Friday, June 19, 2009

On Food

One of my favorite bloggers (and an appreciated commenter here), Linda of Rebel Pigs, raised some important questions about organic/local food and its accessibility in a recent post. I hope I am not oversimplifying by saying that at the heart of the matter is the question of whether or not locally produced, organic food is a realistic option for a significant portion of the population (speaking particularly of North America). As someone who preaches the importance of personal responsibility and the fact that I am seriously considering some food production ventures, this is definitely a topic which I spend a lot of time thinking about, and which I like to discuss (which in my case seems to mean lecture about).

So here goes.

We all know that food is one of the basic needs of life. All living things need to intake enough energy to at least supply that required to live and do whatever the thing is doing. We humans have also made the act of nourishing ourselves into a social and, as in modern times, entertainment activity as well. This consumptive pattern can definitely seem to support the viewing of humanity as a kind of semi conscious virus, but I don't want to digress too much. Advancing beyond the hunter/gatherer level of society has required that some members of society devote significant personal energy to growing enough extra food so that others are free to work at other tasks necessary to maintaining a society. Even if most required labor is shared throughout all members of society, certain specialties including agricultural, are necessary.

As societies grow more "advanced", more and more people move away from involvement with the production of their food. Choosing to live as a food producer has usually meant a higher debt load, lower standard of living and, even when energy intensive, often requires significant manual labor. And as big business evolved into the modern global network of massive, politically active corporations able to hide behind a sea of relatively invisible stock-holders...food has become a controversial topic indeed. To many, it is a tool for achieving social control, and even a weapon.

Indeed, for many years, many countries held vast quantities of various grain in reserve in order to affect global and domestic prices, all while thousands starved (globally and domestically). Now many of these reserves are gone and instead we through massive amounts of calories into landfills as mere trash, because to do otherwise is deemed be some kind of irresponsible and anti-capitalist act. Our system has evolved (with significant assistance) into one which places greater emphasis on self-maintenance of the system, than on meeting the minimal needs of every human being on the planet. Indeed, in this system, the only human need that has not been near totally commodified is the need for certain atmospheric conditions...and this one is certainly also well on the way.

In recorded history, humans have never been able to create an egalitarian society of any significant population size or level of productivity. They always seem to eventually be corrupted by greed or laziness or lust for power, or all of the above.

Even if there seemed to be an acceptable egalitarian solution, it seems unlikely that any nation of souls (or larger population) would undergo such a reformation within even a generation. This means that such a solution must be created and implemented by very definitely working within the current system, as flawed and, often, corrupt as it is. This means that those choosing to take part in the production of food (for personal use or commercial as well) have two basic choices; industrial scale production (including quotas, GMO, chemicals, price fixing, etc etc) or local/small scale specialty production (including usually higher quality, organic or naturally produced and higher cost). Nowadays, it is rare for local scale production operations to be possible without non-farming income. This means that that most healthy and sustainable food production is of the "hobby" variety, greatly limiting output potential and therefore the ability to fill many mouths. It does, however, mean greater variety in that limited output, but also much higher prices.

Here's a personal example. My mother had to leave her job (about 21 years in the donut sector of the service industry) for health reasons. Without this income, we'd have done without a LOT of things, and may not have even been able to keep the farm. Now that Dad is a senior, his pension makes up for some lost income but that still means mom has no money of her own. So she decided to set up a small fresh egg business. At maximum production by the 150-200 hens she will have remaining, this will bring in about $175 per week or $700/month, before expenses, at $2/ dozen. If demand is high enough that customers will come to pick up their eggs, this should make her monthly profit around $600 per month (after initial investment is recovered, 6 months to a year) or about 1/3 of the 40 hour per week job she had. Also, it must be mentioned that a fairly significant initial investment is necessary for such a venture, in order to house that many laying hens humanely AND productively. Since we are so far north, this investment is extra high because we need to provide plenty of indoor space for winter, as well as outdoor for true free ranging in the mild seasons.

So it should be pretty clear that taking part in conscientious and local food production is rarely undertaken by anyone wishing to live a typical Western middle class existence and would not even be possible without relatively high end product pricing. This tends to mean that those with little means do not have access to much in the way of good quality, healthy, locally produced food. This also does not take into account the fact that a 100 mile diet still means that some food is being shipped 100 miles and therefore someone is having to make some kind of living off delivering that food. Therefore income AND location significantly affect accessibility.

As much as many of us are wont (myself included) to pin point blame for mass suffering and death due to social inequality, reality is rarely so straightforward. The only answer seems to be that humanity is capable of great positivity and great negativity, but for some time now we have been leaning more and more heavily to the negative. No matter how much we talk about efforts to avoid it, we seem drawn back to the self perpetuating and steadily darkening system we live within.

Personally, the only solution I see is what I have written about before, for person by person to choose to strive for balance between self and everything else. Living mostly for ourselves individually is as harmful as not living for ourselves at all. Modern group activity tends to be superficial. Rarely do people choose to meet socially for an activity involving labor (sport just doesn't count) and we primarily seem to have a system where success means not having to do any labor or unpleasant task whatsoever.

I would say that if any one thing is the reason for starvation and poverty, that definition of success is it. Dedication to such a system is why we do not seem capable of de-commodifying our needs.

11 comments:

linda said...

Very interesting points and the example was valuable to me. I tend to agree with you overall but occasionally, I go off on a rave when certain people insist that its all so easy and then refuse to talk about the intricacies involved.
BTW, farm fresh, free range local eggs in Chicago sell for 5 dollars a dozen. If your mom wants to start mail orders, sign me up! Good luck to her!

SoapBoxTech said...

I know what you mean Linda. I do too. Ain't nothing easy about what all needs to be fixed.

Thanks for the heads up about egg prices there. Apparently here, a fully grown laying hen is selling for $10/ head no...about twice normal price. I am also noticing acreage owners buying a few cattle or goats, etc.

MoonRaven said...

Wow--what a good post. I wouldn't call it a rant at all, just the plain truth. So many good, clear things in here. I'm tempted to point out many useful parts of what you've written but I will stick with the ending and an additional point I'd like to make.

Striving 'for balance between self and everything else.' Not easy but so necessary. '...the reason for starvation and poverty, that definition of success...' Yeah and most of us are hooked on it. 'Dedication to such a system is why we do not seem capable of de-commodifying our needs.' And it's so hard to get unhooked from that system--and, of course, that's just the way the system wants it... Bravo for pointing it out so frankly.

My one addendum is to your point about creating egalitarian societies. As someone who wants to do just that, even though you emphasize that the corruption 'by greed or laziness or lust for power' happens at any size, I wonder if it would be easier to confront, rein in, or otherwise deal with in smaller groups--not that it would be easy, but I think it's impossible in large scale society but might only be incredibly difficult in smaller groups. At least we can try.

Once again, thanks for this post. There's a lot to chew on (if you'll pardon the pun) in here.

SoapBoxTech said...

Thank you very much, MoonRaven. I wasn't actually ranting with this post, although it did feel a bit rambly or something. I'm glad to hear otherwise.

As for the egalitarian societies, part of me thinks some kind of class structure is as natural to humans as it is to laying hens, for example. But with that point I was actually trying to say that beyond a certain size, those flaws seem to take over. I do believe smaller size groups can be egalitarian and that is the biggest reason that I maintain that this change has to come from the grassroots.

linda said...

Have you heard of Transition Towns yet? Apparently the goals are very much about working in smaller groups of people towards sustainability, even in large cities like ours, where we have neighborhoods. One Transition Town committee formed in one area not far from me that I know of and is going well at last update. It maybe a matter of breaking up into smaller villages even if only in theory if that makes sense. There is a great deal of inspiration out there. It just hasn't all come together yet on a large enough scale.

Anonymous said...

Here in se BC organic layer mash cost $23 bag this year up from $12 3 years ago. But organic eggs are at least $5/dozen. Can you buy bulk organic grains and find a market for organic eggs? Then there should be a bit of money in the egg business and no more work.

SoapBoxTech said...

Linda, I have heard of Transition Towns. I was actually invited to be part of establishing the framework in Canada. I must admit I have been reticent in getting back in touch with them but I have to get on that. Thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous, thanks for the tip. We are actually a mixed farm so we grow our own grains. They are not officially organic as the certification process has been somewhat inhibitory. I am confidant that these hens will bring in some income, and that we could take certain steps to responsibly increase that income. My point, however, was just that no one is going to get rich from responsible local food production. Also, the original question being discussed was just how accessible is such food. I am willing to see mom charging $4 or $5 per dozen, but I have to acknowledge that this is still beyond the means of a good portion of the North American population and it is the weekly salary of the average laborer in China or India. Thanks for reading and joining in though!! I love the discourse.

MoonRaven said...

Just a thought about your statement "They are not officially organic as the certification process has been somewhat inhibitory."

In the US there has been a less expensive alternative to organic developed, particularly to support small farmers who can't afford the 'organic label'. It's called Certified Naturally Grown and information can be found at http://www.naturallygrown.org/ (There's also a similar group in the UK at http://www.wholesome-food.org.uk/ ) I wonder if there's something like this in Canada that you could use?

SoapBoxTech said...

There is indeed and we`ve been talking about it. However, I think that part of this relocalization includes less necessity for such certifications. The ability to talk with the grower or visit the farms and see the practices being used is much more important, in my opinion. Most of our customers know we are organic and as naturally grown as possible, before they have even started buying from us. Certification is more for mass production for usually more distant consumption.

But, having said that, we will still very likely go with the Certified Naturally Grown process. Thanks again, MoonRaven.

Anonymous said...

Food is too cheap. When people can't afford eggs @ $5/dozen yet drive new cars, have a new televisions and other luxury consumer goods the problem is not the price of food but how they prioritize.

See: http://www.poultryindustrycouncil.ca/factsheets/fs_42.pdf

"A similar comparison for 1991 was $1.52 per dozen eggs and $4.20 per kg of chicken.

Based on 1991 dollars the consumer of 1951 paid the equivalent of $4.30 per dozen for eggs and $8.10 per kg of chicken."


If I understand this correctly it means that prices are half of what they were in 1951. No wonder farmers struggle.

SoapBoxTech said...

Anon, in our part of the world I tend to agree with you. But in many parts of the world, where there are a hell of a lot more mouths to feed than here, food IS just about the biggest priority yet it is less accessible than here.

I appreciate your taking the time to comment and for being so sensitive to the small farmer.