The Symptoms of Our Food System
by Nathan Sayre
May 6, 2020
How do food systems propel or participate in diseases?
The connection between food systems and pandemics is indirect, but it's critical. The emergence of novel viruses is strongly determined by how food is produced, because how humans interact with wildlife and livestock shapes the conditions in which deadly types of pathogens can emerge.
The emergence of several very deadly germs of the past, such as smallpox, was the result of mutations that were made possible by high concentrations of people and livestock living in close proximity. Often, wildlife play important roles as the source pool or as an intermediary host for germs that “jump” to livestock and then to humans. The frequency, intensity and location of animals and people matter as well, and these variables are affected by human activities such as deforestation. In West Africa, for example, forest clearing appears to have intensified contact between humans and wildlife in ways that may have increased the likelihood of outbreaks such as Ebola, whether through the so-called bushmeat trade or some other pathway. More generally, the fact that there are people who either need to consume wildlife, or consider wildlife a delicacy, or gather food in places that put them in contact with wildlife (e.g., bat urine on fruit that humans collect) are conditions of a food system.
We think that the novel coronavirus emerged from bats. Though the exact pathway of transmission from bats to humans remains uncertain, it appears to intersect with a wet market: a place where humans interacted closely with live and freshly-killed animals, both domesticated and wild.
We may feel like people who consume wildlife are in an entirely different food system from the one that we are accustomed to, but we are connected, if only through the global movement of people and goods.
The more we intensify the livestock production systems of the world, and the more we link them together by globalizing them, the greater the likelihood of both dangerous mutations and rapid spread of disease.
Roughly two-thirds of all the antibiotics consumed in the US are administered to livestock--not to cure illnesses but because the drugs make the animals grow faster, which enhances profitability. Nothing could be more effective in spurring bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics!
Do you feel like this is a moment in which big agriculture will find ways to further consolidate its power, or do you think we’ll see systemic change come out of this?
Given how extraordinarily concentrated the food system is already, it is hard to imagine how it could get more concentrated. We are talking about groups of three to five corporations with a combined 60, 70, 80 percent of market share (or more) depending on the product. Most are huge conglomerates with unbelievable market power already. They will undoubtedly attempt to grow further and grab whatever market advantages they can find--they always do--but I don't know that this crisis uniquely privileges them any more than crises tend to privilege those who are already in positions of advantage anyway.
However, the contradictions and inequities in the food system have been amplified and made more conspicuous by the pandemic, bringing them into view for many people who might barely notice them under business as usual. This presents an opportunity for change.
What are some of the inequities?
I would say the biggest concerns labor, and the conditions under which our food is produced, harvested, processed, distributed, served. One of the great contradictions of our current system is that the people who are most directly involved with the production of our food, are among the least secure in their access to that food: they’re paid to handle it everyday but they can’t afford to buy it themselves. Those who grow food, harvest it, handle it and prepare it, make some of the lowest wages in our economy, and they experience poverty at some of the highest rates in our society. This is also true for restaurants. The people who cook, the people who serve, and the people who clean up are paid brutally low wages. On top of that, they’ve been among the most likely to lose their jobs in this crisis.
So we are facing rather acute contradictions. We suddenly realize how badly we need these people's work to sustain our entire food system – they are absolutely essential –but we’re not accustomed to reckoning with how poorly we have treated them.
We are telling these people they have to work, because we have to have food, even if it puts them at high risk of contracting COVID. But then how can we expect them to continue to work for low wages and no benefits? Of course, this is not something that we do individually. It is collective, market mediated behavior, but it is incumbent on us to demand that food system workers receive better pay and working conditions. And the easiest, most effective way to do that is through public policies--that is, the political process.
How can we be cautious of the health and safety of the people providing us food?
If public policy can embrace mandatory paid sick leave for people who work with food in factories, restaurants and hotels, that would be a huge gain. Organizers and activists have been fighting for this for years and years, and it has been staunchly resisted by the National Restaurant Association, among others. This could be an opportunity for a very basic, logical reform.
Restaurants are really vulnerable and interesting. David Chang tweeted “Restaurants are too small to fail”, early in this ciris. Many restaurants are small businesses with payroll coming out of last night's patrons. The industry is crumbling on all levels. Workers are living paycheck to paycheck, and small businesses are struggling to stay afloat. What policies are you looking for to affect change all the way through?
Who will recover from this, and how, depends a great deal on how banks and government programs are put together to help cope with the situation. I’m not an expert in this area, but the signs don't look very good so far, I must say. Once things begin to return to normal, presumably people will start going back to the restaurants. Hopefully the people who have built their lives around running good, small local restaurants, will be able to open back up and return to better times. But their ability to do that will likely depend on the kinds of access to credit that they have through the current crisis. The economy needs to go into hibernation, you might say, without having stored up reserves to survive the winter; credit is what small businesses need to survive. At this point, it's hard to feel like the powers that be in Washington are as worried about small business owners as they are about big corporate donors and lobbyists, but that almost goes without saying.
What else have you found yourself thinking about right now?
I teach my students that our food system is profoundly capitalist. What does this mean and how did we get here? We have allowed our food system to be shaped to its core by the imperative to make profit. This has resulted in tremendous technological innovation and productivity, but also tremendous surplus. Our food system is plagued by overproduction – which sounds weird to most people, because the dominant discourse around food is that we don't have enough food, that we have to produce in the way we do now because of scarcity. But if you look at the history of our food system, especially as it has evolved in the last hundred years, the biggest problem over and over again has been that there's been too much food.
Put those two together: the profit motivated, capital accumulating character of the system and the overproduction that plagues this system. What do you get? You get cheap food, suffering farmers, and smaller players struggling to stay afloat in a system dominated by bigger and bigger entities. The fact that we need to eat, and the fact that what and how we eat matters to us in all kinds of affective and cultural ways, are subordinated to the need of these firms to make profits. In other words, the use value of food – its quality for sustenance and nutrition – has become secondary to its exchange value – its quantity in processes of capital accumulation.
This crisis is forcing all of us to recognize and appreciate the use values in our lives, while the exchange values begin to look secondary or even meaningless. The things that really matter right now are quite basic. Do you have access to food? Do you have decent shelter? Are your loved ones safe? Are you healthy? Money obviously matters for all these things – are the inequities along these basic lines are shocking – but only as a means, and no longer as an end in itself.
If there's something to be learned about the food system, it is that we have come to live with a food system that doesn't fundamentally care about use value.
It doesn't care how it treats the land. It doesn't care how it treats workers. It doesn't care whether the food it produces is healthy. It cares about competing for market share and profits, return on investment, and “growth” – not the growth of plants and animals and people but growth of capital.
We have all kinds of health related problems that are symptoms of these facts. The obesity “epidemic” is a symptom of the food system – and by the way I don’t think we’ll keep calling it an epidemic now that we understand what a real epidemic is about. Obesity is not a symptom of people being lazy and sitting on the couch. Sociologically, obesity correlates with poverty, race, and geographical-environmental marginalization. Its astonishing growth over the past half-century is the result of a food system that uses people's bodies to absorb the surpluses of our food system, even if it makes them sick or eventually kills them.
That's a brutal way to describe that.
Maybe so, but the real brutality is in living it, right? Maybe now we'll think more critically about our food system. Maybe we will realize that the production of food for the sake of nutrition should not be entirely subordinated to the production of food for the sake of profits.
Right. And can we think of profit as something that is exponentially growing in any business? And at what cost?
On one hand everyone needs food and everyone needs food every day. That means that there's a sort of guaranteed demand for food. It’s a captive market, you might say. But demand for food is also inelastic, in economists’ jargon: You only need so much and once you have what you need, you don’t really want much more. So it’s hard to get you to eat five or ten times more.
On one hand, this makes it hard to refuse to participate in the food system. On the other hand, it's hard to make infinitely expanding profits from it. This makes food fundamentally unlike other commodities. I think there is definitely a contradiction between quality and quantity.
And the emphasis on quantity frequently degrades the quality of not just the food itself, but also the system that produces it.