Project Bridging TIME Theory & Practice ESRC (R000222946):
A pilot to a large Europe-wide project that explores processes and barriers involved in translating into practice academic knowledge about pertinent TIME issues in the food system. The aim is to enlist the help of key players in the food system in order to make transparent what at present is an implicit and taken-for-granted dimension of the food system, that is, TIME in its multiple functions, dimensions and uses. Project Leader: Barbara Adam
School of Social Science, Cardiff University,
50 Park Place, Cardiff CF1 3AT
Tel: 01222-875565 FAX 01222-874436
E-mail: Adamtime@Cardiff.AC.UK

Food TIME & Agriculture

Food is clearly a matter of public concern given the frequency with which food hazards are reported. From Salmonella to E.coli 0157 and BSE, some of the key hazards to human health are food borne.

Agricultural production tends to be in the firing line when it comes to apportioning blame. The media have focused on farming methods and farmers' 'greed' as prime causes of the food system's current difficulties and the loss of public trust.

At the same time, reports are increasing about farmers going bankrupt and their traditional way of life being under threat. Furthermore, it seems that farmers bear the biggest risks in terms of both their economic security and their personal health and safety.

Nowhere, however, is the connection established between the political economy of TIME (see inset box 2) and food safety, food quality, food panics and changing habits of food consumption. The media do not address the conflicts over economic and natural TIME. Equally, food TIME is not on the political agenda.

Yet, TIME is of the essence for agriculture, food production, consumer choice and public safety. It underpins some of the unspoken pressures in farming, consumer fears and the loss of trust in expert promises that the food on offer will have no adverse effect in the future.

TIME in Farming
TIME enters farming in a number of ways:

  • seasons & reproduction cycles
  • timing and sequencing of activities
  • TIME frame of activities
  • speed (link to efficiency & profitability)
  • temporality as change and innovation
  • action in the present focused on the future and based on knowledge of the past
  • coping with uncertainty
In nature everything has its TIME and season. From an economic perspective, however, this natural TIME is a barrier to efficiency and improvements in productivity. In order to be economically efficient, therefore, farmers have to transcend natural TIME and impose economic TIME on agricultural production and reproduction processes. This creates inevitable tensions and stresses. Farmers live these conflicts and manage them on a daily basis.

When TIME is Money
In industrial societies the TIME of the public sphere is tied to economic exchange: TIME is money. This economic TIME is rooted in the machine TIME of clocks. As such it is invariable and precise. It knows no seasons, no context, no periods of peaks and troughs. It is part of the non-stop world of 24-hour, all-year-round trading and finance.

In a world where TIME is money, speed is linked to efficiency and the control of TIME to productivity:

  • Speed is tied to efficiency because of competition and the need to have a quick return on investment. This means, when TIME is money, then the faster something moves through the system the better it is for business.
  • Control of seasonality, reproduction cycles, ripening TIMES and 'freshness' of food irons out peaks and troughs, creates a just-in-time food system, improves transportability, storage and shelf life and it enhances export capacity.
  • Any un-used TIME is money wasted, and any unproductive TIME is money lost, hence the development towards a 24-hour, non-stop, aseasonal food system.
  • When TIME is money, it is economically prudent to borrow from the future and to get as much TIME as possible for nothing since both strategies enhance profit.

Conflicting TIMES
Contemporary British farmers operate in an economic system where TIME is money. But they work with plants and animals that are governed by natural TIME, a time system that works to different principles from those of economic TIME.
  • The TIME of plants and animals is species-specific and context-dependent. It varies with seasons and place. The land, the plants and the animals change with the seasons. They pulse to the natural rhythms of the sun and moon, night and day, growth and decay.
  • The trade-off between these conflicting TIME systems is part and parcel of the farmer's life. Getting the balance right is a key to being competitive in a global economy and central to taking account of animal welfare and the land's long-term productiveness.
  • How this balance between economic and natural TIMES is managed distinguishes the different farming sectors: large, medium and small scale, conventional and organic.
'Quality TIME' and Taste
The trade-off between economic and natural TIME is also tied to food quality, wholesomeness and safety. That is to say, the immense gains in efficiency and productivity - ever increasing quantity and size in ever decreasing TIME spans - has a price tag attached. The price to be paid is linked to:
  • Quality - We can taste TIME in the quality of the food we eat. Loss of taste is an inevitable by-product of the TIME that has been compressed by forcing growth and harvesting in an unripe state and of the TIME that has been controlled in ripening chambers. Ripening that is guided by the food's TIME rather than economic TIME translates into quality but the slower pace, higher human labour and shorter shelf-life make it more expensive.
  • Wholesomeness - Animals and plants farmed under the TIME-is-money regime tend to require more medical intervention, more antibiotics, more remedial labour, more chemical assistance. Where ripening is controlled with chemicals and by means of irradiation the vitamin level is reduced and some of the nutritional value lost. It is the TIME factor that makes organic farming so expensive.
  • Safety - What is considered and declared safe now may not be so in the future and for subsequent generations. The BSE crisis and high levels of dioxin in breast milk are just two pertinent cases in point. In the trade-off between natural and economic TIME safety can be compromised. Taking Risks, Constructing Futures
    Farmers used to handle the risks of weather and disease by growing a variety of crops and keeping a range of animals. Under the industrial regime risk is handled differently.
    • Monocultures, a reduced range of products and an economy of scale enhance rationalisation, calculation & prediction. When things go wrong a much larger proportion of the enterprise is affected.
    • It is a linear system of external chemical imput and externalisation of poison output. When things go wrong it is the farming community, their animals and the land who have to absorb the dangers. It is they not the producers of the chemicals who tend to be held responsible in the case of disasters.
    • Insurance provides compensation for a limited range of risks but it is in the nature of the system that insurance companies never lose.
    • Uncertainty is eliminated by control of the future, physical condition and processes of industrial agriculture. When this strategy goes wrong it is farmers rather than agribusiness or politicians who carry the can.
    • Emphasis has to be on the short-term economic future rather than the long-term knowledge of tradition and generational future.
    So What?
    The industrial way of life has embedded in it a particular approach to TIME which forms the invisible deep structure of economic action. This economic TIME is imposed not just on social life but on farming and its interaction with nature and natural TIME.

    In farming the TIME conflict tends to be lived but not acknowledged and debated. The heroic efforts to meld those two incompatible TIME strategies into a coherent and economically viable systems are central to the pressures and stresses of farming today.

    Equally, much consumer unease and distrust revolves around this conflict. Here too, however, the issues are not made explicit which means that concerns about safety and quality cannot be fully articulated.

    Explicit knowledge about TIME is central for securing consumer trust and a more prosperous future for agriculture. We would like to explore with you the possibility of making TIME an explicit part of the public debates about the production of wholesome and safe food that reconnects and resonates with consumers' understanding of quality.

Cardiff School of Social Sciences