Food, glorious food

For some of us it is very easy to be complacent about food supply.  All his life this blogger has lived near an unlimited supply of food.  He now lives 20 minutes out-of-town and within an hour of at least a dozen supermarkets, all of which are always fully stocked with an excellent variety of foods.

I wish this were true for all the people on this planet and I hope it will remain true for the rest of time.  There are some reasons to be concerned.  Even with all this food available there are people here who rely on the local food bank to eat.  If our food factories were to break down a lot more people would go hungry.

Food is so important at least some people should be monitoring what is happening in the agriculture industry.  It is too important to leave to farmers who have interests that conflict with those of their customers.

Here are a few concerns about food production.

The industry is heavily subsidized, probably in so many ways nobody knows for certain the extent of the subsidies.  People living in rural areas sometimes have  disproportionate voting power and farm lobbies tend to be very powerful.  In any case most governments want a cheap food policy to avoid bread riots.  All the subsidies distort prices so that we make irrational buying decisions.  Last night this blogger probably would not have eaten fresh green beans from California or South America if we had to pay the full costs of growing and transporting them.  If agricultural subsidies were to be abolished food production would be more rational and efficient and some of us would make drastic changes to our diets

Another concern is that very few people know much about the sustainability of agricultural technology and those who do know are not always reassuring.  We know there is a lot of monoculture and a high use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.  What would happen to our food supply if a financial breakdown were to mean farmers were not able to purchase their chemicals?   What is the true condition of the topsoil around the world?

Weather and climate change always has been and always will be an issue in agriculture.

From time to time somebody makes an issue of North American food waste with a claim that we waste enough food to reduce hunger around the world.  This could be true but there is the problem of getting the food to where it is needed.   Collection and transport would be expensive and trade works best when both parties have items of equal value to each other.

It is in the interests of all of us that agriculture be a viable and sustainable industry.  But there is an economic problem relating to the elasticity of the demand curve.  When the first hand-held calculators came out they were terribly expensive.   As the price came down more and more people were able to afford them  and manufacturers were able to make a profit with a small markup on lots of sales.  This is not true for agriculture.  Most of us eat the same amount of food regardless of the price.    So, if there is a bumper crop the price will go down even though sales will not go up.  Sometimes farmers are better off with a poor crop so that prices go up and their total income increases.

I’m not sure there is an answer to this problem that does not involve government interference in markets.  My preferred solution would be a universal income scheme which would include agricultural workers.  For a suggestion of how such a scheme might work I refer you to the essay “LETS go to market:  Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

As food is such an essential part of our lives we have a responsibility to ourselves to take an interest in the agriculture industry and monitor what is happening.

Environmental eating

The 100-mile diet or eating locally is one way people can try to be more environmentally sensitive in their eating habits.  Removing agricultural subsidies would be a more difficult and probably more effective way of doing the same thing.

We live on the edge of a major fruit and vegetable growing area yet when we walk through the major chain supermarkets most of the produce appears to be imported.  It is easy to understand those people who want to eat locally or eat a 100-mile diet (all food produced within 100 miles of ones residence) or “live in place”.

Unfortunately there is no guarantee that locally produced food is any healthier or more environmentally friendly than food grown elsewhere.  One does not  have to go far off the major highways to see what appear to be factory farms.  The Conference Board of Canada has said something similar in a recent report according to an article in The Western Producer.

Improved transportation and food supply chain logistics have made long distance transport of fresh and frozen food viable, economical and environmentally sustainable, says the report published in late July.

Local food production can actually consume more energy and leave a larger “environmental footprint” than food produced more efficiently and transported, says the report, Fast and Fresh: A Recipe for Canada’s Food Supply Chains.

(I think of the Conference Board of Canada as representing corporate rather than consumer interests.)

Another way to deal health and environmental issues in food production would be to remove all agricultural subsidies so that consumers would, as much as possible, know the full costs of the foods they eat and could make purchasing decisions according to their values.  Then we could eat locally  or imported depending upon which is cheaper and according to our values.  If the true cost of food is high enough some of us might decide to grow our own.

The problem with this approach is that subsidies, especially for farming,  are entrenched in our economy and removing this would be extremely difficult.  Also for political reasons governments generally practice a cheap food policy.

johnny_automatic_cornThis guy does most of the family grocery shopping at two stores.  One is plant nursery and produce store which carries lots of local items when they are in season as well as imported fruits and vegetables.  Their prices are usually less than the supermarkets and the farmers markets.  The other is a locally owned supermarket which carries some local products.

After writing the draft for this post I drove 10 km (return) to a  neighboring farm  to buy some fresh corn for lunch.  This was well within the 100-mile diet, but how environmental was it?  The corn was very nice.

Can local food be as efficient as industrial agriculture?

Can local food be as efficient as industrial agriculture?

Here’s  l;ink to a discussion of this interesting topic.

Probably some foods are more efficiently produced locally and some others via industrial farming.

The way to determine which is which is to remove all agricultural subsidies.  Then the prices in the stores would reflect the true costs  of growing each item and each of us could make our decisions according to our own values.

By the way last summer I purchased local; strawberries which cost more than the imported variety because the local ones tasted better.

Seven billion are a lot of people to feed and it could well be that industrial agriculture is necessary.  And should it fail it would also mean a lot of suffering..

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