Saturday, June 16, 2012

Food, Costs.

Money is god in America. This religion infests every part of our society, and the stuff we put in our bodies to sustain and energize us is no exception. I say "stuff" because we don't know where our food comes from, or how it is produced most of the time. Massive food producing corporations seek to hide their unethical business practices from the public, and keep us satisfied and silent with our cheap year round tomatoes, white chicken meat, dollar menu hamburgers and fries, and all of the other millions of products the food industry pumps out. Money is America's reason for everything. That famous biblical saying, "The love of money is the root of all evil" rings fearfully true when you look at the problems in our country.

This post is basically just my thoughts on the documentary Food Inc. that I watched recently. You can watch the film on Netflix. Directed by Robert Kenner, released in 2008, this is a film that unveils some of the well kept secrets in America's food industry, a secret that has tragic effects on our health and our environment. Whether this was the point of the movie or not, it shows how the love of money destroys life. 

The film gives many examples of unethical acts that food companies have committed while following the basics of capitalist economics. Increase production while lowering costs of production, so more people will buy and the company will increase its profits. However, another rule of economics is that nothing is free, everything comes with a cost. By lowering the monetary costs of production in order to raise monetary profits, the costs to workers, animals, consumers, and the environment have increased. The film gives many examples, and I will paraphrase some of them.

We all know Tyson chicken, the red label that you see everywhere in the meat aisle. Tyson's chickens have been genetically engineered to grow from conception to slaughter in 40 days, and since consumer's prefer white meat, these chickens are engineered to have abnormally huge breasts. Naturally, it takes three months for a chicken to grow from egg to adulthood. Their unnaturally muscular bodies combined with the rapid rate of growth, causes the chickens to be basically lame. Their bones and internal organs can't grow at the rate of their bodies' muscle and fat. Tyson also requires their farmer's to grow these chickens in windowless packed chicken coops. These animals live for a miserable 40 days and then they are slaughtered and shipped to our supermarkets for our consumption. 

Tyson not only disrespects its animals, but they have also treat their farmer's  and workers tyrannically. The men who pick up the chickens in trucks to bring them to the slaughter houses are generally Latino men, mostly undocumented workers. They feel that they have no rights, but the company likes that. They can pay them little money and the workers are easily replaceable. Tyson contracts with farmers who build poultry houses to raise chickens. The average cost to start a Tyson poultry house is about $300,000, and on top of that, every year Tyson requires farmer's to update their farms with costly new machinery. If they don't get the new machinery, they lose their contract and the investment they made would be a waste. On average, a chicken farmer contracted with Tyson will make about $18,000 a year. Farmer's are locked into contracts because of their debt, and they have no say in how their farms are run. Chickens are abused while farmers and other workers are controlled and enslaved to the company because that's how cheap meat and large profits are made. 

Another one of the leading meat producers in America is a company called Smithfeild. In the past they have advertised in Mexico, luring immigrants to their meat factory promising lots of money. They bus immigrants to their plant and work them for very low pay doing very unhealthy and disgusting work. Meat packing is one of the most dangerous industries to work in because of risks of infection, large machinery, etc. Workers are trained to do one task all day. Even with gloved hands, handing bloody pig flesh all day causes infections under the workers' finger nails so their finger nails fall off. It's disgusting work, but that's not the worst of it. Since immigration paranoia has risen in the past several years, police have been arresting about 15 of these factory workers every night. They don't arrest all of them at the same time because that would slow down the production of the factory. It's the (mostly Mexican) workers who have been slaughtering and packing your bacon for ten years who are suddenly arrested, while the company that hired them is held guiltless. Money is more important than human survival, more important than justice. 

The rich make the laws, and the poor are exploited and hammered by the law, because many of the law makers and the big business owners are the same people. Food Inc gives many examples of this. Monsanto is a seed producing company that has patented genetically engineered seeds that are resistant to pesticides. Monsanto seed buyers are required to sign a contract with the company promising not to save seeds for the next growing season, so they will have to buy new seeds every year from the company. Justice Clarence Thomas is an attorney for Monsanto as well also a supreme court justice who wrote a law that made it illegal for farmer's to save their seeds. Wendell Murphy was a North Carolina senator who also served on the board of directors at Smithfeild. Margaret Miller, chemical lab supervisor for Monsanto also worked as FDA branch chief. "Our industries are dominated by the people who are meant to be its regulators." Money dominates our laws and the hearts of our law makers. 

The film offers a typical solution, encouraging outraged viewers to remember their power as consumers and to buy local and organic. Every time we buy something, we are in a way voting for the product and giving money to the companies. It is a consumer's responsibility to vote for, or support companies that are seeking to treat animals, workers, consumers, and the environment with respect. 

I find myself outraged by companies who abuse workers, animals, and the environment and still I buy from them. I am outraged by the fact that money is god in this society, but how important is money to me too? I think we need to take some responsibility as buyers for our support of these companies, because basic economics shows us that the consumer creates the demand and producers fill that demand. We insist on buying our $2 milk, but what are the underlying costs of that to human lives, your health, etc? 

I don't think that changing what we consume will fix the entire problem because some people just can'f afford to shop organic. The fact is, in a capitalist society, money does control our lives, so I understand that sometimes our consumption is more controlled by the companies than the other way around. I also know that the deepest problem is the love of money, the fact that money in our society is more important than human lives, the environment, animals, the law, etc.

However, I still believe I can change somethings as a consumer. I have seen the power of consumers bring an organic section to grocery stores like Fry's (Ralph's), and the demand for organic food brought a Trader Joes to Prescott. I do not want to give my vote to bid business anymore. Because I have the means to change the way I consumer, my conscience tells me it is morally wrong for me to keep supporting those companies. I also really do love organic food better anyway.

Buying from local farmers and organic markets requires a change in life style for some of us. It could mean more cooking, more deliberate buying, creating a new budget, and maybe eating less. Even though some people can't do this, a lot of us can. Even if there aren't organic supermarkets where you live, like Trader Joes, Sprouts, Whole Food, etc, there are most likely farmer's markets in your city or surrounding cities. I recently found out there is a farmer's market every Friday in Prescott Valley. I plan to shop there from now on. So when you can, shop organic. 

We like cheap food because it's easy on our wallets and it often tastes good, but what about the costs for workers, our health, the environment? Is money the only thing we think of when we think of costs? It shouldn't be. We should weigh all the costs, and not let money be our only reason and our god.


  1. Nice post. I don't know if I mentioned this to you before, but I stopped buying meat a few months back. My primary issue with the meat industry is not their treatment of animals, but rather the fact that the animals are being killed to be eaten. However, their treatment of animals isn't so nice either. There was a ballot measure a while back (California Proposition 2, 2008) which sought to give more spacious living conditions for Californian farm animals. The measure passed, so it's nice to see some positive change in this area.

    I find the whole concept of making genetically modified food rather disturbing. I'm not saying that GMOs are unhealthy (or at least I haven't seen any research to that effect yet), but what bothers me is that GMO crops can contaminate normal crops through fertilization. If a genetically modified grain field is next to a normal grain field, there's a chance of cross-fertilization. I don't know if they already take measures to prevent this, but I know that some farmers have filed suit due to cross-fertilization, so it's at least a slight risk.

    The issue of mistreatment of illegal/undocumented workers is a bizarre one. I don't understand why the U.S. can't just have a reasonable work visa program. Some Americans don't want to give these people citizenship, and although I disagree with them, I understand their concerns. But you don't have to make someone a citizen to give them a work visa.

    I would agree with the filmmaker that consumer demand is what will eventually drive these unwholesome practices out of the industry. Since you don't seem to think that altering our buying habits will fix the problem, then what do you think will?

    1. Yes, I don't think it is necessary really to make genetically modified food. Right now for example there are four major meat companies in the US, and they have basically monopolized meat. If there were smaller farms spread all around the US, it seems we wouldn't run into the problems of four major companies feeding all of the US' demand for meat and therefore having to make abnormally large chickens.
      I didn't know that about cross-fertilization. That is a good point though.
      Yes, I absolutely agree with making it easier for foreigners to get work visas. That would solve a lot of problems, like they would pay taxes.
      I do believe the consumer is very powerful. The thing is, a large portion of society can't afford organic food. I have been shopping organic for the past week, and I have spent a ton of money. Like $3 for a half gallon of milk, $5 for a carton of freshly...dropped (?) eggs, $10 for a whole 2lb chicken, $12 for a pound of fair trade coffee. I mean it's crazy expensive and if I had kids, I probably couldn't do this all the time. I can do it now because I am just feeding myself. So how powerful is the consumer who wants to but can't afford organic food?
      The big meat producers have monopolized meat; most of the meat you see in the grocery store, though under different names, comes from the same few companies. This is the outcome of capitalism, monopolization, getting rid of competition. And companies will do literally anything to make a profit, make cheap products, and get rid of competitors to make more profit. Profit, money, is always the goal. These companies don't care about our health, they want our money. We're taught that greed is good in economics classes, but it's that concept that corrupts companies and ruins our food, environment, etc.
      I just wonder even if organic food companies became more popular, would they be corrupted by their desire for profit? Also, how reliable is the USDA Organic label? What if the same thing happens with that as with the FDA, where people in big food business also regulate food business practices, with their goal always being more money?
      That doesn't stop me from trying to be a responsible consumer, but do you get my concerns?

    2. The fact that better foods are expensive is a real issue, but in the long run, I don't know that it will matter. There are a lot of people (especially young people) who perceive a problem with society and automatically decide that a revolution must occur to correct the problem. Although I appreciate the sentiment, I'm preferential to evolution over revolution. As a general rule, revolutions don't happen; they're quite rare. But evolution happens all the time; societies are constantly evolving. So if we want to fix this problem, perhaps we should be thinking along the lines of evolution.

      You are correct, many people are too poor to afford a diet of organic food. So if we wanted to start a revolution, destroying the GMO/animal-torture industry with a universal boycott, we would be doomed to failure. However, if we shift our focus to a more reasonable goal, the situation doesn't seem so bad. Suppose the public at large became more aware of the advantages of using organic food. A poor, working mother will then be aware of the superiority of these foods, but won't be able to change her family's diet completely. But suppose she decided to substitute, say, 5% of her groceries with organic substitutes. That's not an unreasonable goal, even for a poor person.

      What would happen if we got everyone to do this? 5% is a huge chunk of the market, and if companies realized that there was a desire for organic food, they would find ways to produce it more efficiently. And efficiency = cheap. So as a result of this hypothetical 5% organic slice of the food industry pie chart, organic food becomes even cheaper, allowing people to buy more of it.

      This would be a very, very slow process. Markets do respond to consumer demands, but not always quickly. But I don't see any reason to get upset about this. America didn't gain independence overnight. Women didn't earn the right to vote overnight. And this food industry isn't going to fix itself overnight. Patience is all that is required.

      You mention that organic food companies may become more corrupt if they become more popular, and I completely agree with you. But the point is that they're already corrupt. Every company exists to make money. This inevitably leads to corruption. But that's why watchdog groups and whistle-blowers exist. The USDA can be bought, but independent watchdog groups can't (or at least not so easily), and if the USDA becomes corrupt, people will figure it out and stop heeding their labels.

      Now an organic food company might want to boost it's productivity by using pesticides, but if it is aware that there is an active community of people concerned about the quality of organic food that will tell all the newspapers if they catch the company misbehaving, then they're much less likely to misbehave. Who would buy from an organic food company that sells non-organic food? Trying to slip in pesticides or GMOs would be too risky in an environment of concerned consumers.

      We're a long way from this ideal state, but I'm confident we'll get there, because it seems like some of these things are already starting to happen.

  2. I have to say, after I saw this movie I couldn't eat anything for days and meat for months.

    You have a really cool blog here. Do you want to follow each other, I would love that.

    1. Ya, that's how I felt when I read The Jungle and then this movie confirmed it even more.
      Thanks! I just started following you.