In their drive to provide abundance, mass markets suppress variety. Far from enriching a culture, mass markets can impoverish it…
One of the benefits of modern mass markets is supposed to be the proliferation of choices. The modern consumer can choose from so many things available on a variety of platforms, be it off or online. This ability to select from plenty is considered one of the marvels of modern economy.
However, there is another side to the matter that is not often explored. In their drive to provide abundance, mass markets suppress variety. When providing many choices, they tend to offer the same universal options everywhere. Far from enriching a culture, mass markets can impoverish it.
Such a thesis might appear heretical to those who defend classic economic theory that affirms modern markets supply anything, anytime and anywhere. Such defenders would claim this availability represents an explosion, not an implosion, of culture.
Hard to Prove the Contrary
What complicates this debate is the preconception that pre-industrial markets found in Christian civilization were so limited. The overpowering efficiency of mass markets indicts both Christian civilization and pre-industrial society. Those who criticize modern markets are often forced into silence in the face of the overwhelming evidence of how modern production and distribution networks supply our needs.
Then suddenly, a straightforward and refreshing example appears that proves the contrary: pre-industrial markets were not limited at all. In fact, they were incredibly rich.
The Apple: An Expressive Example
One very expressive example is that of the simple apple.
Apples have been bought and sold from time immemorial. By looking at how they are sold in pre-modern times and now, we can make a judgment on the matter.
As it stands now, we can buy apples anywhere during any season. In the off-season, apples can be shipped in from other parts of the world. Cold storage techniques extend the life of the apple for a good amount of time.
Thus far, we can say modern apple markets do make apples available longer to a greater number of Americans all the time. However, the matter becomes more difficult when we look at exactly what is available to us.
The first thing that is notable is that most apples in America are not local apples. A full two-thirds of all apples are harvested in Washington State.
The second observation is that the varieties of apples available are very limited. In fact, some ninety percent of the market is made up of only fifteen types. Of those, the Red Delicious apple occupies the top position. These choices are predetermined by producers who adjust them according to their needs of production, shipping, and storage.
Thus, while the availability of apples is great in industrial society, the variety is depressingly poor. Most people are given these same choices nationwide with rarely a local apple in sight.
The comparison must then be made based on what the pre-industrial apple market looked like. The first fact is that that apples were grown all over the country with each region specializing in the apples that grew best in the area.
A recent New York Times article reports the second astonishing fact that some 17,000 varieties of apples were grown in North America over the past last few centuries.
There was an enormous variety, a wonder-world of apples, to suit every need and taste. While not everyone had access to all 17,000 varieties, no two regions experienced the same 15 modern choices. The choices were determined by those who lived in the locality. We can say that apple selection enriched the area and the culture.
Where Have All the Apples Gone?
In the face of these facts, we must then ask where all the apples have gone. We need to look at why we have been reduced to fifteen varieties in ninety percent of the cases. We need to know what has happened to the other 16,985 varieties not represented in nearly all supermarkets.
The good news is that many varieties are still around. They are raised in small orchards and sold at roadside stands and farmers markets. The bad news is that 13,000 varieties have disappeared forever and are no longer grown.
What killed these 13,000 varieties? Perhaps some blight or mysterious disease swept over the country in the early twentieth century?
The Industrialized Apple
The answer is very tragic. There was no blight. Mass markets killed these apple varieties.
When industrialization invaded agriculture at the beginning of last century, many small apple orchards, which were commonly part of small family farms, were pulled up. Only those varieties that could adapt well to industrial processes survived. Apples that were apt to bruise were not saved. Likewise, those which did not travel or store well were not valued. Still others failed to make the cut because they did not produce enough apples per tree.
Over time, the 17,000 varieties once grown were largely reduced to the fifteen. Even these survivors are not safe from the relentless search to engineer the perfect apple. The key word is “engineer,” since it is a scientific exercise to maximize return on investment, not necessarily to enhance the taste. New varieties like Cosmic Crisp are super-productive, store, and travel better. They are gradually replacing the big fifteen. Some scientists are even trying to develop varieties that reduce the time needed to produce mature trees from years to months.
What Was Lost
However, in the race to produce the most profit-efficient apple, much apple culture was lost. A way of life was lost as the landscape changed.
Apples once grew all over the country. Regarding culture, the regional character of consumption was altered since many of the lost varieties grew best in the area, in its climate and soil. Even the means of producing new varieties were lost, since many of these came about by the chance cross-pollination of neighboring orchards. A local apple could become part of the culture of a region since it was prized by the inhabitants as their own.
Even the names of varieties were picturesque and evocative of people and place. A 1905 book, The Apples of New York, lists numerous state varieties. We find Grimes Golden Apples described as “beautiful, rich, golden-yellow, attractive in form and excellent either for dessert or culinary use.” There is the Winter Banana Apple which is “large, clear pale yellow with beautiful contrasting pinkish-red blush, characteristically aromatic, of good dessert quality.” And what to think about the Twenty Ounce apple? It is “highly esteemed for home use, large, attractive, green becoming yellowish with broad strips and splashes of red, moderately tender, juicy.”
These 17,000 different tastes enriched the American apple scene and developed a healthy regionalism. These same apples also figured in apple products that likewise enhanced a locale and its traditions. They would lend their distinctive flavors to all sorts of variations of apple cider, vinegar, butter, brandy, strudel and the classic American apple pie.
It is amazing to think how much the simple apple added to our culture. It is sad to imagine how much was lost when the distinct flavors of 13,000 varieties have faded out of existence.
Not Only Apples
The influence of a product on culture is not limited to apples. In what can be called an organic society, there is a natural link between a locality, its people and products. This is contrary to the frenetic intemperance of a society that focuses only on money and efficiency with no connection to a locality or its people.
Thus, we should imagine a whole society where distinctive local foods, clothes, and products are each represented by thousands of varieties. It is said, for example, that the flavor of local grit corn was so distinctive in the South that people could tell where they were by the taste of the grits.
No amount of marketing can replace truly organic foods that are rooted in a region and its tradition.
Did it Have to Happen?
Some might dismiss these considerations as nostalgic musing about the past that ignores modern day reality. They claim that the market may be brutal but nevertheless must be respected.
We would respond that the devastation of apples did not need to happen the way it did. Local cultures could have flourished with full respect for markets. There are certain niche markets like craft beers that are proof that the local can be highly competitive.
Indeed, we must also recognize that massive centralized markets rarely operate on purely fair market principles. Government subsidies, local tax privilege packages, and burdensome socialist regulations made to benefit big suppliers and vast distribution systems have certainly helped keep the market gigantic to the detriment of the small producer.
A Moral not Economic Problem
However, what devastated the apple market was much more a moral problem than an economic one. When people reject moral restraints and insist upon instant gratifications of their desires, it throws markets out of balance. It leads societies to forsake the natural restraining influence of family, faith and community that keep economies refreshingly local and impressively stable.
The breakdown of family and community especially since the sixties played a major role in this devastation. When individuals are no longer anchored in families and communities, there can be no true local economy since it must rest upon the work of generations and a reverence for place. People without roots choose the product that is most convenient or inexpensive.
People with roots are loyal to them. They naturally prefer products with which they have a link and participation as they are part of their history. People appreciate the distinctive local flavors that come from the soil, climate or their own inventiveness.
Above all, true localism consists of the human element. People have the joy of living together and sharing the things they love…including apples. This is what gives rise to the cultural treasures so amazingly expressed by 17,000 apple varieties.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (May 2017).
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