Foodonomics

Some thoughts (sprinkled with theology and home-grown photos).

I. Food: The Foundation of All Economics

These are the things I will argue:

A) Food is the foundation of human society.

B) A vibrant economy in any people group comes only when there is a sound food system in place.

C) America’s food system is anything but sound: in fact, it is teetering on the brink of collapse.

A) Food is the foundation of human society.

To understand an economy – a money system, peoples’ wealth, etc. – we must ascertain the true meaning of value. Our complex age tends towards confusion, so it helps to think back to a simpler time – a time many thousands of years B.C.E. *[see endnote as to why I use “B.C.E.”, and not “B.C.”]  More learned economists may consider such a method trite or amateur, but I see no reason why one would think one can understand one’s own days any better than days of yore. The principles remain the same. I imagine a simpler man – he hunts, gathers, grows a few crops, lives in a hut or perhaps a cave. From him will I deduce the meaning of value.

What does this man want? There’s the supposed “hierarchy of needs” compiled by some economist. Food, clothing, shelter, relationship, and so on.

But what must this man have in order to survive? One can sleep outside in the rain. And provided one lives in a temperate climate, one need not wear many [any] clothes. But one must have food, and water, or the end will come quickly. Therefore, for this man, the things that hold the highest value are food and water. If he has not one of those things, you could not interest him in a nice home, a yacht, or a laptop computer. He needs food and water.

Water is not cultivated, it is discovered. Once discovered, the water source becomes the location near which a man will live. Water is not a primarily economic force – only a fool would buy water when he can find it flowing freely.

Food, however, is cultivated. One must hunt, or gather, or plant and sow. And such activities, aside from an Edenic existence, necessitate that man not be alone. One might be able to provide all of their own food, but that one will find that all his time is spent doing the above-mentioned activities. It would be better if he could have a friend who liked hunting. Then he himself could focus on farming and gathering food.

This division of labor, centered around food-production is the beginning of economies of scale. One man alone could possibly grow enough and hunt enough to provide for himself. But two men more than double the capacity of work to be done. Then, one man can do all the growing, and perhaps grow enough for three or four men, while the other hunts enough food for three or four or more.

Food, then, is the very first thing that man desires for other men to help him obtain. As more men join our thought experiment, the economies of scale benefit increases. Some men are able to focus on building houses, making clothing, quarrying stone, felling trees, inventing iPods. They trade their labor and/or materials with those men who grow and hunt for food. And on and on it goes. But it only goes on and on because men were first able to obtain food.

Food is the foundation of human society and economy.

B) A vibrant economy in any people group comes only when there is a sound food system in place.

The end of the previous section laid most of the groundwork for this one. If men don’t have food, and don’t have assured access to food in the future, they are neither capable of nor interested in doing anything other than making sure they can fill their stomachs. However, once the supply of food is certain, men begin trading other things (as previously mentioned) for food. In this way, every society is at the mercy of its farmers (“farmers” in a general sense, meaning those who not only grow crops, but who provide meat as well). A farmer could raise his prices higher and higher, and men either must pay them, or decide to farm for themselves (which they may in fact do, if prices rose too high).

C) America’s food system is anything but sound: in fact, it is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Farm subsidies. That’s at least part of the problem. Here, I’ll just list the problems.

1. Farm subsidies

2. Industrial agriculture practices (pesticides, monocultures, genetic engineering, CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations)

3. Consolidation of farms into giant agribusinesses

4. A mechanistic (and very ungodly) view of the earth

Those reasons need far more space for explanation than I can give them here, but I’ll very briefly touch on each.

1. Anything the government touches, it breaks. Also, farm subsidies encourage farmers to be irresponsible in their practices. Farm subsidies skew the value of food, which, as I already argued is the foundation of human society and economy.

2. Pesticides and herbicides don’t work. Not really. They put human health at risk, they only get rid of the pests for a little while until they end up creating “super-weeds” and “super-pests” that are resistant to them, and they open the door for genetic engineering. Genetic engineering tampers with the DNA of a plant so that you can dump even more pesticides and herbicides on it. It also can’t be reversed – since plants pollinate through the wind and flying insects. So that DNA could start in, say, Iowa corn fields, and end up all over the country in not too long, simply because of the wind. For better or worse (worse). Also, genetic engineering gives rise to the adoption of monocultures. Farmers grow that one variety of corn or potatoes or soy or whatever, and that variety ends up comprising 90%, or some huge percentage, of that crop as it is grown in the country. So if something like, say, the Irish Potato Famine comes along – a disease that worked on a weakness of that particular variety – well, we’re all screwed. Just like the Irish. Variety is not only the spice of life, it’s absolutely essential for the preservation of species.

3. Agribusinesses destroy the small farmer by design. This is bad economically (wealth leaves small communities and travels into corporate pocketbooks), and it’s bad culturally. The farmer is no longer valued, or even remembered. But, like it or not, he’s the most important person in the economy. That’s bad.

4. A mechanistic view of the earth causes people to think of the earth in the short-term: “What can I get from it now?” the mechanistic mind asks. This kind of thinking brought about the Dust Bowl. It causes men to blow up mountains to get to the coal underneath, or raise livestock in horrific conditions (eating feed that would eventually make them ill, standing knee-deep in their own feces) in order to raise their final butchering-weight. God, as king of the universe, assigned dominion of the earth to man (see Genesis 1:28). But God meant for man to be the kind of king God is – one that loves, cultivates, values, and rules with kindness. Not one that oppresses, abuses, and exploits without thought of the future.

II. The Law of the House: How Food is the Center of the Home

Food is the center of an economy. That much has been made clear.

“Economy,” the word, comes from two Greek words – “oikos” and “nomia.”

“Oikos” means “household.”

“Nomia” means “law.”

“Economy” literally means, “the law of the household.”

An economy is composed of households (hence the idea behind the word). So the center of the economy is first the center of the household.

But from another angle…Food Preparation.

These days, you can pretty much buy any kind of food you want, and it will be completely prepared for you. Hot and steaming on a plate at a restaurant, or you can “make it yourself” at home, which means buying a frozen pre-made meal, and sticking it in a preheated oven. Not making.

But who has time to make things? Some of us have too many things scheduled to even imagine doing anything besides eating out. The rest love their leisure time. “Why would I want to be in the kitchen?” they ask. “I worked all day, now I want to relax.” Understandably. Additionally, if one even considers the price of food, it seems to make economic sense to leave the prep steps to someone else. I could buy all the ingredients to make pizza, and spend an hour making it. Or I could buy a frozen pizza, stick it in the oven, watch an episode of Gray’s Anatomy while it bakes, and watch another one while I eat it. Irresistible.

But the time I spend preparing food might be more valuable than that. Preparation places food at the forefront of my thoughts, time and again, day after day. And the more I decide to involve myself in preparation, the more I think about food. Pouring a bowl of cereal is easy – just buy the cereal and milk at the store, then enjoy all week. How about a fried egg sandwich? Get out a pan, turn on the stove, toast the bread, fry the egg, butter the bread (of course!), assemble, and enjoy. But what if I do more preparation? I now have to think about making bread, so I can slice it and enjoy. Then I can raise my own chickens for eggs, and my own dairy cow for the butter. That means feeding and tending said animals so they continue to provide for me. All this for a fried egg sandwich. Food, then, moves from something I think about only when my pantry shelves are bare, to something that consumes my thoughts and spare time, perhaps even composes part (or all?) of my vocation. It becomes the center of my economy. The law of my home.

I don’t mean to lay down an imperative – “Every American must have a dairy cow and chickens.”

But wasn’t there a time when most people had a dairy cow and chickens? Were those times better or worse than these times? – when all the eggs in the carton look the same and the grocery store actually brags about the fact that their cheese was made in Wisconsin and shipped here. I’d rather have my neighbor’s cheese. Or my own.

So here’s to unscientific conclusions for long-winded, pseudo-scientific treatises.

Here’s to food as the center of the economy.

And here’s to homemade cheese.

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.

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*B.C., as I understand it, means “Before Christ.” Christians like to use it, and get irritated when snobbish, agnostic science-types use “B.C.E.” instead. We get indignant, and make all sorts of noise, as though we are defending “the faith.” Fine. But I don’t like B.C. as much, because I don’t think that any of the years that occurred “B.C.” actually occurred before Christ. John chapter 1 tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…He was in the world and the world was made by him, yet the world knew him not.” So Christ is, as Paul writes in Colossians 1, “The image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” So there is nothing that is truly “B.C.” – “before Christ” – because everything was created by Him, and he is before all things! So I like B.C.E. After all, the dates haven’t changed. B.C.E. still counts years from the birth of Christ (plus or minus a few years). So, in my way of thinking, nothing lost, something gained.

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nb

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10 Responses to Foodonomics

  1. Adonius says:

    It would appear we’re publicly at odds, my dear brother. Or at least with regard to the press:
    http://www.thebatt.com/opinion/save-the-date-1.1261613

  2. Mark Bales says:

    I like to read you’re stuff I never did get that bottled water thing my self . As far as that
    B.C.E. thing goes I get your logic but it is two more dights you have to type.

  3. Rusty Gates says:

    I really appreciate this blog post. I was wondering what you think some of the natural conclusions of these things will be. In other words how do you see them playing out over the next decade? century?

    • Well, it’s impossible to know, but it’s certainly fun to speculate. I imagine that people will continue to become aware of their disconnectedness from their food – that they will begin to garden more, raise chickens, buy local, etc. This will be intensified as food prices continue to rise (they’ve been kept artificially low by government subsidies [but our government’s finances are failing], agribusiness practices [which are destroying the soil, and can not and will not continue], and cheap oil/gas [which is ending]). My hope is that more and more people will remember food, remember the sources of food, and rediscover those sources. I’m not sure we’ll come to some huge crisis moment where lots of people die or whatever, but I do think things will get financially tough, and it might just start making sense to grow your own tomatoes (and cucumbers and potatoes and onions and squash and…), and raise your own chickens. Maybe people will even hunt for meat, instead of for antlers.
      But I figure we’re way too wealthy when people throw corn out to feed the deer in their back yard that they don’t intend to shoot and eat. Maybe I’m just crazy, though.
      Thanks for reading!

  4. Here’s an addendum, from a conversation I had with one Jon Bussey via facebook, concerning this post…
    JB – i don’t know that food is the “foundation” of human society. i suppose individual societies, but the whole of human society? not to sound cheesily churchy, but isn’t the lord? man cannot live on bread alone.

    i also think that when “Food, then, moves from something I think about only when my pantry shelves are bare, to something that consumes my thoughts and spare time, perhaps even composes part (or all?) of my vocation. It becomes the center of my economy. The law of my home.” said person could be worshiping the gift rather than the giver. surely the lord should consume our thoughts. food being the law of my home? interesting.

    i suppose you want to pull out of the UN too?

    good thoughts. i wish i could have animals in the city limits of osage beach.

    NB – good points. It’s possible I overstated my case a bit. Or perhaps I just needed to qualify it some more. I wonder about how to place God – in a word – in society or an economy. I mean, is “center” the right place for God? Because something at the center is clearly not in other places – like the periphery, for example. So maybe we could say God permeates human society? “In Him all things hold together…”
    And I do think that I needed to qualify “food as the law of the home.” Obviously the Holy Spirit is the guide of my home. But if we are going to speak about things or activities that compose a “home,” well I imagine that for a long time, people often have thought of meals together. I don’t think that’s as common anymore. But I wonder if that kind of thinking – food as the thing and the activity around which we love and discover one another – makes more sense? Obviously, Christ is in the midst of the food and the eating. In fact, He, at the “last supper” gives to the disciples as a remembrance of Him – food.

    JB – i think we take for granted people who read or listen to us (christians) are grounded in faith. i think we should articulate, not annoyingly, but clearly our Christ-permeated ideas. i got what you are saying but one who isn’t of Christ could read it differently.

    ….
    fair enough. so the preceding is the articulation. 🙂
    nb

  5. Rusty Gates says:

    Thanks for the ideas and for the addendum. I think something that may at least be worth considering in this conversation would be Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Obviously Maslow looks at the human experience without the lens of faith, but I believe that for those outside of the Christian faith, this hierarchy of needs is fairly accurate in what motivates people. However many have speculated that Christ can enter into the experience at any point in the ladder moving people past their basic needs to altruism regardless of the lower needs. All that to say, I believe their is some validity to the idea of food driving the mass populace even perhaps on a sub-concious level.

    On another point, it is interesting to me, living in Denver for a year since DBU, how differently people approach food. Gardens are found on many corners and ethically raised food is everywhere. I wonder how Colorado (and its granola culture) has developed this way. Are they ahead of the rest of the culture or is it simply a fad that goes along with the outdoor lifestyle that the unique context of Denver provides.

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