I am progressive. I call myself that, and believe it fully. I believe that it’s mankind’s destiny to move forward – to move to new ground, both physically and in all areas of knowledge. I am a technologist, and believe strongly that our tools combined with our knowledge will ultimately lead us to a better future. And yet, I also find myself often quoting, “Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.” Now you know I’m progressive – I quote from Star Trek, the ultimate techie, optimist, utopian, intellectual (ok, pseudo-intellectual), vision and philosophy.
Michael Pollan and others have been making a significant and important point. We must listen and take heed if we want a better future. Today's factory food systems are destructive. The application of modern mass production technologies to food, with their high-productivity management techniques and profit-driven values, is destroying our world even as it presumably drives down prices and allows us to feed more for less. The use of petroleum based resources (as fertilizer and for transport) to enhance everything from grains to livestock makes little real economic sense, but is driven by the need for short term profits for corporations that are now an integrated part of our economic and political system, and thus, our food chain.
The forces that apply to this situation have little to do with a free market economy. Our economic system has been skewed so far from a true liberal market system that libertarians and economic conservatives can no longer argue that what we have today approaches anything like the traditional liberal marketplace that Adam Smith called for. The “invisible hand” of individual self-interest has long since been replaced - co-opted by the greed and avarice, the corruption and decadence of corporations and their inability to think beyond a 6 month window and their executives’ golden parachutes.
Clearly, the hidden public costs are not being paid by those that are making the profits – but if they were, if every piece of environmental damage caused by intensive pig farms or massive cattle ranching and slaughtering operations were actually accounted for and paid for (or better yet, corrected) by these corporations, would they still have more efficient systems than traditional farms? If every cubic centimeter of methane and carbon dioxide put into the air were accounted for, what would be the cost of the “cheap beef” we get today? USDA Prime corn-finished rib steak is flying off the shelf at $6.99/lb at some warehouse stores these days. Would the demand be as great at $12.99/lb? Would our economy survive if we ate less meat, if our grains were grown with the sun, and not products made from petroleum distillates?
The immediate alternative to our modern disaster seems to be to go back. We need to go back to traditional farms, where crops and livestock were kept in equilibrium and synergy with the earth - indeed optimized through years of understanding of what the land and the sun could produce – without the aid of petroleum. But my progressive bias tells me that this is not our way forward. We need to go back in terms of restoring balance – but not necessarily in terms of losing all the productivity gains we’ve made.
As Pollan says, the key point in understanding the issue comes when we look at the percentage of our cost of living allocated to food and to health (insurance, medical). As the modern food factory systems have grown, consumer food costs have gone down. But our health costs have risen at a much higher rate. There are many reasons for this, including our more sedentary lifestyles, our worsening diets based more and more on the factory produced foods that are cheaper, and the worsening environment, based significantly on the proliferation of food factory processes. The methane from the cows that produce our cheap beef is much worse, in terms of overall accumulation of greenhouse gasses, than all the emissions from our cars.
The solution is staring us in the face. We need to restore a balance to our food and health expenditures. We need to pay more for our food. We need to compensate for that by paying less for our health. Whether that’s because our health is better, or because we’ve managed to wrangle one part of our corporate greed structure down to a reasonable level, we need to do whatever works to control health costs. Initially, our health will not be better. But as more people get insurance and see providers quicker and more regularly, we can expect our health to get better and our costs to go down. An important part of that will be the recognition that our diets drive the health costs, up or down, based on poor or better eating habits.
If we pay more for our food, we can expect that over time, systems and solutions will develop to move us in the right direction. In some cases, there will be a restoration of the traditional farm structure. As locavore situations that make sense (not all do) come about that restore balance to an eco-system, the higher prices will attract more growers and producers and allow for more local efforts. But even where the specialization of our factory farms continues because they are truly more efficient, there will be more incentive to account for the environmental issues and to produce better product.
For a time, a significant part of these higher costs will need to be government borne. The effect of rising food costs on programs such as Food Stamps, needs to be accounted for. The poor and dependent are already getting so little money that they must turn to the cheapest factory foods. They are a captive audience for the factory food producers. As alternatives grow, so must their ability to improve their diet and their health.
But much depends on our ability to create a free marketplace – one that operates without the corrupting influence of corporations on our government and directly on the people. Given real choices, people will understand the issues and be willing to pay more for a product that is more in line with their real self-interests. Living longer, healthier lives ought to be everybody's goal. Deliciousness, is but a side effect - a bonus. But as long as corporations can convince people to vote and to buy against their own true self-interests, a true free market will never come about.
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