Material Culture and the Food Supply


Wayne C. Pfeiffer (1992) ,"Material Culture and the Food Supply", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 158-160.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 158-160


Wayne C. Pfeiffer, Department of Agricultural Economics and Business, University of Guelph

Pervasive materialism in the economic culture of North America has set into motion several economic forces. Some argue that current economic behaviour may be adversely affecting our long-run prospects of maintaining an adequate food supply. In part, an official doctrine of low food prices for the consumer, coupled with materialistic orientations toward short-run profit and little care about waste held by all participants in the food marketplace, has resulted in a long history of non-optimum (in a Pareto optimal sense) allocation of the natural and human resources required for food (and fibre) production. Since the 1950's, public policies which have evolved in the institutional setting dominated by these fundamental precepts have largely exacerbated the situation. Today, we are at the point where farm incomes and, hence, the quality of rural life is so low that very obvious (and increasing) social costs are being incurred for mitigating problems in rural areas. Furthermore, the now environmentalism emerging in society has brought both the safety and sustainability of the food supply into question.

To explain the mechanisms in our materialistic society which have resulted in the current situation (which includes high-cost, low-return farming on the one hand and serious wastage of material resources in food distribution on the other) a lot hinges on the social consensus about competition McMurtry (1992) asks the questions:

"Is competition the best way to develop standards of excellence and high achievement? Or is it a selfish struggle for goods in short supply that lowers standards and perverts performance?"

In a general discussion of these questions, he cites alternative viewpoints which could be taken and suggests how one of these has become dominant in Canada. He goes on to say,

"There are "free" and "unfree" forms of competition that have not been clearly distinguished. The unfree form of competition pits people against one another. They compete for payoffs external to the activity itself, which go to one side at the expense of others. (Examples of this are Olympic athletes and market corporations competing for external rewards, where the winner takes all.)

In the case of food supply, the domination by large companies of food processing, food distribution and food retailing to the final consumer ail suggest that the contemporary situation is the outcome of an evolutionary process in which "winner-take-all" competition has been the order of the day. In a summary statement, McMurtry suggests:

"The ultimate pathological form of this lower kind of competition is military war, where these exclusionary payoffs and losses are unlimited in their extent."

The unfortunate outcome of public consensus about this form of competition is that

"People assume that take-for-yourself competition is the only kind of competition. Our current business leaders and the mass media, for example, seem to think that competitive reduction of our social standards to minimize costs and maximize profits for multinational corporations is a necessity and that no alternative exists."

There is a great deal of evidence that "winner-take-all" notions about competition have been underlying behaviour patterns in agriculture. The entire post-WWII period has been characterized by: 1) steady application of higher levels of technology to increase farm productivity per person (Evenson, et al. 1979); 2) declining numbers of agricultural labourers (and farmers); 3) surplus production; 4) low prices; and S) low farm incomes for the remaining farmers in each successive cycle (U.S. Congress, 1986). Why? Some argue that technology is to blame. Others suggest that governments' "cheap food" policies are the cause. Economists have often theorized that low levels of managerial skills in agriculture have resulted in too much inefficiency at the farm level. Many agricultural economists blame government intervention for the situation where "inefficient" farmers are not wooded out because of policies which insulate farmers from "free market" forces. Still others hold out suggestions that a struggle between social classes in a capitalistic society has perpetually relegated farmers to a "price taker" position (i.e. the peasant class, collectively, albeit with internal stratification along Marxist lines, with some large farms being capitalistic and exploitive, and others having part-time employees suggestive of a "petite bourgeoisie" social position).

Taking a harder look at the behaviour of individuals in agriculture suggests that much of the theorizing of the past 30 years deals mainly with symptoms and many economic prescriptions for change can be regarded as rather mechanistic. Careful application of the "winner -take-afl" version of competition to explaining how farmers' behaviour may have been affected opens the way for deeper analysis.

It has often been said that the culture of North American farming has been built on a foundation of .'rugged individualism" (Fowke, 1947). Certainly, much contemporary treatment of gender roles superimposed on the history of agriculture would suggest that this viewpoint is indeed true at an "organic" level in many rural communities (Penfold, et al., 1990) Farmers do act very independently and have been seen to employ drastic action to maintain or expand output to bolster individual family income in the face of a chronically declining economic situation. They do this without regard to the suggestion that it is this very behaviour which results in chronic over-production, declining prices and, hence, an exacerbation of the individuals' perception that further productivity is the only way out.

Add to the ruggedly individualistic outlook of farmers the fact of geographic (and, hence, social) isolation in their daily lives and another subtle pattern appears. During the post-WWII period, there has been a marked decline in rural communication in an era of explosive growth in communication possibilities provided by technology. Whereas the regular community gatherings typical of 19th and early 20th century agriculture have declined in frequency, there has been an absence of an increase in the use of modern communication technology sufficient to offset it (Bonnen, 1986). Why? Could it be that a belief that 'winner-take-all' -s the only Form of competition that has become ingrained? Such a belief would not foster a desire to share ideas with your neighbours, particularly where income enhancement is the goal.

But what of materialism itself? Is there necessarily a link between "winner-take-all" competition and materialism. I would argue that if such a linkage exists, it is not straightforward. Furthermore, behaviour in rural areas suggests that, if some degree of linkage of this sort does exist in the minds of farmers, it is kept hidden to a large degree. Certainly, materialism itself in the form of "having things' is evidenced in rural communities. Witness the rural population struggling to acquire many of the material accoutrements of urban culture (fashions, housing, personal transportation, tourism, entertainment, etc.). In Canada, material culture also places monetary income high on the list of personal priority. It is particularly interesting to watch how traditional rural values have affected the process of personal acquisition in rural communities (Dillman, 1985). How often has the purchase of a now automobile or the construction of a now house been seen as highly personal and even socially embarrassing in the rural setting? False modesty may be an attempt merely to deny the high position such things actually have on the individual's list of priorities.

Direct linkage of materialistic priorities to notions of competition notwithstanding, the long-run effect of materialism in rural areas has been insidious. It can be argued that the collective mentality of the farming population has, in fact, followed McMurtry's idea of the necessity to compete in a "winner-take-ail" mods. Virtually all who live and work in the country will cite basic human virtues of compassion, helping and caring as distinguishing the rural way of life from its urban counterpart. However, at the same time, it has been seen to be difficult in the extreme for farmers to reach a consensus on the notion that collective action (especially to exercise control over the spiraling race toward increased productivity) is simply a good idea for all concerned (Berg, 1985). Collective actions that have occurred in North American agriculture to control output have almost always been accompanied by some form of coercion (production quotas, import restrictions) on the one hand and pressure by the farming community to increase spending on the development of new agricultural technology on the other (Bonnen, 1983). Paradoxical thinking such as this may itself be evidence of the effect which tacit assumption (i.e. the "necessity' of engaging in "winner-take-all" competition) can have on behaviour when two 'linkable" paradigms are not discussed and, hence, remain unresolved.

On the food consumption side of the transaction, materialism has also been highly evident in the behaviour of food consumers. A shining example is consumers' refusal to tolerate blemished produce. Marketing of fresh produce has become one of the most wasteful systems in society, especially from the natural resources point of view. Ecologically, dangerous chemical technologies are applied to maximize the portion of unblemished produce reaching stores which then, if not sold immediately, finds its way directly to the landfill site (Johnson, 1984). Add to this the phenomenon of highly processed 'convenience foods" that go far beyond .convenience" and enter the realm of fashion. Many such .convenience' items in food stores today appear to be urging consumers to engage in Veblen's "conspicuous consumption" and also to devote a greater portion of their time to "non-food" activity. Perhaps this may also be motivated by a need for 'conspicuous consumption." This process may appear rather silly to the outside observer. Perhaps if the outside observer lives in Russlia, China, India or many other places, "silly" is not the correct word; "tragic" may be better applied when examining North Americans' expressed tendencies toward Veblenesque conspicuous consumption, even in food. Somewhere in all of this must lie some deeply ingrained notions about competition and competitiveness.

The good news is that not all of the rural scene follows the pattern outlined above. There are several examples of collective behaviour in agriculture where the degree of coercion has remained low and also where once formerly high, it is now declining. The history of the pork-producing sector in Ontario is a good example. Also, rural communities still exist where social communication remains at a high level. For example, observe the Mennonite farming communities of Ontario.

Somehow the treadmill of rugged individualism, combined with simplistic notions of competition, must be halted. Pressure on the ecosystem brought about by high output farming, abetted by significant waste throughout the food system, is at such a high level that simply slowing the downward economic spiral in the food system may not be sufficient to assure long-run food security. Given the degree to which the North American agricultural sector result has become interwoven into the global economic fabric, widespread and pervasive social and economic change looms ahead if this problem is to be solved (Fuller et ai., 1989).

To quote McMurtry again:

"Competition is most creative and beneficial when it reduces the gap between winners' payoffs and losers' losses. Good examples of this are Canada's health and higher education systems. These systems are competitive with the best in the world, yet they have achieved their excellence through universal access and a win-win logic."

Everybody is better off when someone also conquers a disease or a research problem or a learning block. This is truly free competition. Everyone stands to gain, not lose by people's competitive successes.

The real winners aren't the ones who manage to got more and more wealth or power for them- selves. They are those who fight to conquer limits to health and under-standing or other adversaries to human and environmental well-being.

Business should follow their example, not try to subordinate our health, education and environment to external payoffs such as more profit."

Whereas in the recent past, economists have been primarily concerned with maximizing behaviour as the only "rational" form, economics is also undergoing a paradigm shift by allowing that human processes of valuation can be, and are, fundamentally influenced by other goais. Perhaps the goal of survival itself will come to be applied at the social level and be seen as part of the change which might be enabled partly by changing our ago-mptiom about competition. In fact, McMurtry offers uniquely Canadian evidence for the effect such seemingly small adjustments can make:

"Our national sport, hockey, is a paradigm of then contrasting forms of competition. In the dominant commercial game, the greater the difference between winner's spoils and loser's losses, the greater are the pathologies of violence, fighting, intimidation, covert violation of the rules and so on."

But in 'free" hockey (as played informally in schools, clubs, etc.), where there are no life-means payoffs -or losses external to the activity itself, these problems rarely, if ever, arise, even with professionals who have been conditioned to the commercial game."

Some key questions facing society in respect of agriculture are: What to do about excessive productivity on the farm relative to nutritional needs? How can waste be reduced in the pathway from food producer to consumer? How can quality of life in rural communities be maintained in the absence of an income earning base? How can environmental problems associated with high-tech agriculture be mitigated?

Presently, some of these questions seem mutually antagonistic, given the way in which competition (especially "winner-take-all") is seen as a necessary ingredient to economic progress. For example, one way to increase farm incomes would be to waste more (not less) in the food distribution chain? Environmental concerns would relegate such logic to the dustbin. Unfortunately, the lid on that dustbin appears to be locked tight. Perhaps the key to environmental success (adequate amounts of healthful food provided in an energy- efficient manner) lies in a deep and careful re-assessment of the role which competition (and perceptions about competition) should be allowed to play in economic life. Beyond that lies discovering the true nature of the linkage between the behavioral aspect of competition with materialistic goals in society. Does materialism foster competitive behaviour or vice-versa? Better understanding of the" relationships may well be the highest priority for solving the downward socio/economic/ environmental spiral currently coming into focus. Part of the widespread realization that present food-supply practices are not sustainable in the long-run might well have begun from observing the frequency with which competition produces bad outcomes for individuals.


Berg, Norman A. (1985) "Preservation of the Nation's Heartland: Past, Present, Future.' The White Memorial Lecture at the University of Guelph.

Bonnen, James T. (1986) "Agriculture in the Information Age." Plenary Address at Agricultural Institute of Canada National Conference, Saskatoon,

Bonnen, James T. 'Historical Sources of U.S. Agricultural Productivity: Implications for R&D Policy and Social Science Research." American Journal of Agricultural Economics 65:(1983)958-66.

Chernichovsky, D. and Sangwill, 1990. "Micro-economic theory of the Household and Nutrition programmes." Food and Nutrition Bulletin, vol, 12, no. 1, pp. 35-52.

Dillman, D.A. (1985) 'The Social Impacts of Information Technologies in Rural North America' Rural Sociology. 50:1-25.

Evanson, R.E., P.E. Waggoner and V.W. Ruttan. "Economic Benefits from Research: An Example from Agriculture." Science. 205: 1101-07.

Fowke, Vernon C. (1947) Canadian Agricultural Policy: The Historical Pattern. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Fuller, Tony, Phillip Ehrensaft and Michael Gertler. "Sustainable Rural Communities in Canada: A Discussion Paper." Canadian Agricultural and Rural Restructuring Group (ARRG). Presented to the First Rural Policy Seminar, Saskatoon, October 19139.

Johnson, G.L. "Ethics, Economics, Energy, and Food Conversion Systems," Chapter 7 in Food and Energy Resources. Eds. David Pimentel and Carl Hall. New York: Academic Press, 1984, pp 147-180, especially pp. 155-157.

Knutson, M. and L.G. Tweeten (1979) "Toward an Optimum Rate of Growth in Agricultural Production Research and Extension. American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 61: 70-76.

McMurtry, John. 'How Competition Goes Wrong in Society," Article in At Guelph, February 26, 1992. Excerpt from Journal of Applied Philosophy, 1991.

Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress. Technology. Public Policy and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture. Washington, D.C., 1986.

Penfold, G., E. Davies, M. Patry, J. Buysman, and J. Schnurr. 'A Framework to Explore - Development Trends and Issues in Rural Ontario." University School of Rural Manning and Development. August 25, 1990.



Wayne C. Pfeiffer, Department of Agricultural Economics and Business, University of Guelph


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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