…So move the Money!
I recently heard NPR’s Ari Shapiro interview Michael Specter about his recent New Yorker article “Freedom from Fries.” Check it out, read or listen to the interview here – it’s highly nutritious. Go on to read the full New Yorker article – it’ll make you hungry.
There was one particular exchange that caught my attention:
“SHAPIRO: And you write that in the United States today, you can sell meals for a dollar, or you can sell nutritious meals. Doing both on a large scale is not possible. Explain why fries and cheeseburgers can be a dollar but a big, filling salad cannot.
SPECTER: Because the government of the United States help fries and cheeseburgers be a dollar by subsidizing the things that make them cheap – soybean, corn – so that animals can be fed very cheaply and we can have mass-produced meat. And potatoes can be grown very cheaply, and oil is dirt-cheap. And those things are cheap because we subsidize farmers who grow those things. We do not subsidize farmers who grow asparagus.”
What? What? Did you just read that too? Makes me wish I could grab the P.I.C.* by the neck, shake them, point at the words and say “C’mon! It’s right there! Written right there!”
*P.I.C. – People in Charge. side-note, you should watch Wristcutters. Great film. But it is time now to un-digress…
You see, I have this wierd way of thinking wherein I believe that our use of language and abstract thinking gives us the power to acccomplish stuff. A problem exists. Identify and examine the problem. This usually requires thoughts, orgainized into words. Examination of said problem leads one to the solution. Then, act on the solution and POW! Problem overcome.
So, problem: $1 cheeseburgers and other “foods” – artificial contrivances created by government subsidy – exist. People eat them regularly because time and money are tight, so cheap and fast gets our attention. Result is we are an expensively sick people.
Solution: move subsidy. I guess you could just stop subsidizing anything. That would be a step in the right direction – making all food evenly expensive. But I think there would be too much harm to the populace in that. I think a better solution would be to move the subsidization fundages to lower the cost of the food we should eat.
Oh, but how do we figure out what to subsidize? That sounds really hard! Too bad there aren’t organizations in place which conduct scientific research to determine what kind of food is good for people. Too bad we don’t have some sort of group of people who make like guidelines for healthy nutrition.
Do you hear the sarcasm? I’m laying it on kinda thick. If I were talking to you, you might slap me for being such a wise-ass.
A little common sense applied to a quick romp around the internet will bring you to guidelines developed by both governmental and non-governmental groups of smart people giving away information on what we should eat for free. And every set of guidelines you can find falls right in line with Michael Polin’s singular beautiful short statement; “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Look, here’s one, an easy find. Health.gov. Wasn’t so hard, right? What a name! They have a page on dietary guidelines. Don’t even read anything, just look at the banner. Tasty, yeah?
Subsidize food for humans. Not feed for animals. Notice it’s not called “food,” but animal “feed.” It’s what we feed them, but it’s not their proper food. Want to subsidize meat? Fine, I’m cool with that – subsidize smaller quantities of meat from animals who eat what they’re supposed to. Every nutritional guideline out there says meat is fine, but less. And meat from animals with bad diets is not healthy. But enough with meat. Make the food everyone knows we should eat (fruits, veggies, whole grains, herbs, etc.) cheaper, and people everywhere will eat it more. Remove subsidies from the food we shouldn’t eat so much, and you’ll see the population back away from that stuff.
So simple, right? And I am far, far, far from the first person to lay this out so plainly. Problem – solution – action. Result – healthier population that is more productive and has lower maintenance costs. Simple process of logic and reason.
But the action, oh, the systems we have in place to perform these big actions are not homes of logic and reason. You know the systems I mean – the people you and I voted for.
But let’s keep our chins up, let’s make believe that some effort to change the USDA’s subsidization scheme could actually get some traction. A mighty feat, considering the blockades and bought congressmen Big Agra will throw at any such effort. But I write science fiction, so my imagination can make the leap. If this magical fairytale comes to be, advertisements will appear immediately to try to turn public opinion against the change. One of the first ads will go something like this:
Long shot of golden fields, tractor, down-home guitar strumming. Cut to an ubiquitous Joe Farmer. “Something about hard work. Something about values. A way of life.”
Stock footage of small farmers doing farmy things. Voiceover: “Stand up for American values. Stand up for American farmers. Tell your congressman to stand against the Whazzis Act.”
If that day ever comes, don’t buy into the BS. The amount of pain small family farms will suffer if corn and soy and whatnot lose subsidization is exactly proportional to the likelihood of small family farmers buying nationwide political ads. That is zero and zero. It’s big megafarms and giant corporations who won’t want such change, who will “suffer,” because they’ll have to see dips in their profits while they shift gears to start farming the subsidized food. Small farmers are largely already growing real food – and those who aren’t will have an easier time switching gears than the megafarms. But in the end, don’t worry, don’t believe the ads, all kinds of farmers will change over and farm real food. They’ll grow whatever is subsidized. And we’ll eat whatever is cheapest.