Publication date: 31/07/2013


Food is essential for human life and existence. Therefore production of food sufficient to feed the global population in a manner that is sustainable both now and for future generations is essential. For centuries agricultural production was conducted utilising ecologically sustainable agricultural processes. This model still operates in a number of developing countries (in for example, SE Asia, South America and sub-Saharan Africa), but in most of the developed world, there was a move to a productivist model of intensive farming, during the 20th century.

The objective of intensified agriculture is increased levels of production, specialisation and expansion through the use of convergent application of biotechnology (including genetics), nanotechnology and information technology.  Lowe et al  have defined productivism as “a commitment to an intensive, industrially driven and expansionist agriculture with state support based primarily on output and increased productivity”. The consequent environmental damage caused by intensive farming methods has led to the emergence of an alternative, a post-productivist model with the focus shifting from intensive farming to shorter food supply chains, better added value for farmers and more sustainable, environmentally friendly, localised and pluralistic agricultural practices.

Whereas the key stakeholders in the productivist model tend to be farmers, the food industry and policy makers, the stakeholder community of the post-productivist model is much wider and includes in addition to producers, distributers and policy makers, local rural and urban communities, environmentalists, consumers, NGOs, special interest groups and
others, with less emphasis on commodity production, and a greater focus on shorter less intense farming, reducing environmental damage, animal welfare and a shift towards
sustainable agriculture and conservation or restoration of valued landscapes and habitats. An important manifestation of this approach has been a change in consumer awareness, behaviour and engagement with the whole of the food chain from “gate to plate” with particular emphasis on perceptions of risk, precaution, “naturalness” and animal welfare, driven to a not inconsiderable extent by a number of high profile health scares particularly across the European market. This has resulted in the development of new market relationships with a consumer driven focus.

At the same time the productivist approach to food production has been moving towards a more agri-industrial model. This industrial model of agriculture depends on further increasing specialisation and homogeneous production, with production control and pricing shifting from primary producers (farmers) to highly competitive industrial distributors and highly industrialised multinational chemical, biological and pharmaceutical companies implementing global value chains. This results in a squeeze on the prices paid to farmers by distributors and an increasing pressure for a more intensive production dependent on external inputs of water and energy together with patented, product specific, fertilizer and pesticides and increasingly, the use of scientific research to modify, control and maintain reproduction of crops and animals.

In recent years Europe has been the focus of a number of high profile food-related issues or concerns which have had a significant impact on consumer confidence and which have
resulted in large changes to the European regulatory structure with important consequences for the development, regulation, economics and politics of the agri-industry.

One consequence of these events has been a huge loss of confidence by consumers in the food industry and also in food regulators, and this has been accompanied by strong
consumer demand for much greater consultation and input into all stages of the food chain and its regulation. These high levels of consumer sensitivity and much tighter coordinated regulation as a result of loss of consumer trust, has been an important factor in increasing support for the post-productivist model of food and agriculture in Europe.

This is in stark contrast to the situation which exists in the US, where food and agriculture are regulated by the FDA, a body more remote from the US consumer. Much has been written about the confidence and trust of the American consumer in national institutional arrangements and it has proved much easier in such an environment to introduce innovations such as products and processes based on GM technology, which has been much more problematic in Europe.

As a result the US still remains much closer to the agri-industrial model. These two agri-food production models now contend in the policy and economic fields for a dominant role in food production and supply to consumers. Both approaches are dependent on continuous scientific innovation in order to develop and maintain competitive advantage.

While to some extent the consumer is over a barrel as they are dependent on what is available, i.e. what is provided by producers and distributers, they do have the ability to “vote with their feet” and can and do reject products in which they have little or no confidence. Therefore failure to recognise and respond to consumer preferences and concerns may generate consumer protest and shifting of loyalties to different production systems. Hence the acceptance and trust of the consumer is important for economic viability and it is essential for both models to be able to secure positive attitudes in consumer perceptions of risk and ethical values in relation to methods of production, processing, packaging and distribution. Effective regulation is a key element in securing consumer trust and hence confidence in both products and processes.

This report from Global Ethics in Science and Technology (GEST) considers these two agri-food models in relation to innovation, risk and power and control issues together with the associated ethical issues and consumer perceptions.

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