Processing/Distribution

Distribution can similarly be thought of in terms of scale, method, and character (like production). The same caveat about dichotomies goes here, but we can still consider these aspects. For scale, we’d wonder: how far are a farm’s products distributed? In some cases, foods are exported from one country as raw materials, processed in another into a packaged good, and then sent back to the original exporting country. In other cases, products might be processed on the farm and sold directly to a consumer. In terms of character, foods’ distribution is either capitalist (directed towards purchasers based only on considerations of profit-making potential) or non-capitalist. As an example of the latter, we could include the distribution within a household of foods grown in the family allotment garden or farm, or the barter of foods from one gardener to another, or foods provided by a government program to the poor. As a tendency (but not a rule!), peasant farms produce foods that are distributed more often through local and regional markets, rather than exported internationally. By nature, the character of distribution is always based in social relationships, but whether and to what extent these relationships are mediated through money exchange (or not) makes a difference and is worth paying attention to.

There are as many methods of distribution as there are forms of transportation and ways of organizing them. Some new urban farm projects are experimenting with local food distribution, based on bicycle power. The Vermont Sail Freight project has been delivering small-farm-raised products down the Hudson River to urban centers like New York City. For decades after food began to be industrially produced, these industrial products were mostly delivered by railroad. Later, gas/oil-driven engines became more prevalent and trucking overcame rail (some countries have more well developed rail infrastructure, so this isn’t true across the board).

As part of the food system, processing is somewhere between production and distribution—probably it’s closer to production, but since the “production” blog post was already so long I’ll put it here ☺. At times, processing makes distribution possible, as in when fish is packed in oil or salt in order to make it “shelf-stable”. Processing can range from small-scale to large, and can range from using very simple technologies (like canning, which requires only cans, lids, water, and heat), to modern “food science” techniques of altering raw food products (like corn) into many chemical constituent compounds. These numerous compounds are used in many food products: corn, for example, is used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup, Maltodextrin, Sorbitol, Xantham Gum, Citric Acid, and much more. Some crops are also “flexible”, meaning they can be used as foods, but also as industrial products like fuels, lubricants, and fibers. This is one example of how food systems are never separate from other parts of society: corn, soybeans, sugar cane, and palm oil are all products that are now spread around the world serving both food and non-food uses—all due to the power of processing.

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