In Part 3, we looked at the cost of specialization – how specializing heavily in only one function (for example, the golden egg of excessively high milk production) weakens the goose.
Here in Part 4, we’ll expand our view and explore the difference between real food and cheap, industrially produced food that’s just an anonymous commodity on a supermarket shelf. We’ll also discuss the true cost of that cheap food.
At the end of Part 3, we were discussing how most of the calves born in the dairy industry are superfluous – an unwanted side effect of the desired product, the milk.
In a sane world, in a functioning, balanced, interconnected ecosystem where each piece of the puzzle interlocks seamlessly with the surrounding pieces, nothing is superfluous. Nothing is produced to excess.
But industrial food production has come a long way from sane.
Instead of a diverse web of life in which the outputs from one life form meet the needs of another in an endless, elegant, interspecies dance, industrial farming is linear. It goes in a straight line from beginning, to middle, to end.
At the beginning of the production line you put inputs in. Fertilizers, fodder, fuel…
In the middle you apply technology, medications, chemicals, and fertilizers, to prop up this unnatural system and the vulnerable single species you are working with.
At the end of the production line you have a product which you ship to the supermarket. Golden eggs.
You also have a weak, vulnerable goose that’s difficult to maintain and a whole lot of waste and mess, which you must try to hide from the consumers of your golden eggs.
Why are we still not really seeing the true price of cheap food?
The waste and mess created by industrialized and globalized food production systems is the true price we all pay for the cheap food at the supermarket.
We pay less at the checkout counter, but we pass the cost on.We pass it on to our future selves in terms of our own health and well-being, to our children in terms of their health and the health of the planet we’re bequeathing them, and to small farmers and farming communities who cannot compete with the industrialized monocultures without becoming just like them.
We’re increasingly aware of the consequences—the true price—of choosing cheap, industrially produced food.
We are increasingly aware that even when we feel we simply can’t afford expensive food, this might be false economy – as the saying goes, we can pay the farmer now or pay the doctor later; either way we pay.
And yet we continue to compare prices and choose the cheapest versions of things rather than looking for a more ethically sound choice[i].
Assuming that we can afford to choose, why are we still choosing the cheap supermarket brand over the locally produced alternative?
It’s not because we are bad people, and it’s not because we don’t care. Aside from affordability issues,it’s to do with how we see food – our underlying paradigm[ii] around food.
We choose based on price because our culture has taught us to see food as a commodity.
“Whenever any product or service [including food] becomes a standardized commodity, price becomes the sole basis of differentiation.”
Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity
Real food feeds more than just the stomach. It’s more than a list of ingredients on a label. Real food connects you in some way to your family or community, brings more wholeness into your life, or brings you closer to nature – to the origin of the food.
For example, if you have petted the cow and admired the calf and your kids play with the farmer’s kids while she milks the cow, then for you this milk is “real food.”
In contrast, if the milk is in a bottle on a shelf, you have very little understanding of where the bottle came from, and all the bottles on the shelf are labeled with the same tired old jargon, then the milk is just a commodity.
It’s no coincidence that easiest way you have of differentiating one of these mind-numbing labels from the other is price. (More on how low pricing strategies are used by supermarkets, coming up in Part 5.)
Food as a commodity
Once, food was something we shared. Now, it’s something we buy and sell, as a commodity.
In a non-industrial culture, everyone is privy to the skills and knowledge associated with food. Food, and the work and knowledge involved in procuring it, are freely shared. No-body would refuse to help with procuring food, and nobody would ever consider withholding food or demanding something in exchange for it.
In our modern, globalized culture, everyone knows the names and faces of popular movie characters; advertisers groom our children at ever earlier ages to recognize and ask for the cereal with Winnie the Pooh or Spider-man on the packet. But too few people know how to actually feed themselves.
In a modern culture, food is not shared freely. It’s is under lock and key at the supermarket. To get it, you have to hand over the money.
Food, in our culture, is not something you know the history of. You don’t know the person who milked the cow, or the name of the cow. You couldn’t, because the cow had no name, and was milked by a machine.
Industrially produced food is anonymous. It doesn’t come from friends, neighbors (whom you’ve avoided getting to know in case they turn out to be psychopaths), or your own abundant backyard.
Food today for the industrialized world comes from machines, factory production lines, and vast, precarious monocultures focused on a single kind of golden egg.
In the next and final part of this series, with milk as an example, we’ll look at how supermarket chains use food pricing strategies to keep the traffic—and the profits—flowing.
We’ll also briefly explore how the global food industry monopolizes our supermarket shelves with cheap foods, at the expense of small, local producers.
Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com– an exploration into thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life. Download a free copy of“Ditching the Supermarket: Make a difference, save money, live better.”
[i] In an article in July 2018, a leading retail analyst said that the closure of Dick Smith Foods was due to consumers basing their choices mainly on price. Dick Smith Foods focused on selling food that was grown in Australia and rejected cheaper imports. It donated 100% of its profits to charities. It closed in 2018 to avoid bankruptcy.
[ii]Broadly, a paradigmis a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind. A paradigm shiftis an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.