I can’t stop wondering about how the food system ended up in its current state. I know the details of the story and in fact have written several articles on the topic, but I wonder how we let it happen. This questions matters, I think, because if we truly want to transform the food system, we need to understand the forces that created it.
The story is, loosely speaking, that a changing mix of technological change and transaction costs spurred institutional innovation. As a result, we have a highly efficient food system that capitalizes on specialization and economies of scale. Translating that econ-jargon heavy sentence into English: we are able to produce food at an incredibly low per unit cost because of regional specialization of production and technologies that allow distribution/processing/retailing of large quantities of food at one time. Regional specialization means that food is produced in areas where the costs of production were initially the lowest; but this couldn’t emerge on a large scale until technological advances in transportation made it possible to ship the food (while preserving its quality) to people living around the country. This time period corresponds roughly to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Infrastructure – transportation, storage, processing (think slaughterhouses, packing plants, grain elevators and so on) – is located near the relevant production regions.
The system that supports our food on its journey from the farm to our plates is deeply entrenched in the economy. People who suggest that we reshape our food system by eliminating “farm subsidies” overlook this critical fact. I believe that shifting the form of payment or even eliminating the payments would likely alter relative prices of agricultural commodities, and possibly reduce the profits of some firms, but it is not going to overhaul the food system in a dramatic way.
Today, however, I am more curious about the trade-offs that came along with technological change and our highly efficient system. The gains are clear: low priced and abundant food. Processed food reduces spoilage, which has benefits (in fact, my mother used to tell me that my grandmother sent her to the store for the ‘good white bread that stays soft’). The health costs in terms of food quality are well known to all of us, so I won’t belabor the point.
The human cost goes beyond the public health impacts of eating low quality, highly processed food. At the first level, there is the disconnect between our food and the fact that it was raised on a farm, by a farmer. Looking deeper though, we see a complete dehumanization of our food; it comes from afar, we have no concept of who touched our food before we eat it, we might realize that workers all along the supply chain are paid low wages. In NYC, we don’t even have to go to the store to buy our food, as our food might be delivered (maybe to our doorman, and we don’t even see the delivery person). There is a complete disassociation of food from people. At a human level, this bothers many of us. And it shows in the food movement, which is full of grassroots efforts at community building, ‘democratization’ of the food system, community gardens, animal rights, farmworker rights, and so on.
That leads to me to wonder is this about our food or about our society? Both, I think.
This topic is weighing on my mind now, so I will muse over this repeatedly in the next week or so. On my list to help guide my thinking is Alperovist’s America beyond Capitalism, which I am in the midst of reading. Next is Mancur Olson’s writings on collective action and theory of groups, and then I will reread The WalMart Effect. These are all complementary to the Porter and Kramer Harvard Business Review article on shared value.