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.

Why we have unemployment

We have unemployment because our agricultural surplus is such that we don’t need for everyone to be “working”.  More important issues are who decides how to use the surplus and how is it distributed.

This post was prompted by a question on Reddit asking why we have unemployment.  It’s an important  question because unemployment can be devastating.

The agricultural surplus is the food produced by workers which exceeds their own needs.   This surplus means some/many people can do things other than produce food.  In our society we have used this surplus to produce a wide range of goods and services which have themselves become a part of the surplus.  Unemployment is an indicator of how rich we are.

Think of a small group of hunters/fishers and gathers on a small island where the living is so easy food and shelter requires only and hour or two a day.  By our terms these people would have a high unemployment rate.  Distribution of food would probably not be a problem as they would probably share their produce but they would have to decide what to do with all the spare time.

This model could get  complicated if they had lots of children and increased their population to the limits of the available food.  It would still take only an hour or two a day to harvest the food even though there wasn’t enough for everybody.

In such a small society distribution of food would be by sharing.  I know an anthropologist who did his field work in such a society and he said you could not buy food there.  Whatever one needed was shared.  What to do with the “free” time would probably be up to individuals with collective activities partly by consensus.

Modern technology, especially that applied to agriculture, gives us the same magnitude of surplus.  We too could be approaching the limits of our ability to produce food.

We too have to decide how to share the produce and what to do with the time. So far these decisions have been influenced by our commitment to the work ethic.  Everyone should spend most of their time working and their share of the surplus should come in the form of wages.

As our exchange of goods and services is facilitated by money the decision-making goes with the money.  To the extent that a person has money one can decide how the surplus will be used.  So the more equally money is distributed the more decision-making will equal. The ancient Egyptians did not use money and it appears the pharaohs decided the surplus would be used to build burial chambers.

In the industrial economies we do not need full employment but we do need a more equitable way of distributing the surplus.  With the ups and downs of the economy full employment may not be a realistic goal.  There are lots of things people could do that would be satisfying but which do not contribute to gross national product.

I believe a universal income scheme would give us a more equitable distribution  of the agricultural surplus.  If we are approaching the limit of our ability to produce food, it might provide a more equitable way of dealing with shortages.   It would also spread the decision-making among more people.

Unemployment can be financially and psychologically  devastating for the people who experience it.   But it is not the real problem.  The urgent problems are an equitable distribution of the agricultural surplus and how it is to be used.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

 

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.

Are small-scale economies the answer?

Some people see small, local economies as the answer to current problems.  Currently the catch word is Transition as in the Transition Town network as reported in The Guardian.

Generally speaking, the Transition vision is of a move towards self-sufficiency at the local level, in food, energy and much else, but the specifics of what “getting it right” might look like were never handed down from above, says the article.

 

It could work for a few small groups but as a solution to the world economic problem I have to be skeptical.  This world has had lots of experience with local, small-scale production.  In fact economic theory starts with firms that are too small to influence prices with their purchasing or selling decisions.

lalolalo_Running_pigOne of the problems with this approach is the dynamics of small communities.   Some people think of small communities as being utopia where everybody is friends, cooperates and decisions are made by consensus.  

Those of us who live or have lived in small communities know this a long way from reality.  People have disagreements which never get resolved, even if one party leaves the community.  Us guys lived on a British Columbia coastal Indian reservation for four years.  Here where it was very difficult to leave, lots of people did not speak to each other.  They had a long tradition of feasts and large family dinners but they would have up to three or four hundred people eating  in the recreation center and one could almost hear a pin drop because it so quiet from people not speaking to each other.  Some of their leaders described the reservation as a prison camp.

We now live in a small rural community of mostly white people.  This is not so bad but there are still many people who don’t speak to some others.

I figure economics is about relationship as expressed in the exchange of goods and services.  When you try to go local you are cutting yourself off from lots of people who thanks to modern transportation are within visiting and trading range.  No small community is going to have all the resources it requires to maintain itself.  The local natives in our area needed arrows for hunting.  There was some usable stone in their area, now on a major highway.    Better stone was several days away and the best, obsidian, was found in what is now the United States.  Trying to go local limits your range of consumption.

The important thing to ask with this type proposal is will it solve the overall problem and that depends upon what the problem is.  I think the problem is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  While there may be lots of resources left it will take a lot of energy to retrieve them.  It may be there are some small deposits of energy or minerals which can easily be mined in which case some small economic communities  could fare reasonably well.  Another question:  would small-scale agriculture provide enough food for seven billion people?

This world has had several millenia of experience with local economics.  Since  the industrial revolution most of us have enjoyed the products and social interaction of dealing with people around the world.   I’m not sure I would want to lose that and I am not worried.

Tragic food and clothes

For most us in the richer countries eating and clothing ourselves is done at the expense of the environment or by exploiting cheap labor in or from the poorer countries.  This happens because the world’s supply of labor exceeds the demand.

A tragedy in Bangladesh probably will not change anything.

Dairy farming: Canadian supply management and American subsidies.

Last night our community held the annual Robbie Burns dinner (a roast beef dinner with entertainment for ten dollars) and I sat next to a dairy farmer (from outside our community).

Canadian dairy farmers are protected  by marketing boards which enforce supply management.  All dairy farmers are required to sell their milk to a marketing board which says how much they can produce.  This supply management works to limit the amount of dairy products on the market and keeps prices up.  Dairy farmers generally appear to do well financially.

Gerald_G_Fast_Food_Drinks_FF_Menu_2Some Canadians object to supply management and claim our consumer dairy prices are the third highest in the world.  Prices in the United States tend to be about 50 per cent lower than  Canadian.  Some Canadians living close to the border have been known to purchase milk and cheese in the States.

When I asked this guy about subsidies for dairy farmers I was told Canadian farmers get none but Americans are subsidized by about 50 per cent.

I was aware American farming is heavily subsidized but have never really thought about the dairy industry.  This morning I googled “dairy subsidies” and it appears the guy was right.

So Canadians restrict competition with quotas and supply management and Americans keep prices down with subsidies.  I don’t eat much dairy so I have to prefer the Canadian way because my taxes are not going to dairy subsidies.

If Canadians were to get rid of supply management and Americans were to drop subsidies then dairy farmers would have to be competitive and work as efficiently as possible.  We would all be better off.  Subsidies should be given to consumes rather than producers.

Two views of food supply

My daily observations in this small corner of the planet tell me this article which predicts “increasing food prices, leading to political instability, spreading hunger and, unless governments act, a catastrophic breakdown in food” is 100 per cent bull excrement.

I hope this is  right.

However, I have long worried that the North American food factory could easily break down in which case my daily observations would change quickly.

We tend to forget or ignore things which for us are not an immediate problem.  Agriculture and food are so important we should probably be paying a lot of attention to what is happening on the farm.  It is much too important to leave to those in the industry.

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

%d bloggers like this: