Food TIME the Industrial Way

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. Only in the post-BSE era has their attention shifted to the role of large trans-national companies in the creation of food hazards.

Nowhere, however, is the connection established between the political economy of TIME 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, environmental sustainability, consumer choice and public safety. It underpins some of the unacknowledged pressures in farming, unarticulated consumer fears and the loss of trust in expert promises that the food on offer will have no adverse effects in the future.

Time and Farming
Time enters farming in a number of ways:

  • Seasons and reproduction cycles
  • Timing and sequencing of activities
  • Time-frame of activities
  • Speed (link to efficiency and 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 tied to efficiency because of competition and the need to have a quick return on investment. It is economically prudent to borrow from the future and to get as much TIME as possible for nothing since both strategies enhance profit and global competition
  • Any unused TIME is money wasted, and any unproductive TIME is money lost, hence the development towards a 24-hour, non-stop, a-seasonal food system
  • Control of seasonality, ripening TIMES, reproduction cycles and 'freshness' of food irons out peaks and troughs, improves transportability, storage and shelf life and it enhances export capacity. GM offers the ultimate TIME control
Conflicting TIMES
UK farmers today operate in an economic system where TIME is money. But they work with plants and animals that are governed by natural TIME, which works to different principles from those of economic TIME.
  • The TIME of plants and animals is species-specific and context-dependent. Nature changes with the season and pulses 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 agricultural 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' & 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, 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.
Food TIME and Consumption
The time is money assumption permeates both production and retailing on food and as such affects the meaning of freshness, the wholesomeness of food and its shelf life. Unquestioned and debated it delimits consumer choice and safety. TIME enters food consumption in a variety of ways:
  • Seasonality of food alongside all-year-round availability
  • Timing of harvesting , sale and consumption
  • Sell-by date and 'freshness'
  • Duration of storage, transit, shelf life
  • Tempo of maturation and ripening for quality and safety
  • Fast food and TIME saving
  • Rhythms of growth and decay
  • Just-in-TIME retailing and consumption
  • Production in the past, consumption in the present, health/hazard for the future
Everything at all TIMES means jet-setting and jet-lagged foods, counterfeit freshness, loss of choice with a difference, reduced taste and wholesomeness. Increased hazard potential, a decline in consumer knowledge about seasonal foods and a rise in unease that is difficult to articulate.

Consuming TIME and Public Unease
The industrial way of life has embedded in it a particular approach to TIME. This is never discussed, never questioned. As taken-for-granted status quo, it forms the invisible deep structure of economic action. This economic TIME is imposed not just on agricultural production but permeates our lives as citizens and consumers.

Much consumer unease and distrust revolves around the resulting conflict of and the pressures arising from it. As long as the issues are not made explicit, however, concerns about safety and quality cannot be fully articulated. Explicit knowledge about TIME is therefore central for creating a secure base for citizen knowledge, choice and trust.

Ambivalence pervades the issues of food safety, wholesomeness, choice and convenience. Unease about 'unnaturalness' is coupled with a lack of TIME for label-conscious shopping. 'Convenience foods' compete with foods that need more TIME and effort to prepare and cook. Equally, choice evaporates when money is short and the more wholesome, locally produced, fresh food is more expensive.
Finally, when all foods are available all the TIME then knowledge about seasonal food recedes and consumers lose their ability to differentiate between real and counterfeit freshness.

  • 'For everything there is a season' - This statement still forms part of our sedimented historical knowledge even if not all of us could name the time certain fruits ripen and seasonal meat becomes available.
  • Strawberries at Christmas - Transcendence of seasonality is part of the success story of the industrial way of life. The peaks and troughs of food supply are evened out. In the industrialised North, failing crops no longer mean starvation.

  • The Question of Choice - In supermarkets choice is boundless when it comes to a-seasonal food but verging on the non-existent when it comes to locally produced fresh food. The monotony of seasonal foods has been swapped for the monotony of all-year tasteless sameness.
  • 'We are what we eat' - Our health and well-being are intricately webbed with that of the plants and animals we eat. Their stress becomes part of us. Their artificiality does not leave them before we ingest them. Their loss of vitamins and taste due to travel and storage, is our loss too. It matters, therefore what happens to them before they get eaten.
  • Just-in-TIME food and Counterfeit Freshness - In computer controlled atmospheric chambers fruit can be ripened at will, according to just-in-time schedules, and its shelf life extended up to five times the DURATION of traditional storage. Since this manipulation of atmospheric conditions is considered a mere variation of the natural composition of air, governments world-wide have decided that there is no need for this kind of storage to be declared. Counterfeit freshness is legalised. It means that consumers have no means of telling the difference between real and simulated freshness.

    Contemporary food hazards are intimately tied to the overcoming of TIME and space. A focus on the temporal dimension of food production and preservation makes hidden dangers visible and tangible

    • Invisible Hazards - Humans have always depended on their senses to establish whether an edible food was still fresh and fit for consumption. Today sight, touch, smell even taste are useless for signalling whether meat is infected with BSE, genetically engineered or contaminated with growth hormones.
    • Too Late - With pesticide damage, BSE contamination of meat, and potentially with GM crops the dangers were / are not known at the time of invention and marketing. Symptoms may appear only in the distant FUTURE. This has a number of implications: risks are not taken individually but imposed collectively with the effect that choice is eliminated. The bigger the TIME gap the more difficult it is to make causal connections with the effect that proof cannot be established.
    • Food Miles = TIME - The big food swap into, out of and round the country increases not just travel over space but TIME. To control ripening and hold decay at bay requires technological and chemical assistance. With each step along the path of TEMPORAL extension new potential dangers are added to our food.
    Time In Politics and Policy Formation
    TIME enters politics/policy in a number of largely taken-for-granted and implicit ways:
    • PERIODS of office
    • TIMING & sequencing of policy/regulation
    • TIME FRAME of activities / implementation
    • TEMPO, pace of action & innovation
    • TEMPORALITY which is change
    • Action in the PRESENT, focused on FUTURE and based on knowledge of PAST
    • RHYTHMICITY of parliament & election cycles
    • Creating collective FUTURES
    • Coping with UNCERTAINTY
    • Coping with indefinite TIME LAGS between action and outcomes
    • Time as VALUE:
      Temporality -as change & innovation
      Speed - efficiency & productivity
      Resource - individual & collective
      Economic exchange value
    Politics tends to be understood with reference to space and matter, that is, the defence of the realm and territory as well as the distribution of a country's resources and wealth. TIME, in contrast, is an implicit aspect of the political process. TIME as economic value and resource tends to be promoted, allocated, structured and compressed without debate on the matter. Economic TIME is imposed globally as an unquestioned norm. Politicians always operate in successors' FUTURES and societies are continuously responding to policies and regulations of previous governments.
    The Powell Committee was set up in 1962 to review the future of nuclear energy in the UK. It was charged to come up with recommendations for 20+ years. At that time, decommissioning, reprocessing and the securing of waste for an open future were not on the agenda. These issues were not only outside the commission's brief but beyond it's imagination.

    For some 200 years governments have relied on science to predict the FUTURE and provide them with truth and proof. In many policy contexts today these TIME-based expectations are no longer appropriate. BSE, the Belgian food crisis and the extensive debate over GM food being cases in point.
    From an economic TIME perspective genetic modification is the Holy Grail. It reaches the frontiers of time. It promises

    • the TEMPORAL equivalent to spatial globalisation
    • extension of scientific reach to the beginning and end of TIME: to the beginning of shared genetic origins and open-ended FUTURE effects
    • SPEEDING UP of reproductive change to achieve instantaneous results
    • control not just of nature's products but its processes, that is, TEMPORALITY
    • control of TIME at the level of reproduction
    This extension in TEMPORAL reach and the massive leap in TIME compression and control have a price tag attached and it is important not to lose sight of this over the excitement of the economic potential. The price of success includes:
    • Unprecedented increase in control in the laboratory over SHORT-TERM processes is matched by an equally unprecedented loss of control over LONG-TERM effects in humans and on the environment.
    • Once released into the environment, GMOs know no boundaries. Their effects are unbounded in TIME & space. Thus, gene pollution is FOR EVER without possibility of recall or undoing mistakes.
    • Where science used to operate on the basis of trial and error, genetic engineering conducts trials where errors may not show themselves for a long TIME and may materialise in different bodies (successor generations) and in different species (dispersed across nature in TIME and space).
    Innovation, Risk, Contested Futures
    It is in the nature of INNOVATION that the PAST can act neither as guide for action in the PRESENT nor as predictor of the FUTURE. Innovation is the context of inescapable UNCERTAINTY of outcomes and contested FUTURES.
    This has discomfiting political consequences.
    • There can be no risk assessment since FUTURE risk can be calculated only on the basis of a known PAST.
    • Science cannot give the customary answers that guide political action: no prediction of the FUTURE, no truth, no certainty, no proof of causal connections.
    • With truly INNOVATIVE science, therefore, politics and policy operate in the realm not of science but contested values & morals.
    • The conflict between economic and natural TIME belongs to this world of values.
    TIME Literacy for Informed Debate
    The global economy & national politics operate with economic TIME as unquestioned norm. The public, in contrast, live and value the quality associated with the TIMES of nature. To reconnect citizens' understanding of quality with the politics of food thus requires TIME literacy as the basis of informed public debate Time literacy will take food policy and practice well beyond its current debates. Three recommendations may be explored

    Access to locally grown, fresh produce and full meaningful information on the temporal life histories of food to be granted as basic rights as a means to secure citizens' safety, health and well-being

    The right for farmers not only to reclaim the ownership of the means of reproduction (seeds and semen) but also of time. This combined ownership would restore control over the pace of agricultural life and its sustainable future

    Role of NGO's
    NGO's should take the lead in taking the TIME issue seriously and putting it on the agenda for wider debate.

  • Index
    Cardiff School of Social Sciences