Food As Commodity Will Never Work

We Are What We Eat
by Jamey Lionette
December 12, 2007, AlterNet

The following is an excerpt from Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed edited by Vandana Shiva (South End, 2007).

I am not a scientist, journalist, or other specialist. I sell food. I help run a family-owned and operated neighborhood market and cafe that buys and sells predominantly local, clean, and sustainable food. I cannot speak about the reality of our food supply around most of the world. I can only can speak of what is happening in the first world, where, unfortunately, only the privileged elite can choose to put real food on their dinner tables.

Lately it seems every mass media newspaper or magazine, from the New York Times to Rolling Stone, has an article digging into the true filth that most food in the U.S. really is. Some people are actually questioning mass produced and monoculture organic food. Even Time magazine proclaimed “Local Is the New Organic” on its cover. Everywhere I turn people tell me that there is a new wind in the U.S.; that people are now concerned about eating local, clean, and sustainable food. From my vantage point in the market, behind the counter, I just don’t see it. Yes, in Massachusetts there are more farms today than in the last 20 or so years, but fewer total acres than ever recorded. Farmers markets are becoming popular or perhaps trendy. Chain supermarkets are “listening to their customers” and capitalizing on cheap “organic” food. But the chain-supermarket owners are some of the same people who screwed up our food supply in the first place. How can we trust them?

Outdoor food markets are a mainstay in most cultures in the world and were once a given in our culture. Now most people go there to shop for the luxury food treats (locally grown food) and get their staples at the supermarket. I think that because of the Depression (when there was no money to spend on food) and World War II (when there was rationing and everyone was focused on the war effort) Americans lost their taste-buds. Along came the mass-produced foods of the 1950s at cheap prices. Supermarkets were a “progressive” thing, as suburban living was progressive. Rural culture and production was frowned upon as old-fashioned and primitive. Food from all over the world suddenly became available and at prices lower than local food. Protecting America’s foreign interest, the beginning of what we now call globalization, became a new form of colonialism. Foreign resources, raw materials as well as labor, were now easily exploitable by the nation’s new superpower status. As the economy grew, money filtered down to the managerial and to some of the working class and was coupled with an influx of cheap products made cheaply and available to most classes of the U.S. Consumerism took off. Our food changed as well, especially with faster transport and technologies trickery to extend the shelf life of food. Seasonal produce became available year round; exotic food (such as bananas and oranges in Boston) became readily available and affordable. Everything was cheaper, the shopping was more convenient, and exotic foods became staples in our diet. Small and local farms shut down or were forced into monoculture farming. A disconnect sprouted between our diets and our food sources. An orange, once a special and rare treat, became an everyday commodity.

Supermarkets are part of mainstream America’s identity. Working-class people have little choice but to shop at conventional supermarkets. Middle-class people can shop at places like Whole Foods and appease their consciences with the notion that that food is safer and tastier than conventional supermarket food. And those of the flat earth society — middle- and upper-class people who do not believe that their climate is changing, that a global market is a bad thing, or that our food systems are in trouble — favor the conventional supermarket. However, both conventional and progressive supermarkets operate on the same model: mass-produced foods, made cheaply, and sold at cheap prices.

Supermarkets sell commodities. They buy mass-produced food from big business. This model of efficiency, which mirrored the production of things like automobiles and VCRs, is what created the mess our food supply is in. Efficient ordering and deliveries, no seasonal variety of stock, little to no blemishes (whether natural or from human error), significant quantities — enough to keep all those shelves constantly filled with whatever the customer might want. I describe this model as “I want what I want when I want it,” and it goes against everything about food that is local, clean, and sustainable. It cannot be done at a mass level. […]


People first bought cheap food because they either did not have enough money or felt like they were beating the system by spending less than they budgeted for food that week. Over time our budgets became based on the price of cheap food, so that now, during the rare moment of seeing real food, the price tag appears exorbitant. Our wages and salaries, our rent and utilities, all are tied to our cheaply priced food.

Many people who can actually afford local, clean, sustainable food buy it only when it is trendy, sold at boutique shops, or for a special occasion. Those from the class which struggles to afford mass-produced food certainly cannot afford the real price of food in the U.S.. One often-overlooked agent of gentrification and, after rent increases, one of the best ways to ruin a neighborhood is by shopping at chain supermarkets. Local neighborhood markets close or survive by becoming convenience stores. Farmers’ markets become a trendy place to buy a few novelty items: “Oooh look at this peach. I bought it from a farmer!” Once the small markets are gone, only supermarkets are left. We are so out of touch with the struggle to get food, because of how much cheap food is available in the country, that we do not see a pattern of destruction.

The more we buy mass-produced foods, the more it empowers agro-business and the fewer farms there will be. The more we shop at supermarkets, the fewer neighborhood markets there will be. Already we are almost trapped by agro-business and its sales outlets. Soon, there will be no escape. As it stands right now, only a privileged few can afford real, clean, and sustainable food; soon, even the privileged will have little access to such food. The fewer local farms we have, the more expensive their food becomes and the more difficult it is for local farms to feed the local population. Once the farms are gone, only mass-produced food is left.

Hadley, Massachusetts, is known as having the best asparagus in the world. Though just an hour or so outside of Boston, it is near impossible to find asparagus grown in Hadley in Boston. Futures of the asparagus are sold; mostly to France and Japan, I am told. Instead of a wonderful spring vegetable for a local dish, Hadley asparagus has become a boutique item for other parts of the world. Yet in spring, summer, winter, or fall, asparagus flown in from Peru is half the price of in-season asparagus grown on a family farm in New England. And I must admit it seems a bit shameful to complain about such a situation in the U.S., when so many peoples around the world local resources have been diverted to produce food for Americans.

The late summer is tomato season in New England. The glory of a local tomato salad on a warm summer night in Boston is something which we can only enjoy a couple of months a year. The flavor of our farmers’ tomatoes are spectacular. Especially when bought at a local shop or farmers’ market, where we actually speak with the people involved in harvesting and distributing our food, people who are part of our community. These tomatoes were not sprayed with anything; the soil was not ruined by chemicals or monoculture farming. These tomatoes traveled only a few dozen miles and were grown outside, thus using only a little energy and creating little pollution. The farmer, part of our community, was deservedly paid and did not exploit anyone or the land. No one was ripped off during the whole transaction, and the tomatoes were available to everyone in Boston during the late summer months.

Yet the rest of the year we still expect to have fresh tomatoes available, and they are called for in many dishes. Fresh tomatoes are considered year-round staples. There is never any questioning tomatoes in March, their integrity or their source. We have become used to hydroponic tomatoes flown in from Mexico or Holland. Instead of focusing our efforts on bringing in tomatoes year-round to Boston, we should focus making the Northeast corridor able to feed itself now and in the future. At the very least, these factory-grown tomatoes do make our local tomatoes taste even more wonderful. We are so used to the mealy, flavorless (or artificially flavored) hydro-tomato that when we taste a real one, it seems so special. This is one reason why local farmers are not perceived as the people who raise our food, but as the producers of specialty items.

Another reason farmers are considered purveyors of specialty foods is their prices. Let us end the idea right now that local, clean, and sustainable foods result in a high profit for the producer and the retailer — trust me, there is absolutely no money in sustainable food. When food is handled as sustenance — not as a commodity — there is little profit to be had. That is why real food is so rare and so hard to come by now. The perverted twist is that it would seem logical that food transported for days around the world would cost more than something fresh and local. But quite the opposite is true. Nobody considers what the true price of real food is. Nobody is outraged that what most working-class people can afford, and even the middle class can afford, is nothing more than mass-produced, cheapened food.

There are, of course, the Whole Foods, Wal-Marts, Trader Joes, and other chain supermarkets trying to sell organic foods. Everyone knows these places are cheaper than local markets and farmers’ markets, but rarely do people think about how supermarkets work. People are generally aware of the smaller mark-up chain supermarkets can afford, as compared with an independent neighborhood market, as well as all the corporate capital and funding behind them. But few often think about what is involved in producing enough of a particular food for every shelf of their hundreds or thousands of outlets across the region or country. You can’t see the devastating effects of monoculture farming in the sterile and lifeless supermarket. The food looks so perfect and seems so abundant. And with such cheap prices, why ask questions? Sustainable farming does not have the ability to be mass produced; it cannot be sold at the level of a chain supermarkets. Corners must be cut to keep costs low, production must increase to fill the shelves, the laws of nature must be beaten by science to allow for year round production, and if the weather cannot yet be defeated, then the product should be mass-produced and imported from another part of the world.

Read the rest here.

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