The intensification of global flows of natural commodities (e.g. food, medicinal and aromatic substances), the increasingly contested relations between food production and consumption, and the growing politicization and medicalization linking foodways to social identities are subjects of considerable interest for a center focusing on global transformations. Changing patterns of global and urban consumption and the dynamics of agricultural production in the Global South have been mutually interdependent. They have shaped much of the interaction between continents, and between colonizers and colonized, as well as between slaves, coolies, smallholders or agro-industrial workers and globally operating companies. Ethnic, national and class identities have been shaped by the flows of natural commodities, especially food, between producers and consumers.
During the so-called Age of Discovery and the incorporation of Asia, Africa and the Americas into the sphere of European consumerism, “a deluge of new substances” (Mintz 1985) was experienced in Europe, and also in non-European societies, through the actions of colonialism, forced labour, and plantation economies (“Columbian exchange”). Nowadays such flows have become de-centered, with luxury foods being produced in the South, disseminated along South-South linkages as well as to the Global North. Food habits of various origins are being exported throughout the globe, and are closely linked to the spread of urban centers. At the same time, a thorough “supermarketization” can be observed in many parts of the Global South, in which investment capital often comes from members of transnationally operating investors. Packaged and standardized food is increasingly identified as the food of choice in urban areas of the Global South. The food patterns of the urban elite are being adapted by urban proletariats and then communicated to rural areas. A growing urban middle class in the Global South is driving comprehensive changes in food patterns. Creative urban agriculture is rising, as a livelihood strategy for the urban poor as well as a means of supplying “trend food” for the urban middle classes (Drescher and Gerold 2010, Foeken and Owur 2008).
Today, production is strongly determined by the diffusion of international product and process standards, powerful global players and dynamic but volatile markets (Dannenberg and Nduru 2013, Ouma 2010). The resulting spatial decoupling of agricultural production and consumption (Fader et al. 2013), large-scale land-grabbing (Daniel and Mittal 2009) and rising speculation on food prices (Ghosh 2009) has led to increasing food insecurity for poor populations. Nonetheless, international trade also provides opportunities for players in the Global South to benefit from globalization, e.g. through implemented Corporate Social Responsibility standards, fair trade schemes or use of ethnic labels of various kinds (Neilson and Pritchard 2010). Our core hypothesis is that farmers and producers of food in the Global South have long been, and are today ever more, situated in an environment of competition and tension, having to negotiate between local provisioning rooted in their own traditions, meeting the demands of the rising middle classes in urban areas, and producing for global markets. Each of these markets has its own, sometimes strikingly distinct quality standards, demands, business routines (conventions), consumption patterns, etc. Locally, these tensions are frequently concentrated in or around river and delta areas, tropical wetlands and coastal waters. Here, so-called agro hubs or high-intensity farming systems have been developed, where the various, diverging interests of multiple stakeholders immediately compete, partly clash. The intensification of food production in some agro-hubs goes along with processes of de-agrarization in other areas, leading to different regimes of rural-urban migration and interaction (Greiner and Sakdapolrak 2013).
Based on these considerations, this research area studies historical and contemporary “flows” of nutritious and medicinal (aromatic etc.) substances and their impact on societies, ecologies and power relations across the world from the eighteenth century to the present. Bollig, Braun, Greiner and Kraas are studying more recent economic, social and cultural changes in the Global South. Their ongoing work focuses, for example, on issues such as food security and labour relations in agroindustrial centers (Bollig/Greiner), power relations and standards in global value/commodity chains (Braun/Bollig) and processes, strategies and path dependencies of urban agriculture (Kraas/Greiner). Stefanie Gänger’s work focuses on the identification, harvest, and distribution of cinchona, a plant-based remedy from the Andes effective against malaria, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The aim of the proposed research area is a comparative study on selected commodity chains of natural substances (especially food, but also medicinal and aromatic substances) and the localized processes of change they induce.