'Efficiency' vs. Good Food
by Natasha Chart, Sun Aug 19, 2007 at 11:46:55 AM EDT
"There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." - Peter Drucker
The industrial revolution has elevated efficiency to a virtue in itself. Turned to food production, that has meant a model that favors as few people as possible producing as much as possible of one or a few things. More staple crops; industrial grade corn for corn syrup, wheat destined to be dehulled, unbranned, and bleached of anything good that remained after. It's all about the calories, and we produce a lot of them.
Meanwhile, those excess, low quality calories never seem to quite satisfy. There are snacks everywhere we turn, sugar in everything we buy processed, and this wash of calories is making this country sick.
The same goes for meats. Pasture raised, grass fed meat is healthier; lower in calories, lower in fat, and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids. Also, it tastes better and the texture is very nice. It's satisfying.
Yet efficiency demands abundance of those things that are easier to produce, and so between 1985-2000, the cost of soft drinks dropped by 23% and the costs of fats and oils dropped by 15%, while the costs of fresh fruits and vegetables went up by a whopping 38%. (Dan Imhoff, FoodFight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill)
Many people looking at our agricultural market immediately leap to blame subsidies, and that's part of it. It's true that it's been the policy of the government since at least the Nixon administration to encourage farmers to get big or get out, and subsidies have been a large part of helping large farms outcompete smaller farms, often unfairly. Yet subsidies are also symptoms of a larger problem, and that is the concentrated and monopolistic middlemen of agribusiness, who no longer have to pay farmers enough to cover the costs of production.
Can you think of any other industry that routinely, as a matter of course, pays below production costs for their raw inputs? It's corporate welfare on a scale most people have never imagined. And it's all in service to efficiently concentrating production in fewer and fewer hands, while producing poorer and poorer quality food, and destroying even more of the environment. Yet it's a situation that Congress could begin to remedy without having to either stop subsidies or spend a lot of money.
The main problem is that effective agricultural monopolies (Sen. Harkin's office, pdf) make for regions of the country where a farmer has only one potential buyer. Either that, or their shipping costs become astronomical. Further, concentration within the industry continues to close more small processing plants in the name of efficiency, increasing costs anyway and further locking growers in to a narrow menu of business partners.
Because of the power they have over the markets, which they're using to squeeze consumers and farmers, alike, most agribusiness companies engage in highly anti-competitive practices. They don't post public prices. They manipulate market rates. They often control the prices of all relevant farm inputs, as well as the price of the finished product, using the grower as a sharecropping serf. And they can get away with this because they include mandatory arbitration clauses in agricultural contracts (as supported by the Bush Dogs) that have barred the courthouse door to farmers, freeing the companies to engage in harsh retaliation when farmers try to form associations to improve their bargaining positions.
All of these factors push small, diversified farms out of business. They have to then sell or lease their land to more centralized operations that efficiently churn out more junk food and less nutrition every year, year after year.
Our corporate agricultural system is every bit as poorly run as the communist central planning disasters of Mao and Stalin, but slightly less efficient. Hence, people aren't starving just yet. Though can you really say that someone for whom the only readily available foods are soda, chips, hot dogs and pizza is well nourished? Not so much.
But it doesn't have to be like this. Small farms, given fair markets, are competitive. Given access to local consumers, they can churn out a cornucopia of fresh variety. Given the power to stand as equals under the law with the corporations who are profiting from public ill health and farmer insolvency, they could start responding to market signals from consumers who are demanding more fresh produce and pasture raised meat. They could even outcompete the concentrated animal feeding operations and corporate monocrops, farming models that are only kept going because they're massively subsidized.
So please, call your Senators, and ask them to support the Competition Title (which may also be called the Livestock Title), for inclusion in the Senate version of the Farm Bill. Ask for public pricing, a ban on packer ownership, mandatory country of origin labeling, and an end to mandatory arbitration in agricultural contracts. It'd be only the barest of blips on the budget (they'll have to hire special counsel at the USDA to enforce the laws) and has the power to completely transform what we eat and how farmers make their livings.