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Fixing food

2009-06-24 15:16:22.424633+00 by Dan Lyke 8 comments

In linking to Marion Nestle's pointing out that the recently recalled salmonella tainted pistachios were simply re-packed and re-issued, Lyn said:

Obama needs to add fixing our food supply and food safety system to his long list of ToDos.

I've been on the fence about where to fix the food supply, but one of my on-going assumptions has been that it's cheaper to do this en-masse, that government regulation can provide an economic streamlining that each of us individually knowing the people in our food chain can't do for a reasonable expenditure of time.

I'm beginning to think that I'm wrong. I'm coming to the conclusion that there are so many externalities in food that all of the alleged gains we think we've seen in the past century or so are really just trading convenience for hidden costs, and that if we ask the government to "fix" this, we're just going to end up with a huge bureaucracy that favors the large producers. That the only way to fix the food supply is to go back to knowing the people who are growing and processing our food, and to be able to inspect those processes ourselves.

[ related topics: Interactive Drama Food History moron Current Events Economics ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2009-06-24 23:59:39.595455+00 by: dexev

Welcome back from the dark side, Dan :)

I just finished reading "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal" by Joel Salatin -- he's got some good stories about government and food safety from a small farmer's perspective. He and ziffle, I think, would find a lot of agreement on the proper role of gov't, but if you can look past the occasional rants, it's a good read.

Sharon Astyk's blog (sharonastyk.com) frequently also a good spot -- with the same disclaimer about the rants (but from the other side of the aisle).

And, I think of it kind of like like Open Source software -- I don't personally have to know all of my farmers, but the fact that I could, and that I can talk to people who do, makes a huge difference

#Comment Re: made: 2009-06-25 00:31:42.905904+00 by: Medley

Could be. Nevertheless there are certainly egregious practices that are already at least nominally regulated against for which there is no enforcement. Even improving enforcement on simple things like "don't sell food if you suspect its tainted with salmonella or e. coli" would be a good step.

And while I'm a big fan of and can afford to shop increasingly locally, it's not clear to me that such an approach will scale...

#Comment Re: made: 2009-06-25 02:29:35.423949+00 by: Larry Burton

It won't scale after a certain point. That's why we got away from it.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-06-25 05:25:01.805041+00 by: dexev

Larry, I don't think that's true. 90% of the world eats locally produced food -- if only because they can't afford anything else. Small-acreage farms (the ones most likely to supply to the local market) are actually *more* productive per unit of land than large ones.

It'can certainly be difficult for local farmers to scale, though, if they have to spend tens of thousands of dollars complying with useless gov't regulations before they can sell their first pound of beef or quart of milk.

Most of the fault though -- as usual -- lies on us. We the people have demanded strawberries in December and looked the other way while the USDA recommended feeding chicken manure to cows as a protein supplement (cheaper than soybeans!) as long as we go our BK Burger Shots 2 fer a buck thirty-nine. Most of us don't want to think about where our food comes from, so our food is produced using unthinkable practices.


#Comment Re: made: 2009-06-25 14:42:11.840395+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yeah, I see the "won't scale" argument as a simple acknowledgement that we're externalizing too many costs. Going local means we go back to paying more for food, because quality costs money, but that's the trade-off for knowing what's going into our food.

Yes, this also means that we may have to scale back our population growth, but that's an "either we do it voluntarily or it'll happen when there's a plague on a monoculture or an interruption in the petroleum fertilizer supply" situation.

In short: the current situation doesn't scale, so I don't think that's a valid argument against the other way.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-06-25 16:53:54.946688+00 by: ebradway

It sounds like there are some significant political justice issues form the small farmers' perspectives. Maybe Willie Nelson wasn't just blowing (pot) smoke! Only the large industrial farming operations have the political pull to influence the USDA. So we get essentially bald-faced lies from the Government...

I know from an academic geography point of view that food studies are big and much more complex than they seem on the surface. For instance, food shortages were pretty much eliminated by the 1990s through application of Green Revolution scientific farming techniques. But people were still starving because dictators were trading food aid shipments for weapons.

Now we have even more complex issues. GMO'd crops - a natural(?) extension of the Green Revolution - are looking like a pariah. GMO'd crops provide a more quantifiable yield but at the cost of extreme monoculture farming and dependency on the IP of Monsanto and others. The problem with monoculture farming is if something comes through that the crop is sensitive too, then the whole damned thing gets wiped out. The IP issues come from Monsanto playing RIAA to small farmers. There are remote tribes in Mexico that are finding Monsanto GMO IP plants in their small subsistence farms. This is an entirely new kind of IP problem compared to, say, Wolverine hitting file sharing a month before the official release. And none of this even begins to address the possible issues related to further genetic mutation of Frankenfood.

Evidently, in India, where the population density is much higher and the average income is much lower, Green Revolution techniques (and GMO'd crops) are being discarded in favor of organic farming techniques.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-06-25 17:09:52.541604+00 by: Larry Burton

Devex, I'll agree with you that local farms can be more productive but not enough so to supply a megalopolis like we have in the Northeast and the Southwest. You run into a land use problem once the population reaches a certain level. I'm not saying that local farms don't supply a significant portion of the population but in this country people eat from the corporate farms because they can't afford the meat and produce from the local farms.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-06-25 20:07:19.739578+00 by: spc476

Our (US) population growth is negative, once you remove immigrants from the equation. Heck, remove immigrants from any first world nation, and the population growth goes negative (it's a real problem in Western Europe). Japan is going through an extreme population implosion (bought on by their xenophobia, and it's one reason they're investing so heavily in robotics).

The best way to curb the population? Industrialization!