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Monday, March 14, 2011

A Food System Like the Internet

The way food is produced and distributed in the US is the very model of inefficiency and insecurity.

Some will claim that it's very efficient. They use tricky accounting, taxpayer subsidies to ag corporations, profligate use of unsustainable cheap oil, and lax environmental “book keeping” to hide costs or pass them on to future generations.

They'll point to the abundance of cheap food in our stores, not mentioning that perhaps 2/3 of that food's real cost is hidden from the consumer. We end up paying those costs in taxes, health problems and a degraded environment. Nor will they mention that much of what's in those stores is “Food-Like Products;” over-processed things that are full of chemicals, extra sugar and extra salt that are bad for us- things that our grandparents wouldn't have eaten on a dare.

And don't even pretend that the system is secure. It's over-centralized structure and long supply lines make it anything but. Think of the e coli or salmonella scares; those are usually caused by mistakes at only one processing or storage facility, but end up affecting millions of people. And when that food is shipped thousands of miles it's vulnerable to increasing fuel prices, weather catastrophes, epidemics and terrorist attacks all along the route.

The ideal that the Industrial Food System is striving for looks like this:


The more of these steps can be owned by the same company, the better. Forget all images of Old McDonald's Farm: The ideal modern farmer is an industrial employee, growing what The Company says, how The Company says, and ships it to The Company on Company trucks. There is no illusion that the farm belongs to the farmer: both belong to The Company.

Increasingly, every step in the chain belongs to The Company- even the Consumer. Billions are spent on advertising and lobbying every year, training consumers to buy whatever The Company wants to sell, and training lawmakers to stay out of The Company's way. Even the word “consumer” was invented in the mid-Twentieth by Corporate hacks. We're people, not “units of consumption.”

This unsustainable system developed over decades of shortsighted greediness and will eventually, perhaps soon, fall apart from its own contradictions and weaknesses. Cracks are evident and spreading. When it does go, many people will be hungry unless we can build its replacement before that happens.
We, and many others, are working on that new system. It resembles how the Internet is organized. It's no coincidence that that's also how living systems are often organized, something like this:

This is a very simplified version, but makes the point. This ideal is that a town or neighborhood mostly feeds itself. Local organic wastes go back into the food system as fertilizer. Surplus and luxury items can be traded along from others. What's that? Your town is too big? Pre-Industrial Ag kept some pretty big places in operation with a similar system- we can do at least as well. You can do more than you think you can.
Such a system is:
  • Efficient- Nothing travels farther than it has to. No unneeded middlemen get their cuts. Money isn't spent to make people WANT more than they NEED.
  • Secure- Fewer steps means fewer places for things to go wrong, and if they do they effect far fewer people. It's also like Neighborhood Watch- Farmers who are feeding their neighbors are more careful and accountable.
  • Sustainable- Resources in an area are recycled with a minimum of fuss. Inherent efficiencies and natural rhythms form a system that can last.
  • Resilient- Shortages and problems can be worked around and fixed using neighboring resources;
  • Community Centered- The point is people feeding people, not people feeding those synthetic organisms- corporations.
While taking the needed practical steps, we must remember that the root of the problem is spiritual. It's about who and what we think we are. In the last few hundred years, with the Industrial Revolution, we learned to do many wonderful and clever things with our technology, but we forgot that we are beings firmly embedded in Nature, and in our societies. We've come to see ourselves as units of consumption, tools, counters on a game board, and mere resources. Such an attitude can't help but lead to disaster.

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