America’s food chain

Warren Buffett famously observed that “only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.  And Covid-19 represents “an ebb tide of historic pro-portions”.

One thing it has exposed with brutal clarity are the flaws of America’s industrialised food system. On one side, there are empty supermarket shelves; on the other, farmers discarding milk, eggs and animals because they can’t get produce to market.

This is the result of “economic efficiency gone mad”. Since the 1980s, the US food industry has become absurdly concentrated: just four companies now process more than 80% of the country’s beef cattle; a single plant in South Dakota processes 4% of the pork Americans eat. This has pushed down prices, but resulted in a supply chain so brittle that the closure of a single plant causes havoc. And such disruptions, caused by Covid-19, have been all too common of late. And little wonder, given that the meat-packing lines are staffed by poorly paid workers who must stand shoulder to shoulder, cutting and deboning animals so quickly that they can’t pause long enough to cover a cough, let alone go to the bathroom. The US is paying the price for a food system that has put cost savings ahead of every other consideration. (Michael Pollan,The New York Review of Books  23 May 2020).

My comment:  It’s great that this issue is now being discussed. There is too much industrial concentration and too little competitiveness. The politicians have turned a blind eye to it, and the obscene pay of the bosses, in return for financial support.  The system is corrupt.  It is bad for democracy, for the lousily paid workers and for the health of the population.

The irony is that the Administration wants to lower, if not totally stop, immigration of desperately poor people with the aid of the famous and expensive wall.  Without the immigrants the bosses of the food processing companies would not have their huge incomes, and the politicians would have to forego a sizable portion of their electoral donations.  And the food market would grind to a halt.  Has anyone thought this through?  The system needs the cheap labour.

What has this to do with Epicureanism?  A desire for peace  of mind and a feeling of security and pride in a just and fair system for all.

One Comment

  1. The plant in South Dakota that processes 4% of our pork is run by Smithfield Foods. Surprisingly, Smithfield is owned by WH Group (“Wanzhou Holdings”), a Chinese company. Think of the havoc they could cause if they shut down all of their operations.

    Sure, we could seek government intervention to address this, and probably should, but we can also individually choose to support local producers via co-ops, farmer’s markets, pig/cow shares, etc. The government may get around to “fixing” this some day, if lobbiests don’t interfere, but we don’t have to beg and hope and wait.

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