4 January 2014 – Long history of traditional food provisioning

In a recent article called ‘The Economics of the Food System Revolution’ (ref. Annual Review of Resource Economics, 2012 Vol. 4: 225-264 ), Thomas Reardon and C. Peter Timmer provide an excellent overview of the revolution we have all experienced (and continue to experience) in the modern food system.

 What is of particular interest to this blog is their short history of the long tradition in food systems. They note that for 9,900 years of the 10,000 years of human settlement, ‘traditional’ food systems were what kept us going, moving from self-sufficient hunter-gathering, to exchanging food surpluses in daily or weekly markets. Urban markets emerged with the growth of towns and cities and, with the development of transport systems, long distance trade routes provided spices, grains, salt etc., with some markets emerging as great trading centres.

 Yet, as the authors point out, suddenly, over roughly the past century – starting in Western Europe and the United States and coinciding with the industrial revolutions in those places – much of the food system underwent a revolution as industrialization and consolidation occurred along the supply chain. And importantly, they also draw attention to much more recent change – starting in the 1980s – in traditional food systems in countries in the South.

 As has been previously noted in this blog (see 1 December 2013), those involved in traditional food provisioning systems in the South are small-scale actors many of whom are poor. These rapid changes in the food system can pose threats to both the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and producers and for many others, access to affordable food through traditional wetmarkets. This raises the question what can countries in the South learn from our experiences in the North where such revolutionary change has occurred in a (relative) blink of an eye?

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