Thursday, December 20, 2007

Food and the tuned-out consumer

Maggie says:
This is a long post, but bear with me. I don't do long cut-and-pasting very often, but when I do it's a conscious choice and because I want to point to particular points of an article separately. And hey, at least after this long post on a near-and-dear subject I never have to rant about it this much again!

Eating can be a messy, political business. Or rather, it should be. The world of food choices is staggering right now, and my relationship with all of them is ever-changing. I find the business of food consumption to be endlessly fascinating, as are the shifting patterns of us as consumers versus them as growers and suppliers and producers. Take organics. The dangerous thing about mass-marketing organic practices is that the heart of the movement is diluted in the name of base expansion. It's a, well, organic process of change that happens when any social movement takes on broader appeal. What's lost in the name of a bigger following is a graying of the message, a rotting of the core, but the result is a bigger impact with higher numbers. How much is lost when a movement appeals to others? What do we give up in order to gain?

When it comes to food, there are countless examples of fantastic writing out there about how the organic food movement has handled the reach of its markets toward mass consumers. The "bring it to the people" approach is one embodied by Whole Foods, which frustrates purists to no end. The "I'll do that because it's financially smart, even though I don't believe in it" approach is one taken by corporations like Dole, who have successful organics divisions within their overall structure. The purists shop only at co-ops and farmer's markets, or better yet their backyards, and live their values through their food without dilution. Mainstream shoppers have more opportunities than ever before, so what is he or she to do, especially when the overall nature of how our food worlds are changing isn't understood on a larger level?

First, folks need to try and understand the framework, and we need to do a better job of communicating it. Communicating just on taste, or just on poisonous spray, hasn't been particularly effective, especially not when the entire structure is the problem and an elementary buyer will still vote with their wallet as the bottom line. The structural nature of the beast is where we lose these consumers, who might buy organic or local if mass-produced stuff isn't on sale out of a vague sense that it's better for them, but not as a rule. So how do we convey the danger of monocultures, of factory meat production, of the role we can all play as eaters and shoppers if we not just appreciate the local, but BUY local? And how long will the big guns be able to get away with what they're doing?

My head spins. Michael Pollan's, thankfully, does not.

I understand that the average consumer is not going to read The Omnivore's Dilemma, even though everyone should. However, they might read this article, in which he does a brilliant job of making those leery connections for folks in just two pages.

First, and I've screamed it before and I'll scream it again, NO ONE SHOULD BE DRINKING SUPERMARKET MILK. It's not very sexy when I ramble on about early-onset menstruation, the scarily fast rate of development among young girls and boys on levels never before seen, and how the biggest culprit sits innocently on mass-market store shelves and looks the same as it always has. Yet kids today are growing up drinking hormones and antibiotics that didn't exist in the milk that we drank as kids. Why is that? Factory meat production and the race to be more and more profitable. And don't get me started on cellophane-wrapped meat in those same stores. Sigh...

So okay, early-onset menstruation can't be the slogan. But how about the record rate of staph infections, some of them very deadly, in hospitals? Now that's something that has been grabbing headlines and morning talk-show chatter. Pollan:

The first story is about MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS — 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in 2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical Association. For years now, drug-resistant staph infections have been a problem in hospitals, where the heavy use of antibiotics can create resistant strains of bacteria. It’s Evolution 101: the drugs kill off all but the tiny handful of microbes that, by dint of a chance mutation, possess genes allowing them to withstand the onslaught; these hardy survivors then get to work building a drug-resistant superrace. .... a new and even more virulent strain — called “community-acquired MRSA” — is now killing young and otherwise healthy people who have not set foot in a hospital. No one is yet sure how or where this strain evolved, but it is sufficiently different from the hospital-bred strains to have some researchers looking elsewhere for its origin, to another environment where the heavy use of antibiotics is selecting for the evolution of a lethal new microbe: the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least 70 percent of the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals living on factory farms. Raising vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and filthy confinement simply would not be possible without the routine feeding of antibiotics to keep the animals from dying of infectious diseases. That the antibiotics speed up the animals’ growth also commends their use to industrial agriculture, but the crucial fact is that without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for months, let alone decades.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this situation is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, the profligate use of these antibiotics — in many cases the very same ones we depend on when we’re sick — would lead to the evolution of bacteria that could shake them off like a spring shower. It appears that “sooner or later” may be now.

If that's not bound to get soccer moms' attention, maybe bees will. The mystery of the decline in honeybees captivated folks over the summer. Where have they gone? What's wrong? Pollan has some answers that should shake up folks who still think agriculture doesn't affect the average person, or that our choices as consumers affect only our own wallets:
...whatever turns out to be the immediate cause of colony collapse, many entomologists believe some such disaster was waiting to happen: the lifestyle of the modern honeybee leaves the insects so stressed out and their immune systems so compromised that, much like livestock on factory farms, they’ve become vulnerable to whatever new infectious agent happens to come along.

You need look no farther than a California almond orchard to understand how these bees, which have become indispensable workers in the vast fields of industrial agriculture, could have gotten into such trouble. Like a great many other food crops, like an estimated one out of every three bites you eat, the almond depends on bees for pollination. No bees, no almonds. The problem is that almonds today are grown in such vast monocultures — 80 percent of the world’s crop comes from a 600,000-acre swath of orchard in California’s Central Valley — that, when the trees come into bloom for three weeks every February, there are simply not enough bees in the valley to pollinate all those flowers. For what bee would hang around an orchard where there’s absolutely nothing to eat for the 49 weeks of the year that the almond trees aren’t in bloom? So every February the almond growers must import an army of migrant honeybees to the Central Valley — more than a million hives housing as many as 40 billion bees in all.

They come on the backs of tractor-trailers from as far away as New England. These days, more than half of all the beehives in America are on the move to California every February, for what has been called the world’s greatest “pollination event.” (Be there!) Bees that have been dormant in the depths of a Minnesota winter are woken up to go to work in the California spring; to get them in shape to travel cross-country and wade into the vast orgy of almond bloom, their keepers ply them with “pollen patties” — which often include ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and flower pollen imported from China. Because the pollination is so critical and the bee population so depleted, almond growers will pay up to $150 to rent a box of bees for three weeks, creating a multimillion-dollar industry of migrant beekeeping that barely existed a few decades ago. Thirty-five years ago you could rent a box of bees for $10.

In 2005 the demand for honeybees in California had so far outstripped supply that the U.S.D.A. approved the importation of bees from Australia. These bees get off a 747 at SFO and travel by truck to the Central Valley, where they get to work pollinating almond flowers — and mingling with bees arriving from every corner of America. As one beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” — a place where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens they may have picked up. Add to this their routine exposure to agricultural pesticides and you have a bee population ripe for an epidemic national in scope...

“We’re placing so many demands on bees we’re forgetting that they’re a living organism and that they have a seasonal life cycle,” Marla Spivak, a honeybee entomologist at the University of Minnesota, told The Chronicle. “We’re wanting them to function as a machine. . . . We’re expecting them to get off the truck and be fine.”

Pollan comes full-circle to his original point, which is that the word "sustainable" is about to become as neutral as "puppies" or "clouds," if it's not already.

We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs too. That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural systems and organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as machines. When the inevitable problems crop up — when bees or pigs remind us they are not machines — the system can be ingenious in finding “solutions,” whether in the form of antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds. But this year’s solutions have a way of becoming next year’s problems. That is to say, they aren’t “sustainable.”

From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.

And this long story brings me back full-circle to my original point, which is that the average consumer, while doing better by at least knowing what organics mean in part, is still making choices with limited information, misunderstanding, and thinking only about how much things cost.

I want people to understand that the way the majority of Americans currently eat is not natural, or inevitable, or justifiable in any way. Americans have become so disconnected from their food that many people forget products aren't born on grocery-stores shelves, meat isn't wrapped in plastic from the start, and there are entire boardrooms deciding for us what we should eat, and it's never for our own benefit. Eating the mass-produced way isn't good for our bodies, our environment, our neighbors, our animals, or anyone except corporations developing processed foods or agribusinesses growing it. And doing it for your wallet is increasingly less justifiable, too.

I understand the constraints of limited funds and how much pressure they can put on daily choices like what to have for dinner. I understand that a single mom working two jobs doesn't necessarily have time to cook fresh food from scratch, even if it's cheaper in the long-run. I understand that we're all at fault that rural America eats more fast food and is more obese than urban America. I think we should also all be part of that solution. Folks who must eat with their wallet, I'm not speaking to you. But to the vast majority of Americans who can afford to eat better and smarter: why aren't you?

Americans have got to understand, first, the fallacy of food pricing. A walk down the aisles of Smith's or Food Lion or Albertson's is literally the most subsidized walk one can take. None of those prices are real, and instead show false market prices that hide the cost of gas, the cost of transport, and the missing costs of agribusiness subsidies, land deals, and corporate padding. Food prices in places like Whole Foods (however problematic their corporate structure is) and co-ops are much closer to the actual price of food. We're so used to cheap food we can't even fathom real food prices anymore, and it's hurting us more each day.

The second food pricing reality we need to wrap our heads around is that food prices are increasing, quickly. Americans are used to paying only a tiny fraction of their cost of living toward food, and that's not a realistic percentage compared with the rest of the world. Here's where climbing food prices get really interesting, though: as pressure increases to end/change the subsidy program that rewards huge agribusiness in our country and gas prices continue to reach historic highs (and let's not be foolish - they will only continue to reach new highs), we're going to see the cost of a supermarket trip continue to increase. Since so-called "speciality" stores specializing in food with more realistic prices are not as dependent on these factors, they will begin to seem like a more attractive and realistic option for more and more Americans. I look forward to being able to talk about structural problems with modern food consumption when the playing field is more even.

But then what? Will we see corporations influence the organics market until it, too, is predominantly mass-produced and flown/trucked in from a far-away locale? Will eating organic come to mean nothing when the only true produce is bought and sold at a farmers market? Will consumers say screw it, and go entirely local? How would a more local eating palate affect the way we cook? How can we continue to tap into local food markets to provide food for schools, prisons, cafeterias, the needy, and more? There are so many ways to provide better food at a lower cost, really the stuff of a thousand more posts just as long as this one. It can be done, but it's going to take work.

I could go on and on about this, obviously. But I love this debate, and I love the ever-changing choices and discussions they inspire.