Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday Rant - Rewarding Bad Behavior

Food is expensive. Prices keep going up (the price of strawberries is a good twice that of what it was last year). Same thing as gas (but personally, I think the price of gas should keep going up so it'll force people to buy more energy efficient cars or carpool or take public transport).

Reasons why food prices have gone up:

1. Bargain basement dollar - we're importing food by the boatloads rather than supporting our local farmers. I actually saw leeks from Guatemala last week at my local farmstand (not farmer's market), when I KNOW that leeks are seasonal now. I'm gonna be sure to grab them at the farmer's market today for broccoli leek soup. Mmm.

2. Higher costs - pesticides are more expensive, and also the gas price to get the food cross country (though you'd think that would make imported food MORE expensive, but I guess that's the dollar for you).

3. This country has an obsession with corn - corn for ethanol, corn syrup (soda, tons and tons of food products), corn-based plastic (I like the green aspect of this, kinda cool, never heard of it til I googled it), corn starch (apart from cooking, this apparently also makes paper more printable), drugs, cosmetics, cleansers, and more (I found this list at an admittedly very biased site). And I think it's awesome we're going green with all the corn-based rather than petroleum-based products. It also means that we're growing more and more corn, and less and less of other crops (and the less there is of a crop, the higher the price). I admittedly am not an expert in the economics of food production, apart from having read Fast Food Nation and some other economics-for-the-layman books.

4. Pennies on the dollar - other countries' workers (or even undocumented workers in this country) are paid so much less than the average American worker that the food they produce can be sold at much cheaper prices. There's a whole discussion of the strawberry picking industry in Reefer Madness, and the lengths the packers go through to keep the labor costs down.

5. Corn prices are going up - when the value of something rises, then the price goes up. So when we started adding ethanol to gas, and using corn for every last thing, it becomes a more valuable crop. So the farmers can charge a bit more for it. We feed animals corn, so the rising price in corn then makes the cost of the meat go up as well.

Here's my beef (no pun intended).

There's all this talk about "going green" and I think that it's great people are trying to reduce their carbon imprint. Giving tax breaks on driving hybrid cars is a start. Trying to make products out of biodegradable material definitely needed. But everything's gotten so expensive that people turn around and buy the cheapest food out there. I don't blame them. The problem is that the cheapest food is the stuff from Central America, or California (which isn't a problem if you're in CA, but if you're in the northeast, like me, that's a hell of a carbon imprint).

But logically, shouldn't the food that's grown five miles from me be cheaper than the food grown 3000 miles away and hauled here by truck/plane/train? I know that legal workers are paid more and there's a higher cost of living to support. So I understand why local food is more expensive at the moment. But if we're really serious about trying to reduce our carbon imprint, and if we're really serious about trying to pay people living wages and working under good conditions, shouldn't imported food be made more expensive than local food? And I'm not talking that the food companies should get this, I'm talking taxes. Because not all the food companies are ethical, and they're not necessarily going to pour the extra money back into their workers, or their companies, or their products.

Tax dollars on imports could pay for the nutrition and health training that so many people in this country desperately need, given our burgeoning obesity rates. They could also use those tax dollars to give tax breaks to local farms, on sales they make locally. This could then make the food less expensive, bring more business to them. Because there are already so many people in this country who can barely afford food and end up buying the cheapest stuff (like McDonald's) because that's what they can pay for. But if we redistributed it, made the local farms the cheapest through tax incentives, people could get healthier food which tastes even better.

I'm aware there are holes in this argument (what do you do with food like pasta or rice that isn't grown locally? How do you ensure those taxes do really go back into the food system to make sure that there is affordable food from the local farms? How do you make sure that those McFarms don't just sell to the local farmstands somehow?). I don't like spending tons of money on food any more than the next person (just for me, I generally spend anywhere from $80-$100 per week on food). But I feel like there should be a better way. I shouldn't be penalized for buying food grown five miles from my house under humane and sustainable conditions. Companies which drive their workers 12 hours a day at superspeed and barely give them breaks shouldn't be rewarded by having their food the cheapest and therefore most bought.

Please give your thoughts on this, feel free to point out any fatal flaws in what I've said (I won't be offended), or offer your own suggestions.


Leah J. Utas said...

The chief problem I have with the latest Corn Is God fashion is the amount of gas, etc. that it takes to plant and harvest the corn and turn it into all these new -fangled products.
It drives up the price, as you say, and that means the people who have it as a staple are less able to afford it.
We think we're doing good when all we're really doing is pretending and this illusion is leading others to malnutrition and starvation.
Hmm didn't mean to walk away with your rant.

The Lethological Gourmet said...

I totally agree! I think that a lot of people (especially in government) have basically stuck their heads in the sand and said what we're doing is really good, when it's really causing more problems than before. And there must be other ways to be green than using corn.

Merry said...

Every Saturday I walk 4 blocks to the Farmer's Market (Farmers' Market?) to get vegetables from farmers who drove their vegetables no more than 10 miles to get to the place. It's certainly not cheaper than the store, but I suppose we're paying more because it's fresh?
(I did once see an F.M. where there was food 'imported from Chile', which completely defeats the purpose.)
All I know is that I'm growing a lot more veggies next year. And I'm going to learn to like 'em! I have spoken!

The Lethological Gourmet said...

At Haymarket in Boston, they have it all set up like a farmer's market, but it's really all the leftover fruit and veggies they couldn't sell to the stores. So it's all imported, and it goes bad really fast. Blech.

Why should we have to pay more because it's fresh, though? That's my major problem. It should cost more if it has to travel a long way. If it's fresh, it doesn't necessarily mean more work...but then again it tastes better and is fresh and healthy, so more in demand, so higher in price. Pesky economics...

Tricia said...

I agree with what you're saying; I'm starting a mini garden on the balcony of my apartment so that I can at least have fresh herbs, mint, etc. without having to pay top dollar, and to reduce my carbon footprint.

Also, I saw your post on crankyfitness, and just wanted to offer a tip about the yoga: there's this DVD called Yoga Shakti with Shiva Rea. It has 4 pre-made yoga sessions, and a matrix that allows you to design your own practice.

So essentially, you can create a session that'll fit the time you have. (Please note: I'm not a salesperson. I just really really like the convenience of the DVD and want more people to do yoga). That said, she's a bit too into yoga (some of the things she says are out there, but if you can ignore that, it's good).

Charlotte said...

Excellent summary of the problem! It's funny how we are so lackadaisacal with our food chain - the one thing we can't afford to ruin.

It's particularly interesting in a world where malnourishment is a bigger problem than no nourishment. We're starving in an entirely different way.

Crabby McSlacker said...

Great post!

It's so frustrating that locally grown healthy produce is so insanely expensive!

But I'd worry if we taxed imports the other countries would turn around and do the same to us.

I just know our government always seems eager to subsidize the exact wrong kind of factory farming and make it harder for the local farmers to compete. Hope that changes soon!

The Lethological Gourmet said...

Tricia, I'm just happy that the basil plant I bought a couple weeks ago is still alive. I don't have much of a green thumb. My mother has a whole garden on her roof, which is awesome. It's just hard to remember to water plants regularly, for me. Thanks for the yoga tips!

Charlotte, you're so right. We starving on fat and grease instead of air. It's amazing how many people I've run into lately who say they just don't like veggies. And I don't know whether they're just really not into veggies or if they've only ever had those waxy ones from the big box store not cooked in the right way.

Crabby, that's a very good point, I bet that other countries would turn around and tax us. Do we export lots of food to other countries? And I totally agree that our government would (or does) subsidize the entirely wrong kind of farming. I wish they'd get on the local train!