November 11, 2005

Busch: Food Certification Changes World Economy

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Third party certification, growing prominent in the food sector, is transforming the world economy, according to Prof. Lawrence M. Busch Ph.D ’74, who spoke on the topic yesterday in Warren Hall.

Busch, sociobiology, Michigan State University, says a domino effect has resulted from the creation of the World Trade Organization, the rise of new social movements and the devolution, or deregulation, of the state. Many new organizations have been formed in an effort to protect the environment, assist disadvantaged workers and protect the consumer.

This has caused a shifting in the strategies of supermarkets, which has created private supermarket standards and thus the need for third party certification of food.

These third parties are imposing new opportunities and demands on producers.

Third parties are independent of both the buyer and the seller. Their duty is to inspect the product and the means of production.

Although the consumer only sees the sign of certification, much more goes into this process than just adhering a sticker onto a product. However, there is dispute over the nature of the science behind such inspection. Busch commented on the “staged character of public scientific performances,” with marked differences between lab science and public or regulatory science. The market is then seen as “a tale of two performances.” This combination of techno-science and economics can be enhanced by setting thresholds, justifying decisions and legitimatizing practices.

Busch said that level, two-dimensional economic playing fields have turned into three-dimensional supply chain playing fields. Competitive food marketing with only local monopolies has turned into national and international oligopolies with price competition only in retail, he added. Markets and techno-science must come together to redesign these supply chains.

A tangible result, Busch said, of this process is the appearance of numerous logos on products serving as a certification of different aspects of their production, such as environmental friendliness or appropriate treatment and pay to workers. Another result is the proliferation of company brand products, such as Marks and Spencer brand goods in the United Kingdom or Target brand goods in the United States.

Karin Rosberg, a member of Good Agricultural Practices, said that the third party certification is “definitely something that you see in the stores.”

Busch gave as an example the alliance between Wal-Mart and the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club encourages environmentally friendly packaging on Wal-Mart goods and Wal-Mart, in turn, reduces production costs and is able to portray an image of being “the good guy.” A third party, independent of Wal-Mart and the Sierra Club, is needed to confirm that the result is truly environmentally amiable. Prof. Joe Francis, development sociology, said that “Larry is one of the leaders in the field of food distribution and he has great visions that should be paid attention to …. He has an international reputation and has published nine books.”

Busch said “it is nice to be back.” He said he hopes that people do not think he is too crazy for what he discussed. He added that he is merely discussing it, not necessarily acting on his beliefs.

The lecture was the last in this semester’s Polson Institute for Global Development seminar series.

Archived article by Dana Mendelowitz
Sun Contributor