Imagine an Avacado

Ar·ti·fi·cial /ˌärdəˈfiSHəl/ adjective
made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, especially as a copy of something natural.  \”her skin glowed in the artificial light\”

I’m interested in sustainable ways of living so I try to be thoughtful when I buy food for my family or myself. Like most of us, I’m also constantly seduced by flavor and by “value.”   I tend to perceive value as getting “more for my money.”  …and more often than not, I see value only by the amount of food in a package.  

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A label that shows content but doesn\’t tell journey.

With respect and love for those I feed, I typically check the labels of the things I buy and can spot a preservative or artificial flavor from a mile away.  But it occurs to me that the most artificial part about most of these foods is their price and that true “value” has nothing to do with volume.

I’m looking at an avocado.  It has no food label printed on it but I’ve heard good things about it’s nutritional content… potassium… healthy fats. 

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Where did the Avocado come from?
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If I close my eyes, I can imagine being a North American colonist seeing and tasting an avocado for the first time.  It’s 1825 and a trade merchant tells me it is a āhuacatl from the southern end of the continent.  I watch as the merchant makes a clean cut in the tough, dark green outer skin.  I wait with wonder as to what will happen next.  Will juice pour forth?  Will thick pulp fall out?  What color will the inside be?  The merchant finishes making the cut around the circumference of the strange fruit and sheathes his knife.  A showman, he firmly cups his hands over the top and bottom and slowly twists each half until the top comes off clean revealing a brown seed and light green flesh within.  He hands a half of this fresh exotic fruit to me.  I smell it and test it with my tongue having NO idea what to expect.  A smile appears on my face as I delight at the taste and the texture.

These are the most extravagant sort of experiences you can enjoy in a time and place long long ago.  Now, indulgent experiences are rare. Pressing a button can deliver a cheeseburger, t-shirt, or bar of soap to my front door.  Speaking a name into the air can play a song by that artist.  In the summer, I rarely experience a temperature above 80 degrees.  

I return to 1825 with the merchant.  I nibble bits from the avocado.  I imagine the journey, the expense, the pain, strife or even death that went into bringing this treasure to my lips.  I lick my lips and with eyes still closed I take a deep breath.  “ ¿Cuánto cuesta esto?” I ask the merchant.  But the truth is, I’d pay any price.

A Japanese farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka said, “Money is not the only price paid for indulgences.\”  Perhaps he means that there were spiritual, environmental, social and other costs for our indulgence that we don’t measure in money.  With a thousand words,  I could not express everything that one can find in Fukuoka’s elegant maxim.  But, perhaps our avocado meditation can help bring us closer to this truth. 

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The Planet and Humankind Have Suffered From Cheap Food 

What foods fall into the category \”cheap\” or \”artificially cheap\” depends on where you live and the season.  In the Northeast United States, examples of artificially priced foods may include sugar, unseasonal tomatoes, olive oil, coffee, black pepper, avocados, almonds, cashews, bananas and much much more.  The list goes on.  All of these things seem oddly inexpensive in Northeast America?  Why are they?  The price of food these days doesn’t seem to follow natural or economic laws.

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I’ll admit I’m making an assumption.  I assume that these foods should be more expensive because I am thinking about the amount of energy (aggregate caloric expenditure) used to produce, package and transport these foods.  I know what it costs to keep my car fueled. I have at least a high-school understanding of world geography. I’ve paid for products to be shipped from other countries and I have a general idea of what it takes to run my refrigerator to keep foods from rotting while I wait to eat them.  These are personal experiences that I can use to see how expensive certain foods should be.

WHY is food SO CHEAP?! 

I understand that it can be infuriating for some people to hear this question considering the number of people who struggle to afford food.  Rather than “should people be able to afford food?” perhaps the question should be, “What types of food should we actually be eating in our respective regions?” or “What’s up with the food supply chain?” The truth is that just about all food in the US is artificially inexpensive.  But as all things must naturally balance, the price is paid somewhere.  Here are reasons for fake food prices and where the balance adjustments are made:

GOVERNMENT MANIPULATION
Food processing and distribution are manipulated by the government (paid for with taxpayer dollars and small business failure)
HUMAN EXPLOITATION
The food industry exploits people (paid for with suffering and poverty)
ENVIRONMENTAL EXPLOITATION
The food industry is exploiting the environment (paid for with difficult or impossible to reverse destruction of natural resources or entire species especially insects)
COMPROMISED CONSUMER HEALTH
The food industry profits at the expense of our health (paid for with poor health and paid for at the hospital or pharmacy) Doubly, the healthcare industry profits.

Furthermore, we should be asking why the foods that are highly processed, unhealthy foods the ones that are inexpensive? Our diet eventually evolved to that of burgers, fries and sweets which are not innately bad but we consume these highly processed foods with manipulated amounts of fat, salt and sugar and even those additives are processed and artificial.  Fat, salt and sugar are three food components that should be hardest to obtain in the natural world but they flow abundantly within our food system. Why?

We’ll use some pretty widely accepted economic principles to unpack this. Perhaps the most basic and well known economic principle is “supply and demand.”  The law of supply and demand says that when the supply is low and demand is high, the price rises to meet the demand.  Similarly if the demand is low and the supply is high, the price comes down to meet the supply.  This is a natural law that takes place without financial system manipulation.  Yet in the case of the industrial food system, we do not allow it to take place.

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One of my college economics professors introduced the concept of “price” to our class as the amount of money someone is willing to pay for something.  If this is true, the price is set by people\’s perceptions of value.  What has happened is that over time, our value perception has been altered by government-industrial manipulation. So we can’t really use this definition of price either.  To make better decisions and account for the true cost of food from origin to mouth, I’m going to create a new definition of price:  

PRICE EQUALS:   

Raw Materials
+ Social impact
+ Production-related environmental impact
+ Labor
+ Aggregate Production energy (or Emergy)
+ All post-production emergy (packaging, storage, manufacturing, refrigeration)
+ Transportation/Fuel (and transportation/fuel environmental impact)
+ Profit
+ Z (zed being factors that are more personal to your ethics)

This is complex… and so daunting that I\’m tempted to ignore it and buy what I want at the prices offered.  Unless!! We can reframe our definition of price to one that lies beyond the price-tag at the store.  If we can do this, we can start to purchase with care.  This doesn’t mean your purchases require week-long studies. (Even though they deserve such effort)  Your instinct and personal experience will go a long way if you only embark on your shopping quest with the intent to purchase with care.  

Don’t bother remembering the equation I scribbled on a napkin. Rather, remember some of the components that speak to you. What would an avocado cost if all of those factors were considered.  My guess is, for someone living in the Northeast, more than a couple of bucks! If an avocado were twenty dollars, demand would go down and the supply would adjust AS LONG AS NO ONE MANIPULATES THE PRICE.  Let’s delve deeper into the aforementioned forms of price manipulation.


Government Manipulation

Earlier I mentioned supply and demand.  The Government and its agencies through the efforts of industries and lobbyists are constantly manipulating demand by changing supply so this natural law applies to very little, particularly in America.  This is the case of oil reserves, this is the case of grain storage and on a broader scale across all industries, it\’s exemplified by the federal reserve.

Government manipulation also occurs in the form of tax incentives and subsidies.  Subsidies claim that their purpose is to average out market fluctuations, but what it often does is to create artificial economies and births commodities.  A commodity is “a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee.” (Oxford Dictionary)  If we dig deeper, it is a product that does not have a characteristic that can be distinguished from another product of the same basic type. Ie: “coffee is coffee!” or this orange is no different than that orange.  No character, no individuality, and most importantly, It’s story, it’s inputs and how it arrived at our table is not a part of it’s value.

Commodification also destroys creativity when it comes to the creation and manufacturing of sustainable ingredients.  As with much that happens in government, efforts to temporarily smooth out a market fluctuation or encouraging short-term growth of a market eventually becomes the status quo.  People will argue that the subsidies are needed by farmers, but the truth is that most farmers are growing a lot of the wrong things and responding to artificial economy created by their governments. It’s unsustainable because what is fake will one day be exposed.  With our current subsidies, have you heard a farmer complain about not having enough room to put the piles of money they are making?  Why many contemporary farmers hang on to an unsustainable paradigm is not unlike most of our culture tendencies and must remain a conversation for another time.  

While things have seemed “pretty good so far” or at least since World War II, government manipulation has the potential to create food scarcity and destroy food sovereignty as it often includes regulatory laws, legal precedent and definitions that prevent small businesses and individuals from successfully competing in the food market. This was a market once championed by the common folk and before that, not a financial market at all! We need to create a sustaining condition of Food Sovereignty.

“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

– Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

For example, a state regulation that makes it illegal to sell milk (or canned vegetables) without extremely expensive technology may feel like consumer safety, but it only goes one step further to separate us from where our food\’s origin. Now it comes from a food distributor 2,000 miles away.  When we are separated from the source of our food a lot of things happen. Spiritual nourishment, community and wisdom is lost to mankind and more power is given to a socioeconomic elite.  The power to buy and sell is literally taken from one person and given to a corporation with more privilege than people.

Here’s another example.  Many municipalities have made it illegal to harvest rainwater, properly compost or raise laying hens.  The Pennsylvania borough in which we once lived, had an ordinance that actually “prohibited agriculture.” That is terrifying!  What has brought society to a point where it is considered ok to prohibit the growing of food in the places we live?

Lastly, government has an easy to follow record of responding to trade associations and corporations before the needs of its citizens.  A lack of democratic involvement from so many individual citizens vs how intensely involved trade groups are in matters of lawmaking, labeling, environmental protections and campaign finances could go a long way to explain this. A recent PBS series I directed with my team at MAKE/FILMS explores some of these ideas, but once again, another vector for another time.

To be clear we’re making a distinction between large chemical and manufacturing companies and hardworking upstanding family farmers like the ones we all picture when we dreamily imagine where our food comes from.

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What does farming REALLY look like these days?

The point here is that the decisions on what farmers are growing (and where) tends to benefit people other than those growing it and these decisions are made apart from those who consume it.  This creates surplus which creates undiversified food choice. It encourages fillers in every packaged food, ie: soy, wheat.  Lastly it creates the illusion of cheap “food” which will eventually slide us into #4 on my list, Compromised Consumer Health. 


Human Exploitation

Some Charcoal, Cashews and Chocolate operations utilize child labor and even then these communities see a small percentage of the wealth.

This category includes foods that are inexpensive because a person or persons (or an entire region) has been exploited.  The true cost of the food was made artificial on export.  One of the most painful American examples is that of Chattel Slavery in the building of our infrastructure and the establishment of our food systems. This is a situation that has shaped our food system in a way that is difficult to retrace and nearly impossible to revise.  This isn’t just history.  This still happens.  For example, China’s Foxconn or child labor in coffee or cocoa-producing regions. Clearly, no one wants this on their conscience while eating a chocolate bar or drinking a cup of coffee.  But, without discerning consumer feedback, how far will American brand-owners go to ensure that their production aligns with our values?  If we don’t care enough to ask who is paying the balance on our bar of chocolate, we’ll never get anywhere near demanding better.  

Some of the unnaturally low prices we experience are ghosts of our past that may never leave.  It was plantations run by slaves that made sugar a cheap commodity.  In nature, sugar should be one of the hardest to obtain foods. 200 years ago the average american ate about 2 lbs of sugar per year.  Today, on average, each American eats more than that in one week.  Not only was the growing and processing of sugar made affordable by slave labor, it accelarated the import of slaves to America more than any other agricultural product.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Once the bar is set, there is no going back.  The consumer won’t tolerate price increases to realistic levels and competition that is fatter and more fit to “weather the storm” will use any competitors price increase to gain a competitive foothold because we are in love with cheap… well, ANYTHING!  And what happens when you lose slaves but still have to keep producing cheap sugar to maintain your empire?  Well, you either shift to another price offset such as environmental exploitation… or you just redefine slavery within your economic system through property availability, through inaccessible healthcare (unless you are employed and keep your mouth shut) and by keeping wages low through price fixing.

An incarceratory state has created defacto slave labor and firms like IBM, Motorola, Boeing, Microsoft, AT&T, Texas Instruments, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Target Stores and many other companies produce products through the prison system that disproportionately sentences black and brown people in America. Many people find this easy to rationalize when they imagine everyone being fairly sentenced and “paying the time” for their crime yet use the same energy to blame manufacturing job loss on other countries and rampant job loss on immigrants.

It sounds like this is the fault of big business?  Well, partially, but if you think about it, businesses will not make more cost-inclusive products while consumers are so price sensitive.  The only way to correct this is to communicate our values and make an agreement with ourselves, our partners, and our loved ones to pay the true cost of what we buy.

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Photo by Isabella Mendes on Pexels.com


Environmental Exploitation

Third, but not least, environmental exploitation has been an issue since the dawn of agriculture. Humankind has been clearing carbon-sequestering, over-productive perennial habitat to implement fast-growing annuals or larger and larger scale animal production since we came up with the idea of growing our own food.  The underlying principal is one of a scarcity mindset and of valuing quantity over quality. It\’s also about commerce.

Environmental exploitation is clear as day in energy and manufacturing. Activists from Pennsylvania spent a great deal of time protesting several oil and gas pipelines.  When the fight was lost, there was no place at the table in assuring that pipeline workers would proceed in any sort of a considerate fashion.  A Facebook page that temporary pipeline construction employees created hosted video of employees laughing as they detonated explosives in the Pequea creek.  In subsequent ensuing comments and the following “discussion,” they defended their actions, claiming essentially that blowing stuff up was fun, and they weren’t hurting anything.

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2016: Landowners and supporters protest the Constitution Pipeline in Northeast PA. (Photo: DC Media Group)

We wonder what condition wastewater is in when it leaves a plant or passes through a hydroelectric dam or nuclear power facility, and we should wonder the same thing in infrastructure development of the energy industry.  Where is that price paid?

One thing that makes talking about the price paid for industry is the fact that it is indeed the livelihood of many employees. But that being said, we are short sighted in just about everything. Just as every person needs to look generations down the line, so does industry so does government. But we\’ve ignored \”down the line\” for so long that now there\’s really not any time for casual correction. The livelihood conversation happens with farmers too. When questioned about land management or practices that include uncovering soil, applying herbicides and pesticides, and employing the use of genetically modified (GMO) seeds, we take it very personally, don’t we?  Well, the attacks are pretty relentless too.  It’s a Capulet and Montague argument (not unlike that of social injustice, 1000 year religious feuds, racism and white fragility) that makes those looking in on the violence wonder: How can we even begin to discuss this?

While there are countless examples of environmental exploitation, a very relatable example involving commodity food is that of the almond trees of California? Almond groves which have first been irrigated with extremely limited natural water reservoirs that supply entire ecosystems with water, food and habitat have also now been doused in neonicotinoids to fight off intense insect damage. already weak plants. This has decimated an already fragile bee population.  Yet almonds, while “expensive” are not nearly expensive enough to reduce demand to sustainable levels.

Cave Commodum (Beware of Convenience!)

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In the late 80s, my dad won a trip for two to France from the hospital he worked for.  He took my mom which I’ve resented ever since. 🙂  My parents marveled at how no one in Paris was drinking the water and everyone had disposable bottled water.  My father recounted asking a french citizen why they drank bottled water and if the water from the tap was unsafe.  The respondent laughed and said no.. that it was more convenient and that America would catch on soon enough.

Well we did. Thirty years later, the average american drinks over 43 gallons of bottled water per year. That\’s roughly over 250 containers per person per year.


Compromised Consumer Health

The cost savings when it comes to food is realized in the production and processing phases.

While this could pretty neatly be filed under human exploitation, I’ve created a different category because of its prevalence, and because of the forces that drive it.  Food can be made cheaper to an almost infinite degree by the following production methods:

• Cook or dry food, degrading it’s nutritional value.

• Add preservatives to give food a long or functionally infinite shelf-life.

• Adding filler that has hormonal or allergic implications (ie: soy/wheat).

This is also interconnected with government manipulation in a pretty significant way. The creation of artificial economies has created a new normal for consumer spending when it comes to food, in which a majority of consumers will make price paramount in their food buying decisions. Their excuse is that they can’t afford to buy “fancy food.”  But subsequent questions might be, “Why do you call it ‘fancy’?” and “Can you afford not to?”  Another question might be: “What will be the cost of yours or aggregate national medical debt when this catches up with us?”  Even the food-buying programs for those in need including pregnant mothers seem to find a way of benefiting big businesses through the things that are allowed under their rules.  Many strides have been made to include local, high-value food–including the rapid implementation of accepting government food program dollars at farmer’s markets.  Much like ignoring small problems with a piece of machinery or a structure can lead to massive amounts of expenses or debt, it is easier for us to save now and pay later.

Have you ever wondered how fast and easy it is for Nestle, who makes infant formula, to give free samples to expectant mothers within weeks of their due date?  They were heavily protested in the 1970s for their effort to do this in impoverished countries.  Yet they are still able to do it here in the United States.  As if by magic, a new mother will receive a special package in the mail. How do they know?! While this is a sensitive topic for many mothers and people who absolutely need alternatives to breastfeeding, it is also clearly a processed alternative for whole, natural (and free) food. When one notes that an infant who samples formula may not continue breastfeeding, these big food company free samples become suspect.

I will not deny that buying quality food is still an impossible financial expenditure for some and that shaming anyone for their choices is not the answer.  Education is one component for fixing this problem and legislation another.  Remember, food COULD be free in many countries and many climates but we have to start thinking about it that way and get those who would make it an industry OUT of the way. Just as with the Nestle example above, we must also look to industries and hold them accountable by considering whether or not we will purchase other products from them or their family of companies.  Voting with dollars WORKS but only on a scale that is detectable by their massive scales.  This is why we must all be considerate of all of our purchases all of the time.

Is There an Answer?

We will have to begin paying more for food.  It has to be done.  Prices, as they stand, are not sustainable for farmers, and they are industry controls that is inspired by short-sightedness and which leads to the degradation of our environment, our communities and those who live there.

The simple answer is to purchase with care. You can choose the foods whose price is inclusive of everything that went into it. Your grocery bill will increase, but if we all pay the full price at the cash register we can start to reverse the wrongs throughout the production and supply chains.

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