This will be the first part in a series that I hope to do about globalization, food production, and sustainable economic development. I’m titling them ‘Response to Michael’ because these thoughts were brought together in a great discussion/debate one evening about the pros and cons of the globalization of food production and capitalism in general. My friend Michael brought up some challenging arguments and prompted a stimulating conversation and a number of ideas that I’ve since been wrestling with. I hope to receive comments and feedback in order to continue to develop my position on the issues and hear criticisms from those who hold different opinions.
Challenge 1: Why take up globalized and industrialized food production as a cause rather than other kinds of globalization?
This question took me by surprise and I had trouble articulating a response at the time, but after giving it more thought, I feel like I can better explain this choice. The quick and dirty answer is that the food production system is the one that is most tied up in our natural environment and the least responsive to market pricing, leaving it particularly vulnerable to exploitation and degradation. In addition to these risks, food production is absolutely essential to basic human survival and engenders issues of fundamental rights, which hold more weight for me than luxury goods and light/heavy manufacturing do.
In our discussion I cited waste, inequality, and perverse incentives as particular threats to nature and humans that also often apply to globalization in general. My focus on the food production industry has largely to do with its interactions with the biosphere upon which all of human kind depends. First of all, mass production of food is a kind of contradiction in terms. By treating ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years as if we can isolate inputs and outputs just as we do in factories, we unlearn a great deal of human knowledge about the complexity of natural systems. By choosing the particular genetic components that fit our industrial needs, we are putting genetic diversity at risk and using much more pesticides and herbicides to protect the resulting crop vulnerabilities. Also, by using fossil fuels in our inputs, we have gone from getting two units of food energy for each unit of input energy in the 1940s to one unit of food energy for every ten units of input energy today (1). This inefficiency is a product of the industrial food system we currently depend on. Sure, we can get a lot of food that way, but at what costs and for how long?
Secondly, by allowing global markets to determine food production we remove the local incentives protecting environmental resources from being exploited. Once global food producers own land in foreign countries, they care only about sustaining the transfer of food from one area of high supply to another of high demand, not the conditions of the agricultural area. In this way, our consumption of foreign foods may contribute to soil degradation, pesticide runoff, livestock waste pollution, and the social dislocation of family farmers thousands of miles away without it affecting us at all. We protest the moment a company pollutes in our backyard, but by consuming hundreds of products produced elsewhere we are effectively outsourcing our waste. This may sound at least efficient (as long as those living around the waste are willing participants) but even if that were the case, the interconnectedness of global ecological systems means that individual choices are removed from the collective impact. This is a classic common resource pool paradox. Additionally, the outsourcing of commodity crops leads to dependence on volatile foreign markets that leave developing countries and less diversified farmers at risk for economic catastrophe, as occurred in the coffee crisis of the late 1990s.
Third, by managing our food production systems on market values like efficiency and economies of scale, we subject nature to market valuation. The problem is that markets are not accurate at putting a price on nature, even if it could theoretically be done. Nature is too complex, for one. Scientists don’t know how many species we can lose or how much CO2 we can emit before a tipping point is reached (in other words, there is a problem of unknowable information; a death sentence for efficient markets). Another problem is that markets do not have a mechanism for limiting the scale of production. The earth has a finite set of resources, and markets have no way to keep to a sustainable level. In fact, when resources become scarce, markets assign a higher value, thus making it more profitable to exploit the precious few resources remaining (2). Furthermore, these problems assume that nature has no intrinsic value to begin with, and that the only legitimate value they have is in relation to human use, which is a whole philosophical discussion in its own right.
Finally, there are a number of perverse incentives and misconceptions about food and food production in the modern era that are important for human health and environmental sustainability. Government involvement in agriculture has been torn between focusing on national food security and satisfying the powerful food lobbies, which has given rise to inefficient subsidies and waste. Modern food production prioritizes the food that has the highest profit margins, which generally come from low-cost and nutritionally empty ingredients that are processed into junk food. The marketing dollars poured into processed food advertising is proof enough that our priorities are skewed: Food, beverage, candy, and restaurant advertising expenditures weigh in at $11.26 billion in 2004, versus $9.55 million to promote the California and federal ‘5 a day’ healthful eating program (3). Along with this massive marketing push for processed food, we have seen an obesity epidemic grow to dangerous levels; clearly an undesirable outcome.
There are a lot of problems with the modern food production system, and the US system in particular. Capitalism gets a lot of things right, but it gets food wrong.
1: Sexton, Steven.”Does Local Production Improve Environmental and Health Outcomes?” Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. (http://www.agecon.ucdavis.edu/extension/update/articles/v13n2_2.pdf)
2:Gowdy, John and Carl McDaniel. “One world, one experiment: addressing the biodiversity-economics conflict.” Ecological Economics 15 (1995) pages 185-186.
3: ConsumersUnion.org at http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_health_care/002657.html