Generally speaking a commodity is a homogeneous product offered for sale without any significant element of differentiation from its closest cousin. In the world of apples, until about thirty years ago, there were red and yellow apples in your average grocery store. There was very little different about them beyond color and very few consumers that actually cared. Ironically, decades before that (say the mid-30s or 40s) provincial culture and local food systems gave people their local ‘favorites’ in terms of tomatoes or apples. We lost that when big business stepped in after World War II and streamlined the food world into a one-size-fits-all recipe. Then in the 70s, pioneering apple growers introduced the Granny Smith, Gala, and Fuji from around the world. These introductions set the apple world on its ear and blazed the path for many more new, exciting varieties to be commonly found on supermarket shelves. This trend has led to resurgence in interest in heirloom varieties of apples, tomatoes, melons, and more. But this interest, if unmonitored, is a threat to long-term value if uncaring interests get involved and commodify these wonderful culinary creatures for a quick, and big, buck.
I have to be careful here because the root word commodity has very specific meanings to very specific disciplines. For the sake of this blog, commodity means the lowest common denominator; a market level without value except as applies to volume and price. Bordeaux wines are not a commodity; jug wines are. Even though each commands a certain price and exists in certain volumes in the marketplace, the ones with the true value are the Bordeauxs. And this value goes directly to the artisanal—and non-homogeneous—qualities of the product. Even here the threat of commodification is real; witness the fraudlent and criminal production and/or relabeling of cheap wines as high priced Bordeaux gems. What’s one to do?
Very few recent debates surrounding issues of organic vs. conventional, fair trade vs. sustainable; local vs. global; organic vs. local provide robust discussions of culinary and artisanal qualities of the food we’re all talking about. Even fewer tell you what to do about it. Yet, without asking writers beg the reader (aka consumer) to dig deeper. Peel back that onion. In other words, do you know who’s growing your food? Where they’re growing or producing it? Or even how they’re growing it?
There are many scrupulous global producers and traders of farm products all around the world. Equally, there are numerous local producers just waiting to take advantage of recent trends even though they (i.e., the producers) have no ethical or moral direction. The only way to retain sanity and meaning for terms like local, organic and fair trade is to reconnect the consumer with the producer. Introduce them to the artisan, their products, and farm. And the only way to do that is to put real value back into our food system and decommodify (or elevate from commodity levels) our food to a place in people’s hearts and minds that means something positive, and real, and truthful. So what if you grow Red Delicious? Grow it right, make it yours, and let people know about it. The real value is in the producer’s effort and imagination to bring you real food, right now!