Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nicholas Kristoff on Big Agriculture

Mr. Kristof wrote a beautiful, soulful column today ("Food for the Soul," NYTimes, Aug 23, 2009).  Big Ag is yet one more example of what happens when capitalist values (e.g., efficiency) take over.  But I want to raise a question: he writes at one point that "industrial farming is extraordinarily efficient, and smaller diverse family farms would mean more expensive food."  Is this actually the case?

Consider the fast-food hamburger. MacDonald's offers a plain hamburger for 79 cents—that's so cheap that a poor person would be hard-pressed to go anywhere else for sustenance. (An organic apple costs $2.79/pound at my local Whole Foods.) Maybe a plain hamburger doesn't fill them, though, so they purchase a small bag of fries (also cheap).  But how does MacDonald's offer such cheap food? If only there was a way to account for the environmental and economic costs—the pollution created by industrial production of meat, the injury to the health of workers at the plants and the folks who live near them, the long-term consequences to the health of the poor people who subsist on MacDonald's—I'm sure that hamburger and fries wouldn't be so inexpensive. They'd probably cost close to, or more than, the $14 my local Manhattan restaurant charges for their excellent organic hamburger and potato salad. 

The trouble is that we can't account for those hidden costs because no one is paying them, so we have no idea what the amount actually is. Most of these costs either fall on the shoulders of individual consumers (doctors' appointments for poor health, relocation to escape pollution) or on no one (we don't have the technology to clean the contaminated environment around the plants; it's not being done, so it isn't "costing" anyone).  If large corporations were held responsible for maintaining the environment in such a pristine condition that their presence wasn't even noticeable, they could not mass-produce such cheap items.  Which in turn would mean we couldn't consume so massively, so thoughtlessly.  And wouldn't throw away so needlessly.  And live so soul-lessly.

In the end, we need to consider our economic problems as inextricably entwined with our environmental and health crises (obesity, diabetes, cancer). And, importantly, with the very value systems that led us to this point.

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