Over Six Billion Served

is globalization putting an end to good food?

by by Rohan Maddamsetti

Rich people don't eat Wonder Bread. They also avoid white eggs (brown are more natural) and tap water (tastier if from Fiji) and, during the hot summer months, drink Newman's Own Limeade instead of red-flavored Kool-Aid. Hundreds of years from now, archaeologists will infer that College Hill was one of Providence's wealthiest neighborhoods simply from the trashed vegan products left in a derelict Eastside Marketplace or the cans of organic mango pulp lining the ruined aisles of Whole Foods. They'll find a living mold blanketing what was once Farmstead Creamery, perhaps also a bottle or two of Domaine le Clos de Caveau.

Globalization unifies markets, but at the cost of dividing people into rich and poor based on how they feed themselves. The rich are increasingly turning to foods made lovingly on a small scale to recover the taste of real food, forgotten after more than a century of cornflakes, margarine and Kraft cheese singles. A romantic vision of the pastoral life is imagined, later remembered. Laws are enacted to protect agricultural heritage from foreign imitators, turning wine from Champagne and Kobe Beef into luxury brands.

At the periphery of the market, in places yet untouched by the Internet, the pastoral lives of billions are at risk as agricultural conglomerates muscle their way into villages that have been supplied with local produce for thousands of years. Enormous farms in the heartlands owned by even larger corporations decamp to foreign nations where the soil is richer and the labor cheaper. A massive switch between local and industrial methods of agriculture is taking place between the developed and the third world. The former wants realer food, the latter simply wants more. As markets adjust to feed these desires, the consumer has been blitzed on both ends by big agribusiness and the organic food movement.

The family farm is dead
The battle for the appetites of the six billion stomachs worldwide has already been won by big agribusiness. The American family farm is on life support: according to the US Department of Agriculture, only two percent of American farms are family-owned. Technology and economies of scale have rendered the traditional farm obsolete in spite of all the songs Willie Nelson sings at Farm-Aid concerts. Proponents of traditional farming believe that we have forgotten the taste of freshly grown food after years of buying processed food off supermarket shelves. And it is true that the blocks of mozzarella found at Stop & Shop are totally alien to the buttery, fresh buffalo-milk cheese invented in Italy during the Middle Ages. Does the death of the family farm mean the end of good food?

Proponents of industrial agriculture point out that quality versus quantity is a false dichotomy: they often go hand in hand. Coca-Cola and Cool Ranch Doritos are damn tasty and easy to produce. And you'd be hard pressed to make them at home. Homemade butter may be tastier than Land O'Lakes, but try convincing mom to churn a vat of whole milk each day. Farm fresh eggs are the best, but shipping eggs everyday from the farm to the market would burn millions of dollars in gasoline--millions that would eventually hit the buyer's pocketbook. In any case, grocery store prices usually amount to little more than the caprice of the consumer: 50 years ago, refined white bread was more expensive than brown bread. Buyers like to flash their cash by showing how health-conscious they are, and this is the only thing that can prevent the family farm from dissolving into the forgotten mists of Americana along with the American bison and the Lindy Hop.

Long live the family farm
By peddling authenticity, chains like Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Trader Joe's (aimed at the upper middle class) and small independent stores like Farmstead Creamery (aimed at the upper upper middle class) have profited immensely from the organic foods movement. For the last few years, the organic food market has grown by leaps and bounds, averaging between 17 and 20 percent, while the conventional food market has grown by a relatively anemic two to three percent. Advertising has taken its toll: most people now believe that organic farmers provide better food that is better for the environment and are willing to pay premium prices to partake.

With the money pouring into the organic foods market, big agribusiness will not be able to stay away for long, but the image of the small, independent farm making wholesome food without antibiotics or chemical pesticides for sale in local markets has been set in the minds of consumers. Even if the situation is changing, the movement to save family farms is entangled with a burgeoning sense of responsibility toward the environment and public health.

Organic food is probably tastier than regular food; it has to justify its price somehow. And avoiding the use of antibiotics and chemical pesticides is obviously better for the health of both land and animals. However, that does not mean that organic food is better for the environment. The trade-off in production necessitated by making organic foods means that to make equivalent amounts of food, more land has to be used. By ultimately demanding more resources for the production of food for richer consumers, organic food temporarily assuages the conscience of the wealthy while it adds to the exorbitant environmental burden they place on everyone else.

Damned if you do
Factory farms are much more efficient than family farms. Yet the tradeoff is a classic Catch-22: despite the savings in land and cost, factory farming is a nasty business. The vast streams of shit produced by farm animals accumulate in lagoons of waste too large to be absorbed by the land. Property values collapse downwind: how can you sell your house when the smell of shit is ingrained in the furniture? The thousands of confined animals are injected with dozens of antibiotics to prevent disease from spreading bubonically one to the other; as long as the animal remains standing, it's legal to slaughter it. The litany of the evils is too long to recite; for more than a century, from The Jungle to Fast Food Nation, people have been aware of the toxic effects of factory farming on the environment and worker as the demand for food grows without bound.

There will be nine billion mouths to feed in 2050; billions who want meat, who crave the same beef and pork and chicken eaten by the rich and powerful. The global drive for food is insatiable as population increases exponentially, leading to a Malthusian disaster. These days, sushi is the new caviar as fish populations collapse and prices skyrocket, despite the ubiquitous heavy metal contamination found in almost all wild-caught seafood. Bluefish tuna, which grow to be more than six feet long and weigh more than 300 pounds each, cannot reproduce to keep up with the rapacious rate at which they are fished. This week, The New York Times reported a crash in fall-run Chinook salmon populations in California; the winter-run Chinook populations are already protected under the Endangered Species Act. Without newer, more efficient methods of farming, sustainable development is impossible: factory farming is here to stay.

Damn the GMOs, full speed ahead
Globalized farming threatens both the livelihood of millions of subsistence farmers worldwide and the welfare of first world agriculture. The millions of peasants who currently enjoy local organic food farmed by their neighbors will soon be put out of business by larger industrial operations that produce more for less. The upshot is that the life of the peasant is far from the pastoral idyll imagined by proponents of family farming. In the last decade, more than 25,000 farmers in India have committed suicide to escape debtors after failed harvests.

One of the factors influencing the poverty of third world farmers is the disproportionately low prices created by first world subsidies that keep American and European farmers competitive. This same rationale has motivated the gross rejection of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by European farmers, who see genetically modified seed as a convenient way for (usually American) plant biotechnology companies to hold farmers hostage to productive but sterile hybrid plants. Part of this same strategy of protecting European farmers from the vagaries of globalization is the branding of historically regional products, such as wines from Burgundy or cheese from Parma, to protect them from foreign substitutes. Even if sparkling wine made a la methode Champenoise in, say, Argentina is the best, regional branding keeps the historical cachet of the wine in its pays d'origine.

Poor nations and rich nations are in the middle of a strange switch: as the increased efficiency of factory farms displaces subsistence farmers in the developing world, smaller, quality-driven enterprises selling local organic food are growing rapidly in the first world. The shifts caused by global capital in how we eat are immense, but the divide between the rich and the poor remain the same. Ruben's ample nudes have been replaced by the "Skinny Bitch" glamorized by the eponymous best-seller. At least the modern poor will be able to enjoy the same benefits of high cholesterol and blood sugar as the rest of us: it's much better than having nothing at all.

ROHAN MADDAMESETTI B'08 is fat and ready for slaughter.