Expensive Food and Expensive Health Care

For those of you who don’t know, as recently as two years ago I was taking prescription drugs for Acid Reflux twice a day, and had horrible abdominal pains, which prompted me to have an ultra sound of my abdomen.  The hospital that conducted the test misdiagnosed me as having tiny gallstones, ultimately leading to the needless removal of my gallbladder.  It was at this point that I decided to question the logic of the Corporate Hospital system which has endless patience for “tests” and trying different drugs –including those which alter the mind– but conducts little to no research on any of the simpler alternatives –e.g., lifestyle and diet changes.  No doctor told me that certain types of exercise would improve my condition, and in fact I had some tell me that I was doomed to be on medication for life.  Two years into swimming five days a week, with much trial and error with regard to my diet, I have no need for any drugs, nor do I suffer from the same abdominal pains.

Many are suffering from a higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, IBS, acid reflux, gout, cancer, and so on.  When you plot statistics related to our physical activity over the past fifty years, there is a clear inverse relationship between our move into major metropolitan areas (or our increase in automobile ownership and move to auto-centric communities), and the amount of exercise we’re getting.  The less and less exercise we’re getting, the unhealthier we become.  We give our bodies the ultimate insult by sitting at desks all day, not using them.  Wendell Berry puts it this way:

Perhaps the fundamental damage of the specialist system –the damage from which all other damages issue– has been the isolation of the body.  At some point we began to assume that the life of the body would be the business of grocers and medical doctors, who need take no interest in the spirit, whereas the life of the spirit would be the business of churches, which would have at best only a negative interest in the body.  In the same way we began to see nothing wrong with putting the body –most often somebody else’s body, but frequently our own –to a task that insulted the mind and demeaned the spirit.

Thus, Berry connects problems with our health in body, mind, and spirit, to the specialization of work –and particularly, people’s lack of involvement in the growth of their own food.

Anyone can tell you that another major component of our decline in health as a nation relates to what we’re eating: what is cheapest to buy at the grocery store, what is subsidized by the government, what we are serving in our childrens’ cafeterias, etc.  Frequently when entering this conversation, it becomes impossible not to talk about Big Agriculture, The Evils of Factory Farms, The Evils of Pesticides, The Evils of Soil Erosion, The Evils of GM, The Evils of Monsanto, etc.  For many, stories like the following are nothing new.  I’m just pulling these headlines from the back corners of my mind in no particular order:

  • Genetically modified corn linked to organ damage in ratsExcess nitrogen from farm run off causes algae overrun in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Pigs with their tales burned off, chickens grown without beaks stacked on top of each other in huge tin buildings
  • Deadly E. Coli in the food supply chain in not only meat, but also in vegetables now like lettuce and spinach
  • Monsanto sues small time farmers over use of “seed cleaners”, alleging conspiracy against their patented seeds
  • Monsanto sues small time farmers who have their patented plants growing on unlicensed land as a result of cross pollination
  • Hormones such as Bovine Somatotropin remain in our food supply despite reports from the media and many scientists that they cause cancer.
  • Round-up resistant weeds cause Monsanto to subsidize use of conventional herbicides (in addition to round-up) on 10-20% of Round-up Ready Crops to maintain high yields with their patented product
  • A shrinking supply and shortage of fresh water all over the world.  In America we see a falling water table beneath Kansas due to use of irrigation techniques and a drying Colorado River, among others.

(For a longer list, feel free to read such books as In Defense of Food, An Omnivore’s Dilemma, or watch movies such as The Corporation, or Food, Inc.)

There is a common theme in all of this.  With each decision that is made about our food supply, we seem to be wanting to squeeze that extra 5-10% out of the supply chain, without any thought to if it is wise to do so.  But I think the main question is: Why?  Does any one really need an extra 50 cents in their pocket to spend on God Knows What.

When you bring up these items, the frequent criticism from believers in our food system is: Yes, but what about that cost?  Vegetables are more expensive than Sugar-O’s at the store.  You know that growing things organically is more expensive than with newer techniques, don’t you?  We can’t possibly feed all of our cattle grass, can we?  The reason things are this way, is because they are more efficient this way.

This is the mantra of the Capitalist oligarchy:  Good Health requires plenty of expensive medical machines beaming our bodies with radiation to see if there’s anything wrong, and plenty of patented medicines being dispensed by pharmacists.  By the same notion, if you don’t want us all to starve, it requires thousands of tractors burning petrol, millions of gallons of pesticides and herbicides, and a thousands of scientists splicing genes to find the most efficient corn plant.  (Since 1920, we have gone from twenty bushels of No. 2 corn per acre of Iowa soil, to a freakish 180!)

But there is an obvious problem with this logic; these types of questions assume our current methodologies are sound for long-term use, as in, use for our grandchildren.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if we keep on using more water from the Colorado River than God puts into it, eventually it will run dry.  If we keep on pulling more water from the water table under Kansas, it too will run dry, and Kansas will again look a lot like the it did during the Dust Bowl Era.  If we keep on dumping nitrogen run-off from farms into the Gulf of Mexico, the dead zone, full of nothing but algae, suffocating the indigenous fish, will grow larger.  If we keep on tilling the rich top soil of Iowa and never replenishing it with anything but manufactured fertilizer, eventually the top soil will run out.  And this all assumes we don’t run out of the natural gas that provides the nitrogen for the fertilizer in the first place.

But let’s set all of this logic aside for a moment.  Let’s assume as many economists do, that in the long run, everybody’s dead anyway.  We’re just trying to live day-to-day, after all.  And these farming methods allow us to feed more people, do they not?  They do allow us to grow more food, and allow the world population to grow larger, right?  And food is cheaper for everyone than it’s ever been, right?

Then comes along a study like this, “The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact.”  This study is enough to condemn the most religious of the Big Agriculture believers.  It finds that one quarter of our total fresh water consumption is consumed per year to make food waste –that is food that goes to our landfills in some form or another– and roughly 3% of our annual oil usage or 300 million barrels of oil per year–roughly the amount of oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon well so far– is wasted in the process.  A damning 40% of all food produced domestically is estimated to be wasted either in harvest, warehouse loss, market spoilage, restaurant trash, or typical household discards.  This is the “efficiency” of Big Agriculture.  (Those of us who have worked for larger corporations shouldn’t find these numbers surprising.)

The amount of food waste produced by Americans per year is growing, and this isn’t to mention our growing waistlines.  Economically, this means that there is some proportional sum of money that we are collectively paying for this waste each time we go out to buy our groceries or pay for our trash/recycling.  Let’s just assume it’s –conservatively– an additional 30% to produce and haul away this garbage.  Would this give us an acceptable margin to begin to grow foods organically, or to consider farming animals humanely?  Furthermore, what would happen to the cost of fruits and vegetables if those who could had their own gardens, or fruit trees?  There is quite a bit of land that is underutilized.

We seem caught up in an idea that good food needs to be expensive, if isn’t then there’s something wrong.  The arch nemesis of Big Agriculture is Trendy Local & Organic.  Rebecca and I went to a restaurant in town last weekend (that wishes to remain anonymous) that specialized in “local” ingredients, supporting “local” farmers, and only used the “freshest” ingredients.  This particular restaurant was an editor’s choice for the Best New Restaurant in St. Louis for 2010.  For the low, low price of $15 dollars, two bites of fish skimmed from the coast of Oahu –thousands of miles from St. Louis– and a couple, and I mean two, “locally grown” asparagus spears were mine.  An equally tiny $8 dollar salad (when lettuce is in season locally) was also consumed at this same sitting.  Meanwhile, guests raved of the interesting and complex flavors.

While the flavors may in fact have been interesting and complex and perhaps some of the ingredients may have been produced organically by small farmers –some of which local to the area–the cost of the meal relative to its size was prohibitively expensive for any but a very few.  Since when did local become something for freshly-pressed white people to enjoy before they go to the opera?

The original point of a backyard garden was its simplicity, that it eliminates reliance on a complex and wasteful system while simultaneously offering an inexpensive and readily available food source.  Lest we forget, people planted Victory Gardens in World War II for these same reasons.

I think we need to reevaluate what expensive food is, and why it is that way.  But beyond that, we need to consider that all costs are not inherently monetary in the short term.  For that very reason, we should either monetize the more serious environmental costs, or prohibit them by law before it’s too late for our grandchildren.  Taxing carbon is really only a small piece of the puzzle.  We should be taxing high water consumption, especially in irrigated areas.  Forget about cigarettes and alcohol, there are greater evils among us.  Let’s think critically about the Colorado River drying up, while we use its water to water lawns and fuel Casinos in the desert.  We must live within our means for our childrens’ sake.

Finally, I would argue, the problem with Capitalism isn’t that people end up starving, like in communism; it’s how quickly people become gluttons in the name of short-term gain.  For some reason, we seem unaware of this, but the writing is all over the wall.  We see it in our energy policy, the wars we involve ourselves in, in our food, and in our healthcare.  Resources are quick to have a price tag placed on them.  The problem is, if we use everything with a price tag on it, not only is there nothing left for anyone but ourselves, but there’s also nothing left for our children, either.  Somewhere, there needs to be a balance.