'Efficiency' vs. Good Food

"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.

Tags: Agriculture, competition, food, Subsidies (all tags)

Comments

12 Comments

Re: 'Efficiency' vs. Good Food

What you seem to be saying is that we're seeing a rise of effective agricultural monopolies as smaller processing plants are pushed out of existence by larger, more centralized ones.

As a fan of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," I am interested in what role USDA regulations play in pushing smaller processing plants out of existence as well.  Current regulations prevent farmers from having processing plants, considered manufacturing, on their farms, which are zoned agricultural.  Michael Pollan also highlights difficulties for smaller processing plants because of the burden of USDA regulations; apparently all processing plants have to have a separate bathroom for the USDA inspector.  For a small plant, the cost of construction and equipping an additional bathroom is an unnecessary added cost.

by FreedomDemocrat 2007-08-19 12:12PM | 0 recs
Re: 'Efficiency' vs. Good Food

My doctor recommended that I switch to organic foods several years ago, for health reasons.

An added plus: there's often a noticable improvement in flavor.

Organic apples, for instance, actually taste like apples. The crisp and tasty apples I remember from childhood, before apples were hybrid to death by agribusiness.

Supermarket apples have become tastless bloated, mealy, and mushy affairs -- a waste of time to buy, since I can't be bothered to finish one beyond the first disappointing bite.

I also prefer my meat hormone-free.

At least in my state, the small organic farmer is doing well, there's demand for his product.

by judybrowni 2007-08-19 12:17PM | 0 recs
Re: 'Efficiency' vs. Good Food

I don't think subsidies are a problem per se.  The problem is in enforcing subsidy limits which big farming evades by splitting operations into smaller farm units.  The administration sets limits but does not provide funds to hire the "cops" to enforce; it's kind of the same story as No Child Left Behind.

We have had subsidy programs since the depression and they generally have worked well to keep small farmers on the farm rather than have corporate farms owned by financial institutions.  Subsidies have prevented overproduction and stabilized farm prices thereby providing a reliable supply of farm products and helping farmers to survive a bad crop year.

We need to hire more agriculture inspectors and prosecute large corporations who are fraudulently milking the system.  I believe the fines levied on the lawbreakers would more than pay for such an inspection program.

by lobo charlie 2007-08-19 12:23PM | 0 recs
Re: 'Efficiency' vs. Good Food

I think subsidies are a problem depending on what problem you're looking at.

Is it a problem to subsidize corn and ignore most fruits and vegetables?

I would say yes.

If you want to look only at if small farmers are surviving or not, the type of crops we subsidize doesn't really matter.  But if you want to look at the diet of our nation, I do think subsidies matter.

by FreedomDemocrat 2007-08-19 12:26PM | 0 recs
Re: 'Efficiency' vs. Good Food

Hmm, what if subsidies could only be taken by those with social security numbers (human persons) and not by tax id numbers (corporate persons), and were capped with a maximum amount and were in the form of a tax deduction (also limiting them to annual income)?

by numen 2007-08-19 06:16PM | 0 recs
Truly the best answer

...is to alter our genetics to run on transfats and sodium.

by MNPundit 2007-08-19 01:49PM | 0 recs
But wait

there's more. Pasture-raised animals, when raised in intensive grazing programs, can actually heal land and reverse desertification.

http://www.amazon.com/Gardeners-Eden-Red iscovering-Importance-Nature/dp/09666229 1X

by Sadie Baker 2007-08-19 05:49PM | 0 recs
Re: 'Efficiency' vs. Good Food

Obviously, there are things that can be done politically to encourage wider availability of organic and non-processed foods (and the things that you mention are very important), but this is a revolution that at its heart really needs to start on a personal level.  When people take their health seriously and reject processed crap in favor of real food, only then will the country move in the nutritional direction it needs to.  

I personally have lost 40 lbs over the last 3 years while working at a sedentary 50 hr/week desk job by eliminating all soda (including diet soda, which doesn't have the calories but rather has potentially even more damaging artificial chemicals instead), fried food, processed food, and anything else that has no nutritritional value (the "eat only real food and don't drink your calories" diet).  My wife and I joined an organic coop farm and I started buying other produce and meats we don't get at the coop farm through local farmers markets or the organic isle of Whole Foods.  It has done wonders for me.  I feel so much better and healthier every day, and I would encourage everyone to spend the extra time and money to invest in a healthy diet.

Again, write your Congresspeople about these bills, and do all you can politically, but this is a revolution that really does have to start at the "grass roots" (so to speak...).  Until there is little demand for factory line processed crap, it isn't going to go away.

by NJIndependent 2007-08-20 05:18AM | 0 recs
Good point, however ...

There are a lot of people whom our food distribution system has passed by. Who have limited access to transportation and don't live within convenient proximity to healthy food sources. But yet, there's always a McDonald's or a 7-11 around when you're hungry.

Also, it may encourage you to know that there's actually more demand pasture-raised meat in some areas than farmers can produce. So the demand is growing and public sentiment is moving. Maybe not as fast as we'd like, but if it were much faster, there's no way that our current farming infrastructure could supply what was wanted.

by Natasha Chart 2007-08-20 08:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Good point, however ...

>But yet, there's always a McDonald's or a 7-11 around when you're hungry.<

Is there?  I thought New York City was passing legislation to crack down on "too many" fast food joints in one area.

by FreedomDemocrat 2007-08-20 09:49AM | 0 recs
Care for more straw?

So, the fact that New York is considering passing a law to address a recognized problem means that somehow it isn't a problem all around the country?

I don't follow your logic.

by Natasha Chart 2007-08-20 10:14PM | 0 recs
Re: 'Efficiency' vs. Good Food

Just pointing out that there are localities that are doing something about the issue.

by FreedomDemocrat 2007-08-22 10:45AM | 0 recs

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