General Briefing
By Barbara Adam, Cardiff University

The Politics and Economics of TIME in the Food System

Recent Newspaper Headlines
- Breast Milk Poison Alert
- GM Pollution Inevitable
- Europe Bans US Beef Over Safety Fears
- Mad Cow Can Kill You
- Foul Food: Can The Government Protect Us From Killer Bugs?

Food: a matter of public concern
Food is clearly a matter of public concern. Not a day goes by without news on food hazards. Almost daily, new associations are being formed around food safety, 'quality food' and changing food habits. Food programmes on television and radio have never been more popular. Nowhere, however, is the connection established between the economics and politics of time and food safety, food quality, food panics and changing habits of food consumption. Food time is not on the political agenda. Instead, time is left implicit in media communications and does not feature in public debates. Yet, time is of the essence.

The Project
Over the past ten years Barbara Adam's work has made explicit what had thus far been implicit - the social and political relations of time. In a study for the ESRC's Global Environmental Change Programme (1994-6) she has further established the link between industrial societies' relationship to time and environmental problems.

The current project is a preliminary study of the processes and barriers involved in translating academic knowledge into practice.

The aim is 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. The point is to enlist key players in the food system and its regulation to explore with them the possibility of -

  • Making time part of our explicit knowledge base and
  • Changing basic assumptions associated with food and time.

Unquestioned assumptions
We take for granted that time is money and that faster means better. When 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.
  • Control of seasonality, 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.
In a context where time is money, genetically engineered crops are the ultimate in time saving and time control. GE has the potential to cut out generations of incremental changes. It promises speeding up of ripening processes, the transcendence of seasons and the possibility of just-in-time food production.

Why does time need to be made explicit?
Such time control, however, comes at a price. This price is linked to

  • Quality - We can taste time in the quality of the food we eat - the time that has been compressed and controlled results in the loss of taste.
  • Wholesomeness - The stress of animals and plants farmed under the time-is-money regime tends to become our stress when we eat the food.
  • Safety - What is safe in tests now may not be in the future and in subsequent generations as has been shown by, for example, research on PCB's and the BSE crisis.
What is the role of business, politics, NGO's and media?
The industrial way of life has embedded in it a particular approach to time. This is never discussed, never questioned. When we scrutinise policy documents of supermarket chains, government white papers, publications of NGO's or media coverage on food scares, we find this status quo forms the invisible deep structure of economic action.

We would like to explore with you how the food system might change if time were made explicit and put on the public agenda. Time, we are sure, will be the prime focus for the next century. Those who take a lead in moving time to the centre of their activities and concern will not just bring clarity to the debate but help to create a food system that reconnects with public understanding of quality.

Cardiff School of Social Sciences