are sites of economic activity and also of governance, security, identity, morality and mortality. Critically examining these infrastructures reveals the high-stakes, hard work, human characters and material actors make our food systems function, persist and change.

Issue number 4 has invited contributions from a variety of scholars and practitioners devoted to transforming our understanding of the relationship between food and infrastructure. Coming in Fall of 2013, works by

Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, CNRS/Sciences Po
Susanne Freidberg, Dartmouth
Kim Hendrickx, University of Liège
Christopher Otter, Ohio State University
Lynn Åkesson, University of Lund
Javier Lezaun, Oxford University
Franck Cochoy, University of Toulouse
Emily Yates-Doerr, University of Amsterdam
Makale Faber-Cullen, Wilderness of Wish
Patrick Ciccone, Gambit Consulting
Anna Lappé, The Small Planet Institute
Aaron Bobrow-Strain, Whitman College
Heather Paxson, MIT