Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Food Is Not Food Anymore, It's A Commodity

Ben sent this link to a recent segment of The Leonard Lopate Show which discussed how changes in global food production have been commodifying the food supply (or should I say how the commodification of food has been changing global food production), with "devastating consequences:"
"In 2008, farmers grew more than enough to feed the world, yet more people starved than ever before — and most of them were farmers. Harper’s magazine contributing editor Frederick Kaufman investigates the connection between the global food system and why the food on our tables is getting less healthy and less delicious even as the world's biggest food companies and food scientists say things are better than ever."

Food is not food anymore. Food has become something else. It's an equation, it's part of a spreadsheet. And this has devastating consqueunces.

I think what's going on here is that ... Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and so many investigative writers have done a great job of really exposing the industrialization of American food and the industrialization of global food. What I've discovered here is something beyond that, which is what I call the securitization of the food system or even the financialization of the food system.

Tyson is larger than Dominoes, but Wall Street is bigger than Tyson.

There's more than double the amount of food on earth to feed to today's population. People don't starve because there is not enough food. People stave because they cannot afford the price of food. [And how is food priced? Commodity trading.] There are no laws against insider trading in commodities.

Lopate: Is industrial agriculture unsustainable the way it's currently being practiced?
Kaufman: Of course, I look at industrial agriculture ... it is obviously unsustainable. ... Sustainability has become one of the great marketing terms.
Kaufman says this about labeling GMOs:
I do not think labeling actually is the way [to get companies like Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science out of the Round-Up Ready business ... so they don't make those "monopolistic windfall profits"]. I think the way is to take the money out of their patent business.

I think a label like everything else is just going to be more consumer noise.
Kaufman's discussion of the commodification of food reminds me of Paul Roberts' discussion on the same topic in his book The End of Food, which I read when it came out about 4 years ago. I wish I could find out what Roberts has been up to in recent years. The food movement could use his kind of smarts and enthusiasm.

Here's a sample ... Roberts speaking at the Organicology Conference in 2009. Watch this guy. The gentleman knows from whence he speaks.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Here's an excerpt from Part 1 that I think is relevant today, when I apply it to the multi-state peanut butter recall for salmonella:
"Food doesn't like to be industrialized. I don't want to anthropomorphize food here, but, food resists being commodified. Past a certain point, food will push back. And it's this push-back that is the nexus of many of the problems we're dealing with today."
An example he gave of push-back was how a batch of ground beef can become contaminated with E. coli, be mixed with millions of pounds of uncontaminated beef, and be distributed all over the country in the wink of an eye ... resulting in, in the case of Topps, a 23-million-pound recall and the end of business for one of the country’s largest manufacturers of frozen hamburgers.

"This is the system we have," said Roberts. This is how much of today's food is produced and distributed. This is why the Sunland peanut butter recall is so extensive, in both quantity of product affected, and geographical reach. The system creates profit for food companies but at the cost of food safety, resource management, crop diversification. Any other costs you can think of? Taste? It's not, as Kaufman and Roberts both say, a sustainable system.
Thanks, Ben!


Bix said...

I like Roberts' idea of promoting mid-sized farms. They might not be organic, but they may be better than large industrial farms, and they may be able to feed more people than small, organic farms ... in the short term.

Bix said...

"devastating consequences"...

Despite sweeping reform of food safety laws intended to make what we eat less dangerous, the number of Americans falling ill or dying from contaminated food has increased 44% in the past two years alone, according to a report released Wednesday.


Dr. Mel said...

Well, they also starve b/c their governments withhold food for political reasons, but still, the point is, they're starving, for whatever reason, as you point out.