Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April 30—Can food be too cheap?

It's a question I've been pondering ever since we watched the movie King Corn on PBS. It's a really interesting piece of work, and it defied our expectations: it is not the snarky Michael Moore treatment you might expect.

In the film there is a brief treatment of US agricultural policy, including some archival footage of Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, talking in 1973 about the new direction that American farm policy was going to take. What we want, he said, was an abundance of cheap food. Looking back on it now, with what we know today, his remarks seem laughably naive, if not even a bit sinister.

The filmmakers visited Butz in the present (which was, I think, 2005), at the age of about 95. He remained proud of what he accomplished, saying that Americans feed themselves on just 16% (I think I've got the number right) of their household budget, and that's a great accomplishment because it leaves so much money free to make other things happen. Consumer spending is, after all, one of the underpinnings of economic growth.

Butz (who died earlier this year at 98) got me to thinking. Can food be too cheap? What we see from the film King Corn is that without government programs, farmers who grow commodity crops like corn lose money. They get a per-acre payment that (they hope) puts them slightly into the black. I am a person who believes that, when it comes to work life, people will basically do what you pay them to do. In this case, it pays Iowans to grow corn, as much of it as they can. Read The Omnivore's Dilemma to learn about many of the things into which the corn gets made. But there's no doubt that cheap corn is one of the cornerstones of our food supply.

So what's wrong with cheap food?

This is where it gets complicated for me. I agree that cheap food is a great thing, in principle. But I think the way you get it is just as important. The current system of payments for commodity crops (corn, wheat, soybeans) is designed to keep prices down and, at least in theory, to keep farmers in business. Of course you would expect that having a virtually unlimited supply of something cheap would lead people to find all sorts of new uses for it, and you would be right. Corn is in all kinds of things—too big a topic to go into here.

The way we go about it now creates incentive for consolidation of farms. That has the effect of driving people away from farming and in many cases out of their home towns and away from their families. It also creates incentive for agricultural practices that do not seem sustainable—a tremendous amount of chemical and mechanical input is required to keep the land in production, and all that land under tillage creates a huge amount of runoff creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And of course the farm communities that produce a huge portion of the food we eat can't feed themselves.

While I agree in principle that cheap food would be of benefit to people, I feel like it is just not sustainable. The land can't sustain year after year of that level of production without external inputs, and we can't sustain that level of external input (it mostly takes oil, after all, to make the fertilizer and power the equipment). The towns can't sustain that level of population loss, and there are some who would argue that our health-care infrastructure can't sustain itself in the face of all the complications that arise from results of all that cheap food.

I don't know that I have an answer. How can you create a system that keeps food affordable for everyone (which requires plenty of it), but that keeps prices sufficiently high for farmers to support themselves (which requires scarcity to keep prices up)? And of course you want to do it in a way that at a minimum does not create incentive to push the land too far, and even better would be to create incentives to actually improve it. And do we need to institute further scrutiny of some of the byproducts of cheap food? In my mind, I can sketch out the vaguest of outlines of what such a system might look like, but it's really a Utopian fantasy—such a policy could never be enacted in today's political climate.

Our approach is to opt out where we can. We try to avoid products that contain lots of corn-derivatives, and make as much as we can from scratch using ingredients whose origins we know. But it's not our religion, and even if it was I'm not sure there's much you can do. We recently discovered that there is High Fructose Corn Syrup in every single variety of pickles at our grocery store. Pickles! Our goal is not to boycott those evil farmers in Iowa and teach them a lesson. It is to demonstrate that there is a market for you if you choose to do it a different way. There is a huge gap at the grocery store: on one end you have classic "industrial" food, full of the products of the commodity agriculture economy, including but not limited to the corn syrup mentioned above. At the other end is the stuff that is fully organic, made with things that sound like what you might use at home, like sugar. Of course, products that contain all organic ingredients are far more expensive. So where is the middle ground? Where are the products for people like me, who don't need to go full-on organic, but don't want corn syrup and genetically modified organisms? At present, it seems that our food life, like our political life, is dominated by the extremes. Let's hope for some sane, sustainable options in the near future.


1 comment:

piscesgrrl said...

ohmygosh I just typed a long comment and it disappeared! ARGH.

Poop. I'm not sure I have it in me to find the words again!