The Hidden Costs

(This is kind of a rant. Apologies. I don’t really offer a lot of solutions here, because I just … well, I don’t have them. But knowing about them is a start, even if the only thing I can do this week is choose to have hummous and tabbouleh for dinner (homemade and, as much as possible, home grown – and yes, I can post recipes!) one night instead of burgers. There are no “good” answers, only slightly better ones. I really dislike being all DOOM about this, because that doesn’t solve anything. At the same time, not saying anything … doesn’t solve anything either. So anyway, a rant about my frustration with food.)

I wouldn’t marry a farmer,
He’s always in the dirt.
I’d rather marry a railroad man
Who wears a striped shirt!
– From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake

There’s a bit of a discussion happening over at Seven Deadly Divas about where ethical choices begin and how any of us can have fun knowing where “stuff” comes from. It’s worth reading the original post, since this is as much a reply as anything. (It started as a comment and got WAY out of hand. My tedious verbosity knows few bounds.)

So anyway.

It pretty much sucks to be a farmer right now. The seeds, processing, shipping, and grocery stores are all controlled by a handful of companies (literally – there are about 5) who own almost the entire market share of food production in the US – as well as a large portion of that same market abroad. Seeds are being designed to self-destruct after one year, and it’s illegal for farmers to save seeds anyway, they have to buy new seeds every year – from the same companies who then lowball them on prices to sell to supermarkets and whose budgets allow the supermarkets to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a product on the shelf, making it impossible for the farmers to afford it themselves.

So these men and women end up “contracted” by various large companies, and go so far into debt that they often can’t even sell the farm to get out of it. Selling the farm incurrs capital gains tax, and they’ll often end up in MORE debt by trying to leave.

The average farmer makes about $0.15 per dollar of consumer cash spent on food. The rest? Goes to the companies in between – and that’s gross, not profit. Prices go up due to gas shortages? Farmers don’t get any of that increase, even though their equipment and a large percent of the farm pesticides, antibiotics, and fertilizers are derived from petroleum or rely on the petroleum industry (that’s another post).

It’s a little like serf-dom, really.

And then you get to the processing part.

A lot of people talk about what it’s like for the poor animals who live in factory farms. They’re absolutely right, of course. It SUCKS. Pigs and cows and chickens living in feed lots are not really living – unless you count standing on a grated floor eating other ground up animals and wallowing in your own shit all day as “quality of life”.

But there’s a human toll to this as well. The people who work in fields as farm labor are exposed to really nasty pesticides. It’s not much better for people who work in animal feed lots (who are required by the big companies who own their contracts to do exactly as the big companies say, including the feed lot housing and animal numbers, as well as then eat the cost when the animals get sick from the process).

And when things go wrong, at say, a pig farm, and the “Lagoon” of pig excrement busts a dam, and you have TWENTY FIVE MILLION GALLONS of pig shit that flood the countryside? Well, that’s pretty shitty for the wildlife AND the other people who live there – pun absolutely intended.

So it sucks to be a farmer. Back in the day, it was less sucky to be a meat packer, because the pay was better. So people leave the farms to get jobs in the meat packing industry.

Except that’s… well, worse. Repetitive stress injuries, huge lawsuits, no worker’s organization for any kind of bargaining rights, 13 hour days followed by cramped, insufficient, vermin-ridden company housing that’s deducted from your minimum-wage paycheck.

Ok… stepping off the soapbox. If you want articles for any of this, I’ll be happy to give references.

The other side of the problem, and where this intersects with the Divas post?

Everyone has to eat.

Everyone. If you don’t eat, you will die. It’s not exactly an arguable fact of nature. Same goes with water. If you don’t drink water, you’ll die too, and much faster. (And the amount of water pollution caused by 25 million gallons of pig shit is… well, ew.)

So when you go to the grocery store, all you see is a pre-packaged, neatly wrapped tray of pork chops, chicken breasts, or ground beef. (Another facet of the industry recently taken over by the processing companies – they used to ship whole animal sections to grocers for butchering, now it’s pre-packaged and boxed.) That shrink wrapped package on sale for $2.48/lb doesn’t say what happened to the animal or the people who produced it – those costs are hidden by the system of production and packaging.

Food prices are unquestionably rising, even as the US continues to ship about 30% of its crop overseas every year due to surplus. So we’re all paying more for food that comes from pretty terrible places, shrink wrapped into sterility. Which means our food dollars go less far, leaving less room to buy organic and locally produced food that just might offer a halfway decent quality of life to the people and/or animals involved.

Stephanie’s comment at the Divas is probably the most pertinent here – we all have to know our sphere of influence. Know what we CAN affect, and what we can’t. And, really, to pick our battles. If I allowed myself to get involved in all the things that bother me in environmentalism and human rights, I’d go crazy. And so, I’ve picked food and water. I figure that’s about as basic as they get, unless you’re in South Dakota in January, and then shelter is probably more important.

But even after choosing my battles, I can’t take on Monsanto, Cargill, ConAgra, Tyson, or Premium Standard Farms.

I can grow some of my own vegetables – a prospect that seems less and less like just a “hobby” skill. I can eat less meat, and try to eat the best meat I can afford (even though I know there are problems on that front too). I can shop at a local farmer’s market and be thankful that I have one available.

Except that it takes me 40 minutes to drive there, in my gasoline powered car.

Intersectionality kind of sucks.

5 thoughts on “The Hidden Costs

  1. Being conscious of making a decision is the first step. So many people buy whatever/wherever food is the cheapest without thinking about the true cost of that decision. I am lucky to have many weekly farmers markets in the City that I can walk or take transit to. If I didn’t, I’d look into buying a share in a CSA. Your local slow food chapter or edible pub would be good sources to see if there is one that drops off near you.

  2. @Erika – right now I’ve had a real struggle finding a CSA in our area that is still open to new clients, even for a 1/2 or 1/4 share. I should try contacting them all again, but the last time I didn’t even get return phone calls :/

  3. This is going to be pretty scattered, so apologies in advance!

    1) I love Laura. She’s my “if you could have dinner with any historical figure” person. Wanting to be able to read Little House in the Big Woods by myself is what motivated me to LEARN to read.

    2) I’ve never seen worse food than when I lived in the middle of rural Indiana. I couldn’t get a ONION that wasn’t diseased. (Literally- I’d walk into the grocery and there would be GNATS all over the onion bin.) The local farmer’s market was not very good; you could get a tomato and the occasional pepper or strawberry, but that was about it. Nothing they sold in that whole vast sweep of land was intended for humans to eat- all feed corn and soybeans. There’s nothing wrong with feed corn or soybeans, exactly, but it was a kind of testament to how unprofitable farming good-quality food must be.

    3) When left to my own devices at home I rarely eat meat. There’s no real moralizing here, on my part. It’s more that it’s expensive and not really all that healthy either when it starts becoming a major part of your diet. I also just plain like vegetables more. I never felt I suffered from it. At the same time, the way we produce meat is horrifying. Like gas, it’s one of those things I really feel should be MORE expensive, not less, so people can get a better understanding of its true value, and because I firmly believe more change has come about via economics than any other method that’s ever been tried.

    4) Speaking of which, economics is also a big part of why our food and our diet is as screwed up as it is. The one I really like is the link between the rise of packaged foods (concurrent with changes in the laws governing those industries to make them more lenient and “advances” in chemicalization of food) with the enormous increase in the percentage of our diet made up of sugars.

    5) Nothing ticks me off more than bad science, and there’s a whole lot of it in this particular subject. (Speaking generally of the food industry at large.)

    6) As big a fan as I am of the eat local and associated foodie movements, and as much as I try to do what I can within my own limitations, there is an EXTRAORDINARY amount of classism inherent to their arguments that is really distasteful.

    7) I really wish the Indianapolis area had a year-round farmer’s market. Ironically, and unsurprisingly, the best one I’ve seen is also located in the heart of the wealthiest community in the state.

    8) I miss having a giant vegetable garden.

  4. @lili- I’m at work so I can’t really reply except to say “what you just said”. The lack of access to good food is another part of this mess that hacks me off, because again, you need food to live. The classicism in that side of things is disgusting, and a real issue. It bothers me that you have to be at least moderately “middle class” to eat anything like sustainable food (you should read the link to Grist that talks about trying to produce sustainable pork). It’s all such a mess, and it’s overwhelming.

    As for the bad science, I’d love a guest post about that side if things if you’re willing to write one. I’m not anything resembling a scientist and so can’t really critique there, but I know there are issues (I can’t imagine the science behind trying to clean up 25M gallons of pig shit, for example)

  5. Hmm. I’ll think about it. This isn’t my area of expertise either, but it would be fun doing the research required for an actual article on the topic. XD

    The thing about pig shit- that sort of thing happens because most of the time the companies aren’t caught or aren’t penalized. It is CHEAPER for them to do things the irresponsible way and pay the (too modest) fine 1 time in 10 than for them to do things right. And like most things, “cleaned up” is a highly relative terms. It’s like spilling oil into a marsh. It’s never really clean afterwards. :S

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