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Time for an alternative to cheap food

Only Time will tell if we’re at the point in the food debate to pop the taboo question: how come, despite all the squawking about food being too expensive these days, food is so incredibly cheap? What hidden force lies behind all the obvious problems?

To give credit where it’s due, Time magazine, a showpiece of glossy conventional wisdom since 1924, is the first mass-audience news weekly to make a splash – ‘Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food’, the 20 August edition challenges its readers – about the false economies that drive the cheapening of food and all the mishaps that causes.

The Time piece creates a space in which it’s now legitimate to raise questions about the secret social policy and secret foreign policy that drives a food system based on cheapness – a deliberate political decision that’s gone unnoticed and unchallenged by both the Right and Left in Britain and North America for over 150 years.

A moment’s reflection would tell anyone that food bought anywhere in North America cannot possibly be as cheap as it seems. Can a banana that’s been planted, tended, harvested, packed and shipped halfway around the world actually cost half of what it costs to mail a light letter from one side of town to the other? But a moment’s reflection is precisely what cheap food – the economic equivalent to muzak in the supermarket – is designed to suppress. The hegemonic assumption, across Left and Right, green and brown, is that abundant supplies of low-cost food can properly be taken for granted.

For those who don’t have time to read the original, here’s the gist of the argument. The US agricultural industry produces ‘unlimited quantities of meats and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans,’ writer Bryan Walsh maintains. The hidden price tag comes in the form of ‘eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs – and bland taste.’

Until the 1950s, North Americans and Europeans spent as much on food as on shelter: about a quarter of their income. Nowadays, food – most of it ready-to-eat – costs about 10 per cent of most people’s incomes. A good chunk of that price drop can be explained by farm subsidies, especially the $5 billion a year fertilizing the US corn crop, Walsh says, which in turn gets converted into dirt cheap prices for all the things corn goes into – from cornflakes to pop sweetener to meat. Little wonder that cheap carbohydrates and cheap fat win out over unsubsidized fruits and veggies, creating an epidemic of obesity and a disaster for medical expenses. ‘Once you factor in crop subsidies, ecological damage and what we pay in health-care bills after our fatty, sugary diet makes us sick, conventionally produced food looks a lot pricier,’ Walsh says. The industrial food system that ‘fills us up but leaves us empty’ is ‘based on selective forgetting. But what we eat – how it’s raised and how it gets to us – has consequences that can’t be ignored any longer.’

To which I would add, in the interest of overcoming ‘selective forgetting’, that there’s a history to this, stretching all the way back to the ‘bread and circuses’ that kept the Roman proletariat preoccupied during the collapse of the Roman Empire. Closer to today, as I explain in painful detail in The No Nonsense Guide to World Food, cheap food was adopted as a strategy of the British empire after the 1840s, when Britain became the free trading ‘workshop to the world’, keeping impoverished workers alive on cheap sugar and grains from Canada and other colonies.

Instead of propping up living standards with low-cost housing, as was done in continental Europe, the Brits opted for cheap food. This was cunning social policy because it kept the edge and crankiness of desperate hunger off the agenda of working class politics, and also served to divide the lower orders into two groups – one that lived on the right side of the poverty line because they ate cheap food and the other, which lived on the wrong side of the poverty line because they grew, made and sold cheap food. Unlike Europe, where labour politics was based on social unionism concerned with betterment of all, Anglo labour politics centred on what was called ‘bread and butter’ or ‘porkchop’ or business unionism concerned with specific occupational groups. This divide between Anglo-American and European politics has endured until today.

In this century, particularly after the 1970s, cheap meat was added to the diet of cheap sugar and grain in Anglo America. Fast food joints prepared salt, animal fat and carbohydrate meals so cheaply that the low cost of food played the same role in Anglo America that cheap servants play in the developing world – providing affordable treats to middle-income workers by super-exploiting people at the bottom rung in the food industry. For all that Julia Child thought she helped the servantless American middle classes eat well, cheap food helped them even more. The foreign policy side of the story related to US, and to some extent Canadian, efforts to find a counterpoint to the power granted to Arab and other colonies by direct access to petrol. What North America had, and cheap oil producers didn’t, was cheap food, so cheap that many colonial countries became dependent on it. This is the global geopolitical role played by cheap food, originally masterminded by Nixon henchman Henry Kissinger.

These unspoken realities behind food politics explain why food has the pricepoint it has, why food producers, by far the largest occupational grouping in the world, account for the great majority of the world’s poor, hungry, nutrient-deficient and diseased, and why – despite the ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ damage to personal and environmental health – it’s taken so long to start a serious discussion about it. Nothing so powerful as an idea who’s come to Time.

Adapted from NOW Magazine, 10 – 16 September 2009.

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