Provenance in Alternative Food Movements: History
Please note this is an old version of this entry, which may differ significantly from the current revision.

Provenance, as a tool to mobilize place, can re-valorize lost connections and in the course it can contribute towards highly sorted qualitative understanding of food. Driven by the need for a qualitative understanding of food, provenance needs to be taken out from Western cosmology to realize authentic connections. We demonstrated through provenance that how these connections can be authentically cultivated and protected by animistic approaches.

  • ethics
  • economic sociology
  • commodification
  • consumers
  • social movements
  • values

1. Introduction

Economic well-being is progressively extending from simple profit and future financial security towards social spheres, where consumers want to know that if the trade was fair; farmers were not exploited; workers were healthy, safe, and earning a living wage; and that local food sovereignty is not compromised. This extension is realized through the notion of provenance, where geographical authenticity is highlighted by biological fact form. Providing consumer information about the origin of food helps consumers reduce their anxiety about safety, quality, authenticity, ethics, and sustainability through perceptions and knowledge about the spatial, social, and cultural characteristics of that provenance (from field notes 2021). It is unsurprising, therefore, that most food provenance studies have been focused on the spatial meaning of origin and less on social wellbeing, connectedness, and cultural aspects of origin. The holistic significance that consumers attach to food provenance can impact the economic development of local or corporate production companies, farming systems, transport systems, social relations, and has social welfare consequences on local producers, farmer-owners, and their workers[1]. Nevertheless, the concept of provenance can be considered and delivered in isolation, but the consideration of other beyond spatial spheres would provide a more qualitative understanding of food systems, their involved stakeholders, and perhaps the human-nature relationship.

2. Transformation of Marketplaces and Consumer Activism

The major changes in the nature of labor, land, and animal use that transpired in the post-war mid-20th century era raised moral concerns, which increasingly became an issue of significance. For instance, husbandry once meant providing animals with optimal conditions dictated by their biological needs, but as the nature of agriculture deviated to a more industrial enterprise animal welfare became a subsidiary issue[2]. In the ongoing discourse, the engagement with consumption ethics can be seen as an outcome of the dialectical tension between globalization, big corporates, long chains of mass production and localization, small farmers, ethical and sustainable production[3][4]. Concomitantly, neoclassical economists saw this progressive loss of connection as an opportunity to simply see self-interested behavior and build “institutionally separate” economies, promoting the organization of production by the market, which has institutional foundations in commodification. Fueled by a lack of knowledge of production systems[5], the consequent permissive environment helped large-scale industrialization and globalization of food supply chains to emerge. This lengthening of mainstream supply chains inevitably created significant issues or externalities in the market highlighted by food scandals; loss of trust; worsening conditions for small farmers; unethical practices; or other individual reasons, such as health issues. Such an economic system assumes land, labor, and money as “elements of industry” and are subject to market mechanisms of production, sale, price signals, supply and demand, and exchange through buyer and seller[6]. This separation of the market as a principle from the market as a place motivated by factors of “purely economic” or “market forces” in nature[7], which broke the thread linking consumers and producers and created opportunities for fetishization. The original meaning of the word market was a marketplace, described by both a geographic place and a localized set of social institutions.

The followed expansion of the self-regulated market to accommodate labor, land, and money as commodities spurred self-protection in society, as the two cannot be separated either conceptually or empirically[8]. In reaction, a protective response is observed in the form of “shopping and supporting local” through food miles, farmers-market, low footprints, or alternatives, which may include diet and lifestyle change or a decision to fully engage with provenance features of foodstuffs.

2. Meaning of Provenance in Indigenous and non-Indigenous rational

The indigenous perspective of food provenance offers important insights about its multi-dimensional woven universe, which has never fragmented its long traditions with the “living web of the world”[9][10]. Informed by the primary driver of the embeddedness concept and thus rejecting the alleged demarcation between economic and social phenomena, this methodological principle is taken to discern the changing place of the economy in alternative food movements. Moreover, food is sold as a part of an experience[11], or a lifestyle[12] where a passion or family tradition and collectivist values (For instance, the provisioning of food by back-to-the-landers and freegans via tapping into pre-capitalist subsistence patterns is a constructed vision that is shared by those using this term[13].

Considering the self-regulated formalist economy as an outcome of a society whose modernist construct opposes the relational understanding, Reid and Rout (2016) argued that provenance would be likely to remain a marketing tool in such a society until we understood and conceptualize provenance using indigenous cosmology. Building on this argument, a concept of animism is explored that counters the abstraction by bringing a relational understanding of the world and can empower provenance. The fundamental principle of animism, especially new animism is that “life is always lived in a relationship with others”, and this notion refers to a concern of knowing how to behave appropriately towards different natural entities, where some of them are humans[14]. The relational well-being metaphor of indigenous thinking, for instance, the Māori values and activities in which air, land, water, or fire are culturally and spiritually connected[15], helps bridge this Cartesian division[16] and have been the recent focus of the Te Taiao/Environment movement in Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZ).

A recent modern movement that houses a similar underlying indigenous meaning of worldview is deep ecology, which challenges humans’ superiority over nature and favors the decentralization of humans in ethics and theory via posthumanism. a new epistemology that is not anthropocentric and does not pose humans as coherent, singular, and external to beings considered “of nature”, such as other animals, and from “naturalized humans,” such as indigenous peoples[17][18]. This deep ecology concept includes a holistic principle, which states that relations between entities are more important than the entities themselves, and reality should be conceived as an intricate web where our self should include all other living beings. Similar conception can be found in many cultures, such as the Garo tribal people of India worship of the sun and moon, which is characterized by their naturalism[19], Aymara of Andes perform rituals to Pachamama through offerings involving special arrangements of coca leaves and maize and likewise for the Māori of ANZ, through the use of mauri stones[20], whakapakoko rākau (god sticks)[21] and first yield crop sacrifices to the atua (deities). 

The non-indigenous meaning of provenance favors reductionism and the simplifying strategies of this approach meshed well with the ecological and social simplicity of standardized provenance systems in terms of objective biological facts of spatial or geographical identity. Several examples of this type of pairing can be found in the related contexts, such as mono-cropping, the green revolution, individual health and stress management, and others[22][23]. A fragmented visualization of well-being in non-indigenous notions focuses only on the “wellness” half of well-being via practicing individual biological facts but does not address the root causes. Likewise, the machine metaphor of non-indigenous notions limits cognition regarding “sustainability” because its modeling frames nature as predictable and controllable[24] as well as locating place as out-of-sight and beyond comprehension.

An operational definition of provenance, employed by modern entities, tends to treat provenance as an objective quantitative fact by providing information such as the country of origin (COO), greenhouse gas or water use footprints, agrobiodiversity, and in situ conservation indexes. The use of explicit governance and a varied range of certifications such as the use of Denominazione di Origine Controllate (Italy)/Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (France) for wine, and ethical and environmental accreditations (including certificates of Organic farming practice, Fairtrade, and biodynamic methodologies), and third party certifications to establish authenticity represent this contemporary approach[12].

The contribution of the Experimentalism and Progressivism schools of thought into the aforementioned non-indigenous concepts should not be overlooked, as experimentalism education emphasizes inquiry, consensus, and process rather than authentic freedom[25]. The Experimentalist scientifically tests solutions to environmental problems and is primarily concerned with gathering factual evidence, while Existentialism tries to find answers by responding emotionally to the environment. The problem-centered notion of Experimentalism and Progressivism represent a detached way of dealing with human experiences, where a “low-conflict” rapport with others (in society) is the governing principle. In the 18th century, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment invoked the idea of a formalist economy by arguing that people’s activities in the economic realm, especially their dealings with others, should not be tainted by sentiment[26]. This notion of the self-regulating and dis-embedded nature of market exchange and market economy, so-called neoclassical economics, reflects Polanyi’s embeddedness concept[6]. The merchants of the 18th century created the factory system through the introduction of “elaborate specific machinery and plant”[27], which intensified specialization and a continuous supply of production factors[6]. Complementing the demand of big business and mass production, Experimentalism and Progressivism emphasized the need for quantitative, fragmented measures to fit precisely into the scheme of the organization. The concept of provenance is much broader than merely the geographic domain of place, and thus, confining it into one dimension alone is nothing more than pandering to the belief system of neoclassical economists. This said, provenance can be explained without reference to the values, simply based on objective biological facts, led by a formalist economy, but this would create perturbations among producers, mediators, consumers and would be eventually lost to capitalism and commercialization.

3. Provenance and Its Interaction with Place and Terroir

The notion of place is to bring together but the operating principles resting in traditional food supply chains face the paradox of place-disruption[8] since foundations of the traditional food supply chain are based on “thinning out the conceptualization of place”[28]. The corporatization of agriculture and commodification of nature diminished the physical interaction of consumers with the place and practices, resulting in disconnection in the value of what people grow and eat[29]. Given the problematic socioeconomic impacts of disconnection, the agrifood sector is testing new ways of engaging the place in businesses. Food provenance is very much driven by geographical indications (GIs) and traceability measures, supported by PDO and PGI[1]. Simultaneously, however, it seems that consumers who are buying local are not actually buying local in the detached objective biological fact form offered by conventional markets or sometimes by alternatives, instead they are opting for communion.

In-place human values, experienced by consumers in the context of alternative, roots production in particular places. Hence, provenance, which is often manifested through GIs, should be fundamentally tied to the notion of place. To preserve the link to place, provenance employs a specific set of rules, manifested through regulations and certifications, to protect the in-place values developed over time. However, simultaneously the danger of abstraction of some of those moral experiences of producers by the currently dominant conventional market system is massive. In the realm of abstraction, these in-place human values transform to in-place beautifications, which are hand-picked, regulated, and articulated mischievously by those involved in the current hegemonic market system.  Continuous embedding practices, manifesting through place-specific moral-economic complexities, reinforce the feeling of community among actors and enable the notion of preservation using a distinct sense of place[12][30]. Through horizontal linkages, prevalent in short food supply chains (SFSCs), these embedding practices foster trust-based relations between actors, and thus, they ensure more value of the product to the producer and a closer connection between producers, processors, and consumers[31][32].

SFSCs rely on the interaction, communication, and connection between producers and consumers; thereby, reinforcing the notions of social capital[33]. This increased interaction[34]  gradually approaches a stage of mutual respect and trust, which is not apparent in contemporary extended chains assuring trust through regulations[35]. An embedded food system provides opportunities to reduce the distance between abstract ethics, regulated by certifications, and the moral experiences of producers to help consumers engage in ethical and sustainable food practices[36]. In return, this favors decentralization and shared values. Since in-place values are unique to the territory, referring to provenance rather than place would be of no significance to the producers and indeed regulators.

Similar to place, terroir is an ambiguous and multifaceted concept, articulating the uniqueness of local produce by imbuing them with exclusive, quality-warranting connotations and properties[37][38]. Terroir is a powerful controller of the perceived enjoyment of tradition, history, memory, people, and product, which can be independent of the intrinsic sensory characteristics of the product. Terroir is the guidance of the place on the product, both biophysical and socio-cultural characteristics, and its resulting sensory distinctiveness, whereas provenance conforms to authenticity[39]. Provenance serves as an intermediary to experience terroir and both of them need to work in tandem for creating the wine-place experience. Bowen (2010) wrote that “(sic) GIs are fundamentally tied to the notion of terroir. GIs are a potential tool used by local actors to counter negative effects of globalization”. Consumers who learned to rely on provenance to predict wine quality are willing to pay a premium price for these products. Globalization made terroir typicality accreditation increasingly popular and provenance offers unique artisanal advantages for agricultural products against mass-produced industrial foods.

Since 2011 several New Zealand wine producers have chosen to embrace the Māori concept of tūrangawaewae (lit. “a place to stand”; the Māori conceptualization of belonging to place) instead of terroir, simultaneously adding location, place, “New Zealandness” and indigenous expression and interpretation to the buyer[40]. Generally, policies administered under western cosmology tends to “environmentalize” issues and tends to put emphasis on the patches of nature (such as in situ conservation) and short-term economic gains rather than focusing on the population outside or within targeted regions, which coevolve with these environments. Informed by the fact that the indigenous world has many strategies and that they are embedded within the immediate cosmology, both terroir and tūrangawaewae can be seen as epistemologies comprehending or appreciating the immediate nature. Similar epistemology can be found among Incas, who made observations relevant to the agricultural cycle within the local geographic context[41]. Likewise, Māori’s cognitive template, whakapapa includes a folk taxonomy of the culturally important biota in a particular place[42]. Since being Māori is different from the cultural construct that is French, the mere replacement of terroir with tūrangawaewae as a marketing tool poses ontological problems. The question of being in an ontological sense is critical here and epistemology must be in the service of ontology[43][23]. It is crucial to understand how each culture appropriates nature. Simultaneously, the finite niche markets of such nature pose economic vulnerabilities[44] since questions of appropriation, assimilation, dilution, and ignorance of the epistemologies have a bearing on their use. Māori knowledge and worldview mediate the relation between the tangata (people) and the whenua (land) of Aotearoa. Until agencies fulfilling functions of international development and funding as well as the state recognize the key connections between culture, production (indigenous or capitalistic) and nature, most of the influential propositions of the development apparatus with respect to provenance or ethics will only have short-term effects.

4. The Need for an Indigenous Construct in Provenance

For indigenous producers, the relationship with the land as “First Nations”, “Aboriginal”, “First Peoples”, or “Tangata whenua” (lit. “People of the land” in the Māori language), defines them, not as food producers, but as people operating within a relationship with the soil which stretches back over centuries or even millennia. Theirs is a relationship informed by ancient tribal wisdom, indigenous science (often communicated through oral tradition), relationships with the gods influencing the animist imperatives, and an innate sense of “belonging” defined by their long history and attachment through ancestral relationships and heritage. To be an indigenous producer or entrepreneur is to be the inheritor of tradition and lore, a modern manifestation of ancient (and often misunderstood or mischaracterized as “savage” or “barbarous”) ways and an unsteady, ill-defined bridge between modern and ancient ways of doing and thinking.

 An indigenous producer must somehow live in two worlds, their own worldview, remaining cognizant of heritage, tradition, ancient teachings, and the cultural imperative not to leave their peoples behind; and the modern world which demands provenance, sustainability, uniqueness[45], labels, food safety, gene patenting, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and consistent supply levels and packaging. An indigenous approach could provide an alternative means of provenance food[9], such as mahinga kai (the traditional Ngāi Tahu term referring to foods from the tākiwa (tribal area), of Ngāi Tahu Ahikā Kai business model, which was envisioned to protect and promote traditional relationships with mahinga kai by supporting sustainable commercial development[45]. The Ahikā Kai system was developed to provide branding, accreditation, and traceability solutions for the sale of mahinga kai. Food marketers, in a contemporary approach, are selling provenance as the representations of people and places, which disparages from an animist approach that seeks to connect consumers into human and non-human networks of personal relationships, and making Anthropocene less anthropocentric[46]. In other words, it is a case of image versus substance.

This entry is adapted from the peer-reviewed paper 10.3390/socsci10070255


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