This month’s Sidney Award went to Jina Moore for her excellent article on poverty in modern America. Asking what is poverty, Moore notes that no one can agree on it. But a really good definition of poverty is lack of access to a healthy variety of food. Variety matters here–in the United States choice is so ingrained in our culture that without it, you are almost automatically defined as poor. Eating canned peas 20 straight days is not only monotonous and dispiriting, but also a mark of class. Really good piece.
Exhibit A: The rise of 8-legged frogs. These happen at the end of a long ecological chain that begins with farm runoff from our heavily fertilized agricultural landscapes.
Exhibit B: Farm towns in California that can’t drink the water because of agricultural run-off. Not surprisingly, these towns are poor and populated mostly by Latino farmworkers. Typically, those who have the least power and money are disproportionately affected by environmental problems. This story of environmental injustice means that already impoverished schools have to spend precious resources on bottled water instead of playgrounds or teachers or laptops. But hey, I’m sure if we just busted teacher unions that these schools would perform better…..
In short, since 1982, the number of hog farms in Iowa has declined rapidly while production has skyrocketed. This means more pigs concentrated into huge farms. Those megafarms not only force pigs to live terrible lives but are also massive environmental hazards in places people don’t want to work or live unless they lack the sense of smell. This has happened because the Big Four meatpackers have consolidated control of the hog markets and have forced small farmers out of business in the name of efficiency. One might think that the counties with megafarms would have benefited economically, but this isn’t true. Today, hog-centric counties in Iowa have slightly lower per capita income rates than non-hog counties, a quite different picture from 30 years ago. That’s partially because the corporations have pushed down real wages for meatpacking workers.
Our internalized rhetoric of market efficiency (which even most progressives subscribe to without thinking) means that we think that this consolidation (even with its unfortunate side effects) is obviously worth it because it means lower food prices. But Philpott shows that corporations have little incentive to pass on lower prices to consumers while they have tons of incentive to pass on costs when food prices go up. So essentially, consolidation in the Iowa hog industry has led to more money in the pockets of corporate shareholders at the cost of everyone else involved. Just like the rest of the American economy since the 1970s.
The inevitable cycle of capitalism continues. Small businesses, designed to have tight community values and reject older ways of capitalism, become the next state of centralized big capitalist development. This time it is with once small urban farms that are growing increasingly larger and more centralized, spurring fears of big growers dominating the urban landscape, food sprawl, and social and environmental inequality.
In food, this is not unlike what happened with the organic label. What was once a rejection of an industrialized food system soon become dominated by huge companies like Cascadian Farms and lobbying groups looking to redefine the term in the interests of those companies.
I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing per se. Local food is probably better than a worldwide food system. If we do want to solve the food problem, bigness has to be part of the equation. But that bigness comes with inherent environmental, planning, and equality problems. And thus, another movement will come along to challenge this latest manifestation of food capitalism.
Food is simply too good to waste. Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if the food is never eaten. Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.
What’s particularly outrageous is that 50% of the seafood in the United States goes to waste. 50%!!!!! These are wild animals, the last wild animals we harvest commercially for food. Some of these species are in severe decline and are becoming endangered. Yet we treat this food so casually as to dump 1/2 of it in landfills. This is outrageous.
Of course, the national appetite for government-led environmental initiatives is now close to zero so I suppose nothing will get done.
Philip Bump has a nice run-down of the important things to look for in the upcoming farm bill/massive subsidization of agribusiness thanks to the incredible power held by rural state senators. One point I would like to bring your attention to is an amendment that would limit meatpackers to owning animals directly for no more than 2 weeks before slaughter. This is important because the big meatpackers are monopolizing the market:
Meatpackers increasingly own their own cattle in order to manipulate the market. The companies buy livestock on the open market when prices are low but slaughter their own livestock when bidding prices rise. This puts long-term, downward pressure on the price of livestock and allows meatpackers to manipulate what farmers and ranchers earn. These persistently low livestock prices effectively work to push small and medium-sized farmers out of business, while still leading to increased consumer food prices because large meatpackers don’t face enough competition to force them to pass on savings to consumers.
Grassley and Conrad are the co-sponsors so maybe it does have a chance to pass.
Twilight Greenaway’s piece entitled, “The Food Movement’s Final Frontier: Taking Care of Workers,” is a bit of a misnomer, since the food movement has a lot of frontiers to deal with (and I’d prefer avoiding the use of a loaded term like “frontier” with all its conquest over indigenous people meanings). But certainly it’s about time that the food movement start taking worker justice seriously. After all, who produces that food at Whole Foods? What kind of lives do these people live? Are they paid well? Do they have access to decent lifestyles?
And the answer to these questions is that food producers are impoverished and overworked, subject to disease and workplace accidents, and without good housing or educational opportunities. Basically, food production is a really hard job.
There’s an excellent report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance laying these conditions out. It’s pretty depressing–very high rates of workers on medicaid, long working hours, racial and gendered discrimination, etc.
What are the answers? The FCWA suggests:
There is tremendous potential to engage consumers, small-to-midsize employers and workers to change the food system for all. For starters policymakers can increase the minimum wage and guarantee workers health benefits and the right to organize. Consumers can support businesses that are providing livable wages and benefits, and speak out against those that are not. Employers can increase wages and benefits; adopt systematic and fair hiring and promotion practices; and adopt benefits, such as paid sick days, that would allow employees to care for themselves and their families.
OK I guess. But that’s awful vague.
Here’s my answer:
Unions. Or some kind of worker organization, however defined.
Store chains that care about organic/local/grass-fed/etc should also care about the workers who make the food. These stores should highlight companies that treat workers well and specifically cut deals with farms and suppliers who use union labor, broadly defined. Could be tomatoes picked at farms that have deals with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida for instance. Workplace justice should be made into a marketing tool for consumers to choose, knowing that the tomato they bought was not picked by quasi-slave labor.
Of course this would also force the food movement to confront its own libertarian, individualistic, anti-labor mentality, perhaps most personified in the hard-core anti-union stance of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who has compared a union shop to having herpes.
But this is the answer. If foodies care about the planet and the people upon it, they have to care about food production workers. And the way to show that care is to support labor organizing so those workers can have a voice in their wages, hours, and working conditions to live a dignified life.
So it seems Quebec has started the Casserole Revolution. When I was growing up, casseroles were something I ate at hot dish night every Wednesday at our local Lutheran church. Today, they are revolutionary. Does this revolution include tater tot pie? Or canned green beans (french cut naturally)? If there’s no cream of mushroom soup, I can’t support it. After all, as the old leftist slogan goes, “It’s not a revolution unless you can eat gray food with it.”
It’s hard to imagine a more hackish book review than what Ira Stoll pulls off at Reason. Reviewing Rich Cohen’s new book on the United Fruit Company (this is the first I’ve heard about the book although I’ll probably take a look at it), Stoll notes that the story of Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray and capitalism writ large is a story of great things, with the occasional blemish.
What are the great things Stoll ties to Zemurray and United Fruit? Upward mobility! Technological innovation! “Bias-free marketing creativity!” Egalitarianism! Decentralization! Philanthropy (properly used to help create Israel of course)!
And then there’s a tiny paragraph showing the supposed downside:
And the United Fruit story also reminds us of some of the hazards when capitalism becomes cronyism. The book recounts all the Washington insiders hired by Zemurray as lobbyists, including Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran. A business that lives by Washington is finally at its mercy, as United Fruit learned when the antitrust cops came after it.
Let’s see, so the story of United Fruit is almost perfect, like an almost unblemished banana with one tiny bruise. I wonder if United Fruit had any negative connotations. Oh let’s see, there’s only like 100 books on the utter evil of United Fruit and the banana trade. So there’s the destabilization of Guatemala through the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz because he threatened to nationalize unused United Fruit lands. There’s the horrible labor and environmental practices of the fruit companies that led to, among other things, workers turning blue. There’s the monocultures that led to banana diseases that continue to threaten the long-term supply of the fruit. There’s the time that Guatemala and Honduras almost went to war when each was controlled by a particular banana company that both wanted on the border. There’s the fruit company not respecting the sovereignty of their respective hosts, quite literally creating the term “banana republics”; capitalist hero Sam Zemurray himself hired mercenaries to overthrow the Honduran government in 1910.
And there’s so many more terrible things that these companies did to Central America.
But none of this matters for Ira Stoll or Reason. No cost to labor, nature, or human life is high enough if the end is a justification of extremist capitalism.
It’s totally absurd to be thinking about who the Democrats will nominate for the presidency in 2016, yet for politically-minded people, it’s almost inevitable. That includes me. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about the different possibilities and who I would support among them (leaning toward Gillibrand at this time, but that could easily change). One person bandied around is Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland. He seems uninspiring to me, not to mention that he is Tommy Carcetti. And while I wouldn’t want to overstate the importance of this report showing O’Malley to be a hack for Maryland’s powerful poultry industry, that’s not because it’s not bad, it’s because I don’t think enough people will care. Still, this is fairly damning and certainly doesn’t give me any hope that an O’Malley presidency would accomplish anything positive for environmental or food issues, nor stand up to influential capitalists.
A couple of interesting Grist pieces on food, both worth commenting so I’ll just combine them.
First, as we decimate the world’s large fish stocks in order to satisfy our unquenchable desire for fish, we often hear that eating smaller fish is an answer. But this is pretty unlikely in reality. First, Julia Whitty over at Mother Jones:
Sardines are considered a sustainable seafood, one of the few fish you can eat guilt-free, right? Well, not exactly. Forage fish like sardines and anchovies are the key players in huge but delicate food webs known as wasp-waist ecosystems. These are so complex and dynamic that it’s questionable whether we have the know-how to manage them well yet. And as we’ve learned the hard way from examples off California, Peru, Japan, and Namibia, wasp-waist ecosystems collapse catastrophically whenever the stresses of climate change intersect with the stresses of overfishing.
Twilight Greenaway expands upon this, noting that we aren’t eating that many sardines, but we are using them as an intricate part of our industrial food system in ways most of us never see.
You see, as many ocean conservationists and sustainable seafood experts point out, the problem isn’t that people are frying or grilling up too many sardines. The problem is the fish we’re not eating, but feeding to other, farmed fish (like tuna and salmon) and industrially farmed animals (fish oil makes pigs, chickens, and cows grow faster).
The author of a recent New York Times article about forage fish (another name for the small fish generally thought of as feed for other fish), called “Too Many Small Fish Are Caught, Report Says,” put it this way:
The consumer market for forage fish is relatively small; most of the fish are ground and processed for use as animal feed and nutritional supplements and, increasingly, as feed for the aquaculture industry, which now produces about half of all the fish and shellfish that people eat.
The simple reality is that we are the last generation of human beings to eat ocean-caught fish on a large scale. Between overfishing and the changing state of the oceans due to climate change, this is it. We are done with saltwater fish, outside of easily farmed but low-nutrition (and low-taste) species like tilapia that don’t eat other fish themselves. Today, we look at the wanton waste of wildlife in the late 19th century with disgust: the slaughter of the bison, killing birds to place them on hats, a widespread commercial wild meat market. I have few doubts that our descendants will feel the same about our wasteful ways with fish, the last wild meat we consume with abandon. I suspect that a century from now, our consumption of fish will look a lot like our consumption of deer or elk today. If you want to go out and fish for it, there might be a small catch limit for you. There might be a few expensive restaurants specializing in it. And that’s about it.
This scenario has devastating human consequences, including here in New England. I was at the farmers’ market yesterday. Being Rhode Island, fishing outfits can sell their goods at the market. I see them selling skate, cod, and hake, species that are increasingly threatened and I shake my head, not in disgust but just with sadness for the tragedy of the oceans and the tragedy of the fisher.
Speaking of farmers’ markets, this Elizabeth Henderson piece worrying about the purity of the CSA irritated me.
As the local food movement has gone from a trickle to a sweeping current, and sales of local farm products have grown, it seems that many community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers may have lost touch with the original intention behind the term. As a farmer, and one who’s researched and written about the history of CSAs in the U.S. and abroad, I find this trend deeply troubling. It seems many urban residents now see the CSA as just another form of “retail farming” rather than a model for civic agriculture, a site-specific form of solidarity, or associative economics that can transform relationships.
And while some commercialization may be inevitable when a product of counterculture enters the mainstream the way the CSA model has, the conversations I hear about how “inconvenient” it is for consumers are missing the point.
As I see it, reducing CSA to a mere food box subscription scheme would castrate the CSA model, taking away its power to create lasting relationships between the people who grow and eat food. As Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini would say, CSAs allow citizens to become “co-producers” with their farmers, rather than passive consumers.
At their best, authentic CSAs are a win-win-win. Farmers get living wages and freedom from worry about profits and losses. Everyone weathers the tough times and benefits from the good times. Nothing goes to waste, and community investments help pay for land and equipment. Most of all, eaters get healthy food, good company, and the deep — if not always “convenient” — satisfaction that comes from playing an immediate role in transforming the food system.
Look, I agree with Henderson that the term “CSA” should mean something. Like “organic,” there are operators who want to capitalize on this trend without being true to its intent, thus making the word almost meaningless. Some dude putting a bunch of produce he bought at Safeway into boxes and then shipping it to people isn’t acceptable. At the same time, regardless of the hippie back-to-the-land intent behind CSAs, with the sharing of risk with the farmers and the commitment to do labor on the farms, most people interested in a CSA just want tasty produce. They aren’t going to go work on the farm. And while we might think it is good to get our hands dirty planting onions or what not, it’s just not feasible except for a small number of people. Getting back to the land has positive value in creating social and environmental awareness, not to mention knowledge of where your food comes from. But a lot of other things create positive values as well and I don’t think we should limit the freshest food to those who choose to pull weeds.
Food-based movements too often demand purity. Is it organic? Is it local? Do people really share the risk with the farmer? You can make great arguments that all of these things are great. But people do need convenient food. Go ahead and value the “pure” CSA model–there is room for that. But it’s also fine to want to support local farmers and eat good food while not spending valuable time involved in the growing of the food, unless we want to limit who can eat this food to a pure and special few.
And as far as using the word “castrate” goes, well, it’d be better to avoid such language all together.