Global Tastes

Posted January 3, 2007

Categories: Articles, Food

Courtiers once collected special tastes for the infamous banquets of the Roman emperors “in every corner of the Empire from the Parthian frontier to the Straits of Gibraltar.”[1] The Chinese emperors, too, demanded a succession of unusual and exotic treats from the far-flung lands opened up by the Silk Road. Today, this tradition still lives on, fitfully, in North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s requests for Japanese sushi, Czech beer, and Italian pizza.


If we are what we eat, then emperors have been defined not just by bloodline but by diet as well. What good was it to have an empire if you couldn’t “eat” it too?


The isolated Kim Jong Il aside, such distinctions have largely faded. What was once available only to royalty is now sitting on your local supermarket’s freezer shelves. Take-out Chinese restaurants can be found in the poorest urban neighborhoods in the United States. Food courts in malls throughout the world routinely offer European, Asian, and Latin American fare alongside such hybrids as Chinese-Cajun (bourbon chicken) and Mexican-Italian (jalapeno pizza). Exotic tastes such as pepper, nutmeg, vanilla, and pineapple are now commonplace. Fast food hamburgers bring the taste of America even to the lands of the sacred cow (where lamb substitutes for beef). The world’s poorest subsistence farmers, losing their livelihoods to cheap agricultural imports, crowd into the cities where they eat foreign corn, wheat, and soy products. The global trade in foodstuffs has made cosmopolitan eaters of us all.


Exotic provenance alone no longer supplies sufficient added value to justify higher price tags. The declining terms of trade – by which raw materials such as agricultural produce have declined in relative value compared to manufactured goods – have affected producers and consumers across the board. The declining value of pork bellies and corn syrup and potatoes can barely keep the producers afloat, and the same market logic applies to more upscale tastes like specialty coffee, cilantro, and Asian pears. In short, any product that is not in scarce supply, such as truffles or kangaroo meat, is subject to industrial-style production, scientific manipulation (such as genetic engineering), or just plain cross-border competition that drives down prices.


Distance once conferred value on food. The global market and ferocious price competition have largely eliminated that value. To maintain profit, the food industry has sought other methods of adding value to both raw and finished products.


The alchemy of the marketplace transforms this vulgar pursuit of profit into the more high-minded quest for distinction. To acquire this distinction, in Bourdieu’s sense of the term, wealthier global consumers have drifted toward other designations to reinforce their sense of class.[2] It is no longer enough to eat New Zealand lamb or Brazilian oranges in the wintertime. These products have become déclassé, much as sugar and tea lost their distinction as elite comestibles in the Middle Ages to become the mainstay of the British poor by the time of the Industrial Revolution.[3] Discriminating consumers, who want to show that they have taste – which is so much about asserting status and economic class — gravitate toward other marks of distinction.


The organic designation has for some time been one such attempt to push a certain class of food up the value chain. In this way, the industry has succeeded in getting a growing number of consumers to pay more for their food both fresh produce and packaged goods. But as the organic designation becomes mass market, higher-end consumers are looking for other distinctions. The “local food” movement, by turning the age-old relationship of value and distance on its head, is poised to replace organic as the value-added distinction du jour.


The Taste of Organic


The firm NRE World Bento produces organic lunch boxes for the Japanese consumer.  The boxes contain organic rice and vegetables produced in California, humanely raised pork from Mexico, wild salmon from Alaska, and other staples of the organic trade.  Although 90 percent of the product is sold to Japanese railway customers, the factory is not located in Japan or even in nearby China. Rather, NRE World Bento is located just outside of San Francisco.[4]


Two factors determined the factory’s location. One is the source of the raw materials. Japan simply doesn’t grow the volume of organic rice or organic vegetables that World Bento needed. The company had to look elsewhere. Although the eel for the unagi bento makes a long round trip from China to the United States and back to Japan, most of the remaining ingredients are grown and raised in California. The free-trade agreement between the United States and Mexico brings the cheaper Mexican livestock into World Bento’s supply chain.


Ordinarily, given Japan’s import regulations governing rice, the United States would have been the last place that the company could have outsourced. U.S. growers have been trying to break into the Japanese market for years with little success. Herein lies the second factor. NRE Bento discovered a loophole in Japanese import regulations that permits a low tariff for imported rice if it is part of a product containing at least 20 percent non-rice ingredients.


The NRE World Bento story illustrates several interesting developments in the organic market. What had once been a largely counter-culture phenomenon geared to local consumption has gone international. The market for organic food reached $23 billion in 2002. In many countries, it is the largest growth sector in agriculture.  In the United States, for instance, the organic market has grown by roughly 20 percent a year since 1997. This market has become attractive enough to lure WalMart, which is poised to become the largest purveyor of organic produce in the country.


Although a movement is afoot to deny the organic label to food that travels by air and thus boosts greenhouse gas production, the international trade in organic products has inexorably expanded over the years. Australia, Brazil, China, and several other key agricultural producers are aggressively marketing their organic produce. But demand continues to outstrip supply. One of the top three organic producers in the world, the United States imports eight times more organic food than it exports.[5] “Product shortages in North America and Europe are resulting in organic food imports from across the globe,” according to Organic Monitor, which identifies China, Turkey, and Brazil as the source of beans and nuts; India, Paraguay, and Ethiopia for herbs and spices; African and Asian countries for fresh fruit and vegetables; and Latin America and Australasia for organic meat products.[6]


In the food world, a packaged item such as a bento box has a much higher profit margin than the raw materials alone. And so, an international organic assembly line has emerged to produce the inputs into finished products that can then retail at a much higher price. To facilitate the creation of this assembly line, countries have begun to harmonize their regulatory and labeling mechanisms. Rather than being at cross-purposes, free trade and regulation go hand in hand. The contemporary food trade is only possible with certain quantifiable standards (health and safety requirements, quality assurances, and so on). Disputes continue, for instance between the United States and Europe over genetically modified organisms, but the general principle of harmonizing food trade standards endures.


This harmonizing process bears out one of the conclusions of Julia Guthman’s penetrating study of the California organic sector, Agrarian Dreams: the organic movement has devolved largely into a practice of labeling.[7] The more radical approaches to crop production, the reconfigured relationship with the consumer, and the more ecological understanding of overall sustainability have collapsed into the more easily quantifiable questions of regulation and marketability. This is how states and international regulatory agencies “see” – and thus organize in James Scott’s formulation – organic agriculture.[8]


In Japan, the cachet of organic competes against a much old set of distinctions based on locale. While Costco now sells much cheaper rice today in Tokyo, some customers still cling to their older ways of purchasing rice – from family-run rice stores, from particular well-known rice producing areas (Ibaraki prefecture, for example). But just as Japan seems to be moving toward the Costco/World Bento model, there is a counter-movement pressing for a return to the older set of distinctions.


Going Local


Locavores – the latest trend in dietary activism – speak of reducing “food miles,” of sustaining small farms, of the better taste of produce grown or raised locally.[9] All of this is true. But eating local also taps into the older distinctions of terroir, the sense of place. In a reversal of the old relationship between emperors and their dominions, people are nowadays ssigning greater value to items produced locally.


Consider the various “eat local challenges” that have sprouted up throughout North America. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan confined his year of eating locally to within 200 miles of his northern Arizona home where a rather narrow range of food can be coaxed from the landscape.[10] The food service Bon Appetit conducts an annual 150-mile “eat local challenge” at its cafes in universities and corporate campuses across the United States. Further north, a Canadian couple spent a year eating a whole lot of potatoes in the 100-mile crop circle they drew around their Vancouver home.[11] And in his latest book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food writer Michael Pollan set the bar even higher by defining local as no further than hand’s reach, as his progressively more demanding effort to eat light off the land culminated with a meal of wild pig that he shot, wild mushrooms that he gathered, lettuce that he grew, and fruit that he gleaned.[12]


Because of the institutionalization of organic – which has enabled NRE World Bento to set up shop outside of San Francisco, countries like Brazil and China to boost their exports of organic produce, and WalMart to enter the market in a big way – consumers are beginning to look for a different measure of authenticity. North Americans are beginning to follow the European lead in prizing local products. Local sourcing – with its application of terroir to products outside of wine and the rapid growth of direct farmer-to-consumer marketing through consumer supported agriculture (CSAs) – has taken up the same radical challenge to factory farming that the organics movement raised a generation ago, but with an additional critique of the global agro-assembly line.


At the outset, the organic movement was not about adding value to products for upscale consumers. In the 1950s, J. I. Rodale was concerned about the sustainability of the soil. Only gradually, with the development of third-party certification, did organic become a marketable category.


At the moment, the locavore movement seems impervious to the institutionalization that has afflicted organics. Production for local consumption is by definition small-scale. A certain amount of added value can percolate up the food chain: the local farmer charging more for the local tomato, the restaurateur charging a little more for the local tomato salad, the consumer willing to pay extra for something that has a local “distinction” attached. But such a value-adding exercise by definition stops at the boundary of the defined “local space,” whether it is 200, 150, 100, or 50 miles. True, “local” Vermont maple syrup or Pittsburg microbrew or Memphis barbecue sauce can be produced and marketed on a large scale, and these products derive much of their value from their specific locale. But the “eat local” purist is not interested in someone else’s local food. The local designation is not comparable to a Codex Alimentarius geographic designation – basmati, Champagne, kimchi – that facilitates trade. The movement is designed to discourage trade because trade pushes producers to greater economies of scale.


Does the consumer, by buying local, acquire distinction in the same way that the Chinese emperor did by consuming Samarkand peaches or the upscale shopper does by buying organic peaches at Whole Foods? The “eat local” movement has reversed the value-distance equation. It becomes the poor who are condemned to eat the cheap food in the supermarket – white bread produced several states away, frozen orange juice from Brazil, sandwich meat from hogs butchered in Mexico. The wealthier consumers demonstrate their extra-dietary concerns by paying a little bit more for locally produced products, whether vegetables or microbrewed beer or bread baked at a local bakery. This process of creating value, often arbitrary, is inescapable in our economic system. When locavores praise the better taste of a locally grown tomato, they are asserting that taste – as opposed to merely the calories needed to sustain life – is important. They are privileging their own tastes and the socioeconomic assumptions embedded in those tastes.


Although the eat-local movement will by its very think-small nature resist the institutionalization that the organic sector has experienced, it may nevertheless fall into the same value-laden trap. Like the organic politics of Whole Foods, the eat-local phenomenon may devolve into simply a pocketbook issue – which vegetable should I buy? – and its fundamental critique of food production will remain largely rhetorical. If it stops from evolving into a political movement and devolves into merely a consumer movement, eating local will become little more than a set of distinctions, which distinguish one type of product and one type of consumer from another, and another opportunity to change the world will be eaten away by the exigencies of the market.

[1] Suetonius, “Life of Vitellius” in The Twelve Caesars (New York: Penguin, 1981), p. 274.

[2] Pierre Bordieu, Distinction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[3] Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power (New York: Penguin, 1986).

[4] Information from on-site interviews at NRE World Bento

[5] U.S. Market Profile for Organic Food Products, by James M. Tringe, USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), February 2005, pp. 9-10.

[6] “Global Organic Food Industry Facing Supply Challenges,” Organic Monitor, November 5, 2006;

[7] Julie Guthman, Agrarian Dreams (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[8] James Scott, Seeing Like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[9] John Feffer, “The challenge facing local food,” Salon, January 18, 2007;

[10] Gary Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat (New York: Norton, 2001).


[12] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: Penguin, 2006).

Alphabet City, September 2007

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