The food industry is not your friend

Some words of wisdom from Michael Pollan, being interviewed about his new book In Defense of Food:

It’s very hard to make money selling normal unprocessed foods. Ask any farmer who’s growing broccoli or oats; it’s a very hard way to make money.

The more you process the food, the more profitable it is. If I go to the supermarket, I can buy a pound of organic oats for 79 cents. Now that’s a lot of oats, and nobody’s making much money. But if you turn it into Cheerios, suddenly you have a brand. You’ve got your little doughnut shape, you’ve got an ad campaign, and suddenly you’re charging four bucks for a few ounces of oats.

Then you come up with a Honey Nut Cheerio Cereal Bar with a layer of artificial milk in the middle. Now you’ve got a convenience food that’s very much your own, because you’ve got this special formula to make your fake milk. And kids can eat them in the car or on the way to school. Now you’re charging $10 or $20 for a few penny’s worth of oats. That’s the gist of the food industry. That’s the economic imperative.

And:

The authority of mothers was essentially destroyed by the food industry. The $32 billion a year in marketing muscle out there has undercut culture’s role in determining what we eat, and culture is a fancy word for your mom.

And:

Interviewer: If the stuff that our great grandmother was putting on the table gives us what we need and tastes good, why have we fallen for this?

Pollan: A lot of reasons: marketing and convenience. We want to be liberated from the drudgery of cooking, or at least we’ve been convinced that we do.

Interviewer: And even the drudgery of eating.

Pollan: That’s right. I mean as Wendell Berry said back in the ’70s, if the food industry could profitably digest your food for you, they would. They would reach down your throat and mush it up for you. They want the meal in a pill. That’s the ultimate dream of the food industry. They have to show value added, and the value they’ve added most successfully is convenience. Liberating women from the kitchen, cooking for us, chewing for us.

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8 thoughts on “The food industry is not your friend

  1. Rick,

    Our family is finally getting around to reading Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dillema”. I wish what I was reading was news to me, but it isn’t. And although I’m glad others are reading it and beginning to understand they need to change their eating habits, they still make lousy customers. (I wonder if any are reading this!)

    Don’t get me wrong. Most are very passionate. Most take a lot of extra time to pick up milk, eggs, chicken, pork, and beef from the farm. That’s a step in the right direction. The few that are problematic are getting a cool reception from us. I’m understanding more and more Joel Salatin’s “firing” of customers. Sometimes you just say “No!”

    But now, with the economy in turmoil, and prices for everything going up, my tiny margins (if they even exist – or if they aren’t negative margins) are shrinking even more. But when I raised prices on chickens this year (after leaving them the same for 5 years), most of our regular customers did not place orders.

    I have a theory. The reason we are in this industrial food mess isn’t the greedy corporations. It is us. We, who demand and buy the stuff they sell. Economics 101 – Supply and Demand. They supply what we demand. Cheap, ultra-convenient food.

    And, unless we enter the Greater Depression soon, many of us producing this whole, clean food….will quit.

  2. Wow! I think Jim hit the nail on the head! Why it is acceptable for farmers to have to work three jobs for us to have cheaper food is beyond me. I can not understand why Christians don’t get the simple principle that the laborer is worthy of his hire. (1 Tim. 5:18 and more)

    Corporations being non-entities are not capable of greed. The problem is that they are run by greedy people, people not unlike ourselves. The people who run these corporations would be no less greedy if their livelihoods were made doing something else. And their greed does indeed feed off of our own. If we didn’t demand their product at such cheap prices, they would have to turn elsewhere to line their pockets.

    I remember seeing a woman turn around and walk off in disgust at the prices of corn at a local farm. I think it was like one ear less per dollar than the current Wal-Mart sale. I was thinking to myself… well, sure go ahead and by the “cheaper” stuff and then pay for the difference through your tax dollars needed to subsidize farmers who sell for less than it costs them to grow it. Excellent economic sense, right?!

    Around here we have a rule, that unless it is absolutely necessary, if we want it we are going to pay a fair price for it. If we can not do that we will skip it. We do not have the right to demand that strawberry farmers lower their prices so that we can afford them instead of bananas. Bananas will do the job just fine.

    And your right, if people don’t change their attitude towards the farmer and his worthiness, we aren’t going to have any more American family farmers. As it stands a good deal of our food is imported from China now anyway. Does anyone even care?

  3. And, unless we enter the Greater Depression soon, many of us producing this whole, clean food….will quit.

    Jim,

    This is an important issue for us all to be thinking about. Myself, I’m not so sure that whole, clean food is for anyone but the farmer who raises it (and perhaps the neighbor to whom he trades his surplus). When modern society began depopulating the countryside in order to staff the factories and sweat shops in the cities, it was necessary to come up with novel ways to feed them, since whole, clean food was also extremely perishable. Thus refined sugar and flour and all the other innovations that turned perishable food into fuel with a shelf life.

    It may be that things like Whole Foods and CSAs and farmers’ markets and on-farm sales are not really a solution to the problem of feeding an industrial people, but more like the last decadent phase of a self-indulgent, artificially affluent society.

  4. “It may be that things like Whole Foods and CSAs and farmers’ markets and on-farm sales are not really a solution to the problem of feeding an industrial people, but more like the last decadent phase of a self-indulgent, artificially affluent society.”

    In what way is that, Rick? Do you mean that only the rich can afford CSAs, or that CSAs are the last way to get fresh food, or something else? Actually, I see a lot of variation in what kind of people buy fresh food as opposed to processed. Some call it too expensive, but then spend plenty of money on other things. Others, who don’t have a lot of discretionary income, buy at the farmer’s market anyway. Our local market accepts food stamps (but I hear that the recipients don’t get many stamps that they can use on fresh produce).

    I’ve noticed that the prices are up at the farmers’ market this year, but I’m still buying. I’ll go without something else first. Admittedly, we’re not in a pinch like we were several years ago, but still, everyone decides how they’re going to allocate their money, and I’d rather spend it on real food than, say, clothes or a movie. I do buy some prepared food, because I’ve been extra busy on Saturdays this year, but I’ve cut way down generally.

    This is a pretty touchy subject among Christians I know, by the way. Some people feel very judged if you so much as mention that you’re eating local or organic, or that you don’t eat at McDonald’s. They think you’re either bringing back the dietary rules or that you’re a silk purse bohemian. Sure, I think it would be a healthier, saner country if people ate more fresh food, but they have to be convinced on their own!

    Oh, and sorry so long, but I have one more related question: One comment I hear a lot is that we can’t really feed the whole world on organic, local food, and GMOs are necessary so that people won’t starve. Do you have any good sources of information about that?

  5. “One comment I hear a lot is that we can’t really feed the whole world on organic, local food, and GMOs are necessary so that people won’t starve. Do you have any good sources of information about that?”

    In the last Root Stock (published my Organic Valley) there was a very good article on whether or not “organics can feed the world”. I’ll have to try to dig out the copy if I have time and let you know all the details. I don’t think its available online. It quoted a study that Rodale Institute did comparing conventional corn vs organic corn over a 10 year period. The point was that after the soil starts to recover, organic yields surpassed conventional in the test plots.

  6. Laura,

    In what way is that, Rick? Do you mean that only the rich can afford CSAs, or that CSAs are the last way to get fresh food, or something else?

    I mean that in the long run, especially if the economy contracts, farmers may not be either able or willing to grow natural, healthy food at a price that the average person is either able or willing to pay. This is only an economic judgment, by the way; I don’t think that people are morally obliged to buy food they don’t think they can afford, nor that farmers are morally obliged to sell their food at a price that others think is affordable.

    One example: we will probably never raise chickens for sale, because we aren’t willing to charge our neighbors enough to make it worth our while. This year we are raising 75 chickens. We’ll keep fifty, and we’ll offer some of the rest to our pastors. If any remain we might try to sell them, but only to our neighbors and only at a price that is fair to them. There are probably people around (within a 100-mile radius, anyway) who would be happy to pay a price that would make it well worth our while to supply them with chickens, but developing such a business would take us too far afield from our goal of raising food to feed ourselves with a bit of surplus to sell.

    This is a pretty touchy subject among Christians I know, by the way. Some people feel very judged if you so much as mention that you’re eating local or organic, or that you don’t eat at McDonald’s. They think you’re either bringing back the dietary rules or that you’re a silk purse bohemian. Sure, I think it would be a healthier, saner country if people ate more fresh food, but they have to be convinced on their own!

    Tell me about it! I’ve abandoned more than one post because I can’t figure out how to raise an issue in a way that avoids the risk of offending some readers in ways I don’t at all intend. Like the paragraph above about the chickens. If I were a better writer, I could have written it so that no reader would think I was judging them, but I don’t think I succeeded. For the record, it doesn’t bother me that other people are comfortable pricing their chickens at a level that makes raising them worth their while, then gone in search of people who can afford such prices; in fact, I especially want to hear what they think about the matter, since it’s likely to edify me. I wrote the above in hope that hearing my own thinking might be just as edifying to them.

  7. Rick,

    You know that one of the advantages of moving to the St. Louis area from a very rural Iowa area was that we would have a larger customer base. And that is true. And we have a lot more opportunity for more customers. And the longer we’re at it, the more customers we get.

    But, these customers are, for the most part, buying for a philosophical reason of some sort. They are willing to pay for that reason. But usually it involves them (alone), instead of us (collectively). In other words, it’s not that they want to help the farmer stay profitable, and hence, in business. Instead they want the benefits for their health, etc., but in their short-term thinking, they don’t realize that if they don’t help their farmer make a decent living, they won’t get the benefits for long (at least from him).

    On another note: people, and especially Christians, are way too thin-skinned.

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