The Competitive Advantages of “Food from Somewhere”

Author: Dr. Larry Lev, Applied Economics, Oregon State University

Publish Date: Winter 2014

Think about the clothing you are wearing right now – you may remember some of the brand names and the stores or web sites that sold them to you but are much less likely to know where and by whom most items were produced. These aspects just aren’t that important to most people. Apparently we are content to wear “clothes from nowhere”.

Food is a different story for an increasing number of consumers. While in the U. S. the local food movement has been the primary means to know where your food comes from, it isn’t the only one. Consider the 1999 actions of a farmer named Jose Bove who was arrested for protesting at a McDonald’s construction site in southern France. Bove was NOT protesting American exports to France but rather what he felt was something much worse – the “absolute uniformity” of the ingredients and food that resulted in what he memorably called “food from nowhere”.

In fact, a complex trade dispute that restricted U. S. imports of Roquefort cheese from this region of France spurred Bove, a sheep producer, to action. Bove was and is a spirited supporter of “locality” products (foods produced and processed in a specific place). Cheeses are often marketed based on the relationship between product characteristics and product origin, wines even more so. “Locality products” is a bit obscure as a name but it is the best I can do and will be used for the rest of this article.

While Roquefort cheese shipped here and Oregon Pinot Noir wines sold in Chicago are clearly different from local lamb, cukes, and cider, the two categories of goods share many common characteristics. In his 2008 keynote address at the OSU Small Farm Conference, farmer-philosopher Fred Kirschenmann focused on “memory, romance and trust” as key elements of “social capital” (fancy language but Fred is a philosopher) that farmers own and can apply to the products they sell: “Memory is when a customer eats a product and says, ‘Wow, I want that again.’ Romance is the story behind the food’s production. Trust creates an opportunity to form a relationship between the consumer and the producer.” (Kirschenmann, 2008 OSU Small Farm Conference Presentation)

Foods from nowhere lack these three characteristics. While these foods do come from some place, it isn’t profitable to keep track of and market the origin. Production and distribution are located to maximize efficiency which in most case results in minimizing the total cost to the consumer.

Since foods from somewhere often can’t compete based on price, they need to attract consumers by following the different course proposed by Kirschenmann. Consumers need to be convinced to search out and purchase food from somewhere based on value.

Both local and locality products can make this case but it requires hard work and often significant cooperation. Farmers and their partners such as retailers, institutions, and restaurants, that sell local products, need to be relentless in identifying the local area (farms should ask for labeling and encourage the partners to keep track of local sales data). The First Alternative Cooperative in Corvallis does an excellent job in defining its “local 6” region (six counties) and in labeling products from this restricted area. Some farm stands and farmers markets mistakenly believe that all of their customers understand their sourcing rules and skip this step. The most successful local products still must also meet the “memory” standard – if they aren’t really a good many consumers will ignore them.

The bar is set even higher for locality products from small and mid-sized farms. Why bother to ship origin-identified products over long distances unless they are excellent? The longer supply chain generally requires greater cooperation among growers to produce sufficient quantity and more partnerships with processors and distributors to get the product all the way to consumers. Locality products can meet the “romance” and “trust” standards but only if all the partners work together.

Oregon and U. S. producers, with the exception of the wine industry, have been much more focused on local than on locality. Going forward producers who opt out of “food from nowhere” market channels should examine both options. Really making progress in expanding the success of locality products will require carefully considering the lessons to be learned from farmers and processors in Europe. The American Origin Production Association is one group that has begun to take on that task:

In the meantime, figure out where your shirt was produced and consider how Oregonians can/should move toward producing and consuming more food from somewhere.